Mayor peeks into 2013 crystal ball
Mayor George Van Dusen looks into his crystal ball for 2013, another active one for the village, he predicts.Van Dusen assessed where he believes Skokie is heading in the new year. | Joe Cyganowski~For Sun-Times Media.
Updated: February 4, 2013 6:26AM
SKOKIE — The mayor’s annual informal look-ahead in Skokie felt just a little bit different than other recent ones.
When the Skokie Review sat down with Mayor George Van Dusen, as it does every year, for a peek into 2013, he no longer had to project the progress to be made in developing the downtown Skokie CTA station; it finally opened in 2012.
Progress on the station had been part of the mayor’s crystal ball for years.
The early ridership results have surpassed expectations, said Van Dusen who had believed ridership would reach its current levels after a year, not eight months. And he expected a bigger ridership falloff at the Dempster-Skokie station at first, but the drop has been less.
This good news about the downtown station reflects how the mayor sees Skokie advancing in 2013. Much of the groundwork to help the village thrive has been laid out in difficult times, he said, and 2013 could be building off of that effort.
“We still have work to do,” he said.
There are some key unknowns, however, that could alter the way 2013 develops in the village.
The spring election will include the Caucus Party’s first contested opposition in years. Three independents are running against six of the party’s slated candidates for six seats on the Village Board. The mayor could also face ballot opposition as one challenger filed nominating papers — though his omission of mandated election documents could leave him open to a challenge.
Though the village has looked forward to an improving economy in 2013 — a better climate for development and for increased consumer spending — the national “fiscal cliff” still loomed over such optimism toward the end of the year.
Increased federal taxes would lead to less spending power for consumers and less incentive for developers, the mayor acknowledged.
The state’s own fiscal crisis also could play havoc with the village’s ambitious plans. To illustrate that point, Van Dusen pulled out a Chicago Sun-Times editorial emphasizing the devastating impact the pension debt could have in many different areas. The need to address the problem in Springfield is crucial, the mayor said.
Yet, Skokie will not wait to see how these dicey open-ended questions play out.
Downtown Skokie is due for extensive streetscape improvements with the hope of making downtown more pedestrian-friendly and more inviting to developers.
Extensive work on downtown streets — especially Oakton east and west of Skokie Boulevard — will occur throughout much of the year, but businesses will remain open.
“It’s a strange thing,” the mayor said. “Sometimes, construction can actually boost economic development.”
Each year’s construction season has included a major street project, and Oakton Street is marked for this year. The village will go out for bids in March with an eye toward April for the beginning of construction.
The Village Board, early in the year, will address an action plan for the West Dempster Street area, which includes two properties the village bought with redevelopment in mind. Van Dusen said the village has had inquiries about the properties — especially the larger one next to the Dempster-Skokie train station — and he hopes there is development news this year.
Van Dusen recently was asked the single biggest change he has seen since he first became involved in the village in 1984 as a trustee.
“In ’84, people would have been shocked and angry that the Village of Skokie invested public money in a private project,” he said.
That changed first in the early ’90s when the Old Orchard shopping center was falling apart. The village put in $15 million, a small amount compared to the $150 million that the developer ponied up.
It was a risk, he said, but revenue from Old Orchard reflects about 10 percent of the village’s annual budget.
“Today, people don’t ask are you investing public money to promote economic development,” he said. “They ask why aren’t you doing more of it. The public expectation has changed quite a bit.”
Another major development slated for construction in 2013 is a new shopping center anchored by a prototype Walmart on the east end of Touhy Avenue. Command Transportation also has plans for expansion of its corporate headquarters in Skokie.
Skokie Hospital will continue on with its enormous renovation and Westfield Old Orchard will continue to change its makeup in a big way.
In 2012, Skokie residents and some businesses saved money through electrical aggregation — the ability to join with other municipalities to create a bigger market to purchase energy. Van Dusen hopes that Springfield in 2013 will sign off on a similar program to provide that opportunity for natural gas.
The Village Board probably in February will address a controversial proposal to license rental housing units in Skokie. When presented last year, the proposed ordinance was met with loud protests from landlords and the board delayed voting. A committee made up of landlords and village leaders has been working on the issue but the mayor realizes there will not be consensus on any ordinance.
In 2013, the village’s first comprehensive far-reaching health plan, approved last year, should serve as a blueprint for implementation this year, he said.
Van Dusen has also asked that some innovative ideas be explored in 2013.
One of them is establishing satellite police stations, although there are different ways to move down that path, he said. The mayor admitted to being “vague” about it as the concept is still being discussed.
“I want to emphasize there’s a whole range of options for satellite police stations being discussed,” he said.
The village also plans to increase police staffing over the next four years.
Van Dusen this year wants the village to explore the feasibility of creating an insurance program for single family households that have water connection problems. Because of the age of much of the village’s housing stock, the mayor sees escalating water connection breaks over the next 10 years.
One of Van Dusen’s most imaginative ideas is to explore creating a land trust to renovate apartment buildings in foreclosure or receivership that would then be turned over to nonprofit organizations. The non-profit would have to guarantee that it would rent apartments at market level with at least one apartment in every building rented to a working college student.
Van Dusen said he wasn’t aware of a program quite like it, but the idea is worth exploring. It would meet the need for reasonable housing for college students and also benefit the village, which took a big hit with foreclosures during the prolonged recession, he said.