Des Plaines mayoral hopefuls debated the success of downtown redevelopment and other issues during a forum Wednesday hosted by the Des Plaines Chamber of Commerce and Industry at Giuseppe's La Cantina Restaurant.
Former Des Plaines mayor Tony Arredia, 3rd Ward Alderman Matt Bogusz and 6th Ward Alderman Mark Walsten are vying for the seat on April 9.
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Two more mayoral debates are scheduled:
• 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday, March 21, at Des Plaines City Hall, 1420 Miner St. It includes aldermanic candidates and will be televised on cable Channel 17.
• 3 to 5 p.m. Sunday, March 24, at the Frisbie Senior Center, 52 E. Northwest Hwy.
The candidates' offered differing views on the success of Metropolitan Square in downtown. The city invested $90 million to buy the land and subsidize building the project, which brought new retail shops, the Shop & Save grocery store, restaurants, condominiums and a parking garage to the nine acres north of Miner Street. The development has limped along with vacancies now at an all-time high.
Arredia, who left office in April 2009 due to voter-imposed limits on consecutive terms, has taken credit for the development, saying it was 80 percent occupied when he left office.
Bogusz, 26, the city's finance committee chairman who is completing his first term as alderman, took issue with that characterization, saying the 80 percent occupancy figure signified the square footage occupied largely by Shop & Save and a few other tenants when it opened.
"Storefronts, while open for a brief period, did not stay open," Bogusz said. "The primary problem with Metropolitan Square is that it was built on debt."
Bogusz said the project also struggled because it was not built on a major thoroughfare and didn't generate enough foot traffic. He added that with the property under new ownership that bought it at a discount, rents should come down.
"Des Plaines is investing millions in its downtown streetscape," Bogusz said. "Over the last three years, we've instituted incentives that are targeted at businesses that are looking to fill our vacant storefronts. So now, when the market rights itself, we will be in a competitive position with all our neighboring communities."
Walsten, 55, who runs a home inspection business and is in the middle of his second term, agreed Metropolitan Square wasn't a good deal to begin with.
"I do believe that they are going to be able to start being a little more creative in their square-foot costs with their leasing, and I do believe we're going to be able to move forward," he said
Walsten, who chairs the city's engineering and public safety committee and is vice chair of the community development committee, said the city needs a bigger plan for downtown. He said he didn't support spending more than $2 million on new sidewalks in downtown because he didn't think it would help attract businesses.
"They (businesses) want to look at new stores and something else that's going to bring people in," Walsten said. "We need to have a marketing company. We need to find experts that come in and say, 'I think we should have this plan and move forward.'"
Walsten supports reviving the Des Plaines Theatre and would like to see the entire downtown become part of a historic preservation district, making businesses eligible for a federal income tax credits.
"Businesses can get up to 20 percent federal rebates, which is the kind of thing you need to attract business," he said. "Look at downtown as a whole and not just bits and pieces ... I would have a complete program for all of downtown development."
Arredia said before criticizing Metropolitan Square people should consider what was there before -- a parking lot, a tire company, two homes for drug and alcohol rehabilitation, a small bowling alley, and other vacant properties that were eyesores.
"Our plan was to put Metropolitan Square totally in front (on Miner Street), but we didn't have the money," said Arredia, 75, who was 8th Ward alderman for six years before being appointed mayor in 2000. "Buying the property along Northwest Highway/Miner Street was a little more difficult."
Arredia said there were 14 to 16 stores in the development when it first opened and the economy was still booming.
"It's not the city's fault, or the mayor's fault, or the aldermen's fault, if the developer or business agent is not doing the job," he said. "Metropolitan Square was the first thing that we did in the city in 25 years as far as bringing new business. It's not a total loss."
The city is getting property taxes from the condominium development, and it's due to the success of the downtown tax increment financing district that the city can pay for streetscape improvements, he said.
"It was a total loss what it was before because there was nobody living there," he said.