Elgin City Council candidates share plans to revive the downtown
While development of Elgin's west side transformed that area into an economic engine, city council candidates interviewed by the Daily Herald Editorial Board agreed the downtown is an important part of the city's economy, culture and identity.
Those candidates also agree there is an unacceptable amount of vacant commercial space downtown.
Eleven candidates are seeking four council seats: Marcus Banner, Corey Dixon, Rafael Garcia, Dustin Good, Richard Johnson, Karin Jones, Jerri McCue, Anthony Ortiz, Jodi Perkins, Carol Rauschenberger and Steve Thoren.
Incumbents Terry Gavin and Baldemar Lopez are not seeking reelection.
Here is what they said the city council must do to fill those vacant spaces.
Corey Dixon: An incumbent, Dixon said he's worked to modernize city ordinances that held back businesses and introduced a police presence in the downtown that focuses on a neighborhood perspective.
"I have been using my position to talk about homelessness and how we need to be more proactive," he said. "And, yes, we absolutely need a marijuana dispensary in downtown Elgin. If we have all these empty storefronts, what we need to do is be more proactive and be more engaged in bringing business here. We have to go after businesses."
Rafael Garcia, Jr.: Garcia deferred to other candidates who have more insight and a connection to the current state of the downtown.
Dustin Good: Good said one problem is city officials abdicated the economic development role to groups like the Elgin Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Neighborhood Association. There is no city staff person doing that job. He said attracting businesses takes actively recruiting them and addressing negative thoughts developers have about the city and school district.
"Elgin needs to embrace itself and realize it's not St. Charles; it's not Geneva. We are Elgin. Get in front of people about the resources we have in terms of affordable spaces, connections to the city. We have educational institutions, and we need to work on our entrepreneurial community in general," he said.
Richard Johnson: Johnson said the answer begins with having a cohesive economic development plan. He said the city must cut red tape that slows down or prevents businesses from opening and staying open. One of the most important things to do is find out why businesses come to Elgin, why they leave and what can be done to keep them from leaving.
"What are we going to do to attract those businesses?" Johnson said. "Do we have the infrastructure? Do we have the housing? Do we have the people who are properly trained to work in those areas? Are we offering tax incentives for small businesses?"
Karin Jones: A member of the city's planning and zoning commission, Jones said the city must set specific, deliverable goals as part of funding agreements it has with groups like the Downtown Neighborhood Association and the Chamber of Commerce and the Elgin Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. She also said the city must work with property owners to tailor available commercial space to the specific businesses the city wants to recruit.
"It's not just our downtown," Jones said. "That's a very small economic driver of our city. Everybody identifies with our downtown because it's everybody's downtown. But that's not the most important portion of our city."
Jerri McCue: A business developer in downtown Elgin, McCue said savvy property owners are needed to tailor buildings for success, including working with businesses that have a clear plan to succeed rather than just wishful thinking and a desire for low rent. She favors having a cannabis dispensary downtown, but said the main issue for downtown is preventing the congregating of houseless individuals in the shopping and dining areas that happened last summer.
"We have to address our unsheltered homeless issue in the downtown area," she said. "The events that happened last summer -- you cannot have a thriving central area business district with that type of activity going on."
Anthony Ortiz: Ortiz wants to put to work money the city has collected in the downtown tax increment finance districts. He praised the Rivers Edge project but said that should be the beginning. He said the downtown needs people and things for those people to do. The city council must also investigate why businesses that start in Elgin leave for nearby communities.
"The city doesn't have a strategic plan," he said. "They don't have a plan that pushes the narrative that we need to revive (downtown). We have a Chamber of Commerce, but they have their own interests at heart."
Jodi Perkins: Perkins said she's watched the quality of Elgin's downtown deteriorate since the '80s and no grand solution has emerged. She doesn't believe downtown will return to its glory days, but improvements must begin with the city leading the push for economic development. That means leading the actions of all groups the city partners with to attract residents, tourism and business.
"The city's role needs to be a leader, but they also need to provide a safe environment," Perkins said.
"They need to make sure the snow is cleared, the streets are clean and make it inviting to the shoppers and other businesses who do business in downtown. Part of making it safe is to address the homelessness issue. We can't do anything down there until that problem is solved."
Carol Rauschenberger: An incumbent, Rauschenberger said the city has an average vacancy rate, but the vacancies are concentrated downtown. The city, she said, must be active in seeking development at the local, regional and national levels.
"Downtown Elgin has an urban advantage," she said. "We have walkability. We have historic buildings. We have a river. We have a bike path. We have some good restaurants, if they stay. And we're getting beautiful housing."
Rauschenberger said one big problem is the condition of some property downtown.
"The city needs to have more inspections," she said. "The building owners, certain ones downtown, need to be held accountable that their building can have someone buy or move into it."
Steve Thoren: Thoren said he is working to change downtown with his involvement with a company that wants to open a marijuana dispensary. He said the city council, at his urging, recently changed an ordinance to increase the chance of that happening.
"I'm the one who got the pocket parks lifted out of the guidelines," he said. "You need to make it an attractive place before more businesses are going to go in."
Thoren opposes locating a homeless shelter downtown.
"That's going to congregate them," he said. "It's unfortunate for those people, but I don't think their place is downtown."
• Candidate Marcus Banner declined to complete the Daily Herald candidate questionnaire or participate in the Zoom endorsement with the other candidates.