DeKalb’s new mayor wastes no time getting down to business

Jack McCarthy

Newly inaugurated DeKalb Mayor Jerry Smith poses with a replica Egyptian burial sarcophagus following an Illinois tourism function last week at the downtown Egyptian Theater. (Photo by Jack McCarthy / Chronicle Media)

There was no time to spare as Jerry Smith hit the ground running following his election as DeKalb’s new mayor last month.

Smith, 73, officially took office last week but his work actually began after he gathered nearly 48 percent of the vote to easily outdistance three other candidates.

“I was elected mayor on the fourth of April, on the fifth of April I started working,” Smith said during an Illinois Office of Tourism event at the Egyptian Theater last Thursday. “It was nonsensical to wait until I was sworn in.”

Smith spent recent weeks meeting with city council members, department heads as well as interested citizens in the run up to last week’s swearing in with other elected city officials.

That’s when the pace really picked up.

“The first 48 hours has been extremely busy,” he said. “Someone asked me — as it related to tourism — whether or not I was going to be able to travel with my wife, Ging this next year. Probably our travel will be somewhat limited. My travel will be in the city of DeKalb as I try to handle some of the issues and col-laborate with groups all over.”

The community of 43,849 has problems to address but also features enviable and unique strengths.

“We have several challenges,” Smith said. “And with challenges, it’s the old thing that with a challenge many times comes great opportunity.”

Smith emphasized economic development during his campaign and that will remain his top focus.

“We need to attract industry, attract business,” he said. “We’ve already embarked on a couple of pro-jects that we’ve announced in downtown DeKalb (but) we need to work continually to — as the presi-dent of the university said — make this a cool college town. And so often that translates into business.”

Last November, NIU reported an enrollment of 19,015, a significant drop from 25,313 reported in fall 2006 and an indirect factor in a rise in crime in some parts of the community adjacent to campus as apartments once rented by students went unfilled or rented by non-students.

Crime rates in DeKalb rose 26 percent from 2015, according to figures announced earlier this year. Prop-erty crimes like motor vehicle thefts and burglary, were top categories with increases.

“We (also) need to focus on safety in our community,” Smith said. “We have found that with the enroll-ment drop at Northern, that we’ve had issues with the backfilling of apartments, especially in the north-west quadrant. And we’re going to work to involve neighborhood groups, the faith community and law enforcement and how we can make certain areas of our community safer.”

NIU, the city’s largest employer, is among the city’s greatest attractions and strengths. But problems re-sulting from the lack of a state budget and declining enrollment have also rippled throughout the city.

“Northern’s problem in terms of its drop in enrollment transcends into our entire community,” Smith said. “I’d like to sit down — whenever appropriate — with the university and let them know at the very least that DeKalb wants to be a partner, not only in problems but with the promise.”