Crystal Lake mayoral candidates talk development, COVID-19 recovery

Winner of April 6 election will finish out the last two years of the late Crystal Lake Mayor Aaron Shepley’s term

While all three candidates for Crystal Lake mayor agreed continued development is needed in the city, they all had various answers on what exactly is needed.

The three – acting Mayor Haig Haleblian, Donald Kountz and Jim Sisto – spoke to the Northwest Herald in an interview Tuesday afternoon about their priorities ahead of the April 6 election, which will determine who will finish out the last two years of the late Crystal Lake Mayor Aaron Shepley’s term.

Haleblian, who owns Exceed Floor and Home in Crystal Lake, took over as mayor after Shepley’s death in May. He is being challenged by Kountz, who is retired from Northrop Gruman, and Sisto, a sales manager at Berry Global who teaches classes at Columbia College.

Regarding development, Haleblian said some conversation has centered on Crystal Court Shopping Center, a commercial center on Route 14 with two vacant anchor buildings.

Crystal Court is made up of about five or six separate parcels now owned by one entity, which will be coming to the city next month with a plan for the space, Haleblian said.

“We’ll be reviewing that, as well as Planning and Zoning [Commission],” Haleblian said. “There are a lot of good, positive things going on in the community.”

Sisto called Crystal Court “an eyesore” ever since Cub Foods and Walmart left more than a decade ago.

“We’ve heard a lot of talk the last 12 years,” he said. “We need action now. ... If we need to reduce the tax rate to bring them in on [tax increment financing] and figure out how to get these people to actually build something of quality there, that’s what we want to do.”

Although it’s nice to have fast food places to take up long-vacant spots in the city, “we really need to upgrade,” Sisto said.

Haleblian agreed he wants to see high-end shopping and restaurants but said it is up to the landowner and developer to come to the city with their prospective tenants.

What he wants to see at Crystal Court is a mixed-use development with townhomes and some form of a shopping center.

Kountz said that when he looked into what could come to the city, he thought the best idea would be to focus on stores with smaller footprints.

When it comes to Crystal Court, “I’m struggling to see how a shopper or a businessman would want to go into an area that doesn’t have an anchor that’s going to be bringing people in,” Kountz said.

Although people talk about making Crystal Lake a “destination city” to increase tourism, all the “easy ideas,” as Kountz put it, are taken.

“If we want to go down that road and I think we should, that’s going to be something where we have to join with our neighbors,” Kountz said. “We have to sit down and talk to Lakewood, McHenry, Woodstock, Cary, Prairie Grove, Lake in the Hills and the county to arrive on a concept.”

Although he embraces development, Kountz said, he sees it as the city’s biggest struggle for the next five to 10 years.

“If we want to grow in population, we’re going to have infrastructure changes, but we’re ... kind of locked,” he said. “It’s not so easy to make some of these infrastructure changes.”

Kountz said he is concerned about how the city of Crystal Lake uses its reserves to prevent raising the property tax levy.

“How many more years we can do that and what’s the plan after?” he asked.

Haleblian said the city is fiscally responsible.

Last year, Haleblian said, the city cut its budget, expecting a hit to revenue from the pandemic. However, the sales tax revenue the city received was higher than initially budgeted, although still a little less than last year.

“This is a very well-run city. We have an excellent city manager. We have excellent department heads. I’m not a micromanager,” Haleblian said.

Sisto also questioned the number of firefighters, police officers and public works employees, saying the city is “bare-bone thin on a lot of those.”

While this is fiscally conservative, Sisto said, if another subdivision is added to Crystal Lake, the city will be shorthanded in winter when trying to clean the streets.

Haleblian said in the past 10 years, the city’s headcount decreased by 10%.

“It was done to reduce overlap and also to save the taxpayers money, and that’s obviously a benefit to the taxpayers of the community,” he said.

When it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic, all candidates said it will take some time for things to go “back to normal.”

The city of Crystal Lake received $600,000 from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity in December to help businesses affected by restrictions imposed because of the coronavirus. The city also pitched in an additional $150,000 for the effort.

Haleblian said he suspects some funds are left from the state grant. The council will discuss what to do with those funds.

In Crystal Lake, Haleblian said, COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in four locations: two Walgreens, a Mariano’s and a Jewel-Osco.

“I’ve been adamant about getting a [mass] COVID vaccine vaccination site here in Crystal Lake, and I have for about a month and a half,” Haleblian said. He said one is in the works, although it does not have a date set yet.

Kountz said he proposes continuing to waive city fees into this year for businesses restricted under the state’s COVID-19 guidelines and said he wants to review the funding remaining from grants the city received.

“I would work to get that funding distributed by summer,” Kountz said. “The city’s website provides good information on that, but I think we should try and communicate besides the city’s website.”

Sisto said businesses still are in survival mode.

“After surviving, we want to get them to thrive,” Sisto said. “I think there’s a lot of good ideas that we can talk about in the future for getting not only the businesses we have to thrive but also bring in a lot of new business in downtown Crystal Lake and Route 14.”

Cassie Buchman

I cover Crystal Lake, Algonquin, Cary, Fox River Grove, Prairie Grove and Oakwood Hills for the Northwest Herald.