Wheaton candidates talk economic development

  • Alberta Adamson

    Alberta Adamson

  • Robert Molenhouse

    Robert Molenhouse

  • Evelyn Pacino Sanguinetti

    Evelyn Pacino Sanguinetti

  • Jeanne Ives

    Jeanne Ives

  • Derek Bromstead

    Derek Bromstead

  • Wheaton City Council candidates agree that downtown economic development is key to Wheaton's future, although they disagree on how to accomplish it.

    Wheaton City Council candidates agree that downtown economic development is key to Wheaton's future, although they disagree on how to accomplish it. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 3/14/2011 7:18 PM

Wheaton City Council candidates agree spurring development downtown is one of the most important issues facing the city.

But agreeing on how to do it was a different story.

 

At a recent forum hosted by the Downtown Wheaton Association, one candidate said infrastructure repairs must be the first step. Another says the city must balance the ratio of retail businesses and restaurants.

"We don't need to reinvent the wheel," said Derek Bromstead, the Downtown Wheaton Association president who is one of five candidates vying for two at-large seats in the April 5 election. "There are a lot of successful downtowns in the area and we need to take a page from them." Bromstead pointed to Oak Park as one example. He said the city should make a targeted effort to attract non-restaurant businesses and more retailers in order to give downtown customers more choices.

Bob Molenhouse said the city has to avoid spending tax increment finance money on site-specific projects that only benefit one business.

"They should focus on more general TIF (tax increment financing) things, like infrastructure," Molenhouse said. "It can't be where you are gambling taxpayer money. They have to look at what worked in the past and learn from it."

Molenhouse said his main goal is to make sure taxpayers are not left "holding the bag" when projects do not work out the way officials anticipate.

Molenhouse, a longtime Wheaton resident, said downtown Wheaton has started to make a comeback and is "going in the right direction." If there is any downside to the Downtown Wheaton Association, he said, it is a lack of higher-profile advertising for the downtown.

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One longtime critic of the downtown group said it was part of the problem. Jeanne Ives, who skipped the forum because, she said, Bromstead's role as president was a conflict of interest, said the city should focus on larger national or regional retailers. Additionally, she said the Downtown Wheaton Association's existence hampers economic development downtown. Potential businesses, she said, will not locate downtown because that would put them in a special tax district that levies an additional 95 cents per $100 of equalized assessed value to fund the downtown group.

"We have to reduce the cost of doing business downtown and you can do that immediately by not funding the special service area," Ives said of Special Service Area 6, which funds the downtown group but lies within a TIF district and, therefore, does not receive any additional money from increased property values. "Any further development and TIF money should be used to support development in general -- new design features, street scapes -- making it more walkable and bikable and connecting it to other parts of Wheaton in that fashion."

Additionally, she said, "We should not take TIF dollars and give it to one specific business entity."

Alberta Adamson said the city's assets should be used to sell the downtown to prospective businesses. Adamson, who is director of the Wheaton Center for History, said officials should assess the existing businesses and target its marketing efforts.

"We really don't have much retail anymore," she said. "We need to take an inventory and see what we are missing."

After that, she echoed Bromstead's opinion that the city should look at successful downtown areas in the region, such as Naperville and Geneva, and "learn what did and did not work."

Evelyn Pacino Sanguinetti said TIF money should focus on infrastructure projects before any serious discussions of downtown development take place. Once that is done, she said the downtown must be promoted more heavily than it has been.

"You're putting the cart before the horse here," she said. "People will not come into our downtown area if they feel unsafe, if our sidewalks are crumbling and if our streets are in disrepair."