DeKalb City Council members hesitant to move forward on STEAM learning center proposal

DeKALB – A three-hour Committee of the Whole meeting Thursday indicated that DeKalb City Council members did not feel confident pledging $400,000 to move forward on a plan to build a 30,000-square-foot science, technology, engineering, art and math learning center in DeKalb, which would cost the city another $4 million.

Mayor Jerry Smith said this special meeting was called to educate new council members Patrick Fagan of the 4th Ward and Mike Verbic of the 6th Ward, as well as himself, on the proposal.

A total of $400,000 was budgeted for fiscal 2017 toward the second phase of the project, which would include selecting a location, developing a governance structure, and possibly performing a fundraising capacity analysis, which evaluates the likelihood of collecting donations for the project.

Phase one of the project was summarized in a feasibility study, which was performed by Chicago-based RATIO Architects and presented to the City Council during a February meeting. The firm found that the construction of the learning center would be achievable and would stimulate growth in the downtown area.

If the council moved ahead with the project, which is estimated to cost about $12 million, a $4 million tax increment financing contribution also would be required.

This did not sit well with some council members who wanted to know the city’s phase-out options with TIF dollars before making a decision, since the city’s two TIF district are set to expire in 2018 and 2022, respectively.

“We need to be sure we can operate the city of DeKalb once the TIFs expire,” Verbic said. “We need to have some analysis of where we’re at and where we’re heading, and as an alderman, I will not vote for any more TIF expenditures until we have that information.”

Assistant City Manager Patty Hoppenstedt said city staff currently is working on a TIF phase-out analysis.

First Ward Alderman David Jacobson said the hope of donors floating a part of the capital and operational costs is a gamble.

“The plan with phase one was to see if it was even viable, and I don’t know if we decide if it is viable to get further into discussions on what we want to spend,” he said. “Where is this outpouring of support from the community saying we’re going to step up?”

With a handful of audience members speaking against the learning center, Jacobson also encouraged any member of the public who strongly supports the project to come to the City Council’s next meeting so the council can see whether this is a project that is wanted by the community.

Because of the uncertainty of council members, Smith said there is about a 50/50 chance the council will make a decision on the center during June 12’s regularly scheduled meeting.