New DeKalb mayor to preside over unprecedented economic boon

Greg Gancarz, Reporter

DeKALB – Mayor Cohen Barnes, sworn in on May 10, expects his time in office to be dominated by an economic windfall brought about by the arrival of two mega-corporations in DeKalb.

Social media monolith Facebook and the Chicago-based Ferrara Candy Company, producer of treats such as Laffy Taffy and Nerds, have both recently invested significant business infrastructure within the City of DeKalb, facilities that Barnes said will start bearing fruit within his term.

Ferrara’s new distribution facility and Facebook’s planned data storage center will amount to a combined total of roughly 2.5 million square feet of new development and will create over 1,000 new jobs in DeKalb, all of which will be coming online within the next two years.

“It’s going to be transformational,” Barnes said. “That injection of jobs and that injection of tax revenue is going to be absolutely fantastic, especially when it comes to the diversification of our tax base.”

Barnes said the companies’ arrivals are an unprecedented economic boon that will be creating more jobs and tax revenue at once than ever before in DeKalb’s history, the volume of which could potentially mean a reduction in taxes. Barnes said it is the first time in a long time that the city has been able to consider such measures.

“What I’m hoping for is to meet with the leadership of the DeKalb School District and the other taxing bodies, to have us all come together and start talking about what we can do to offset the increased revenue that we have, by reducing the tax rates within the city itself,” Barnes said. “What I know from my experience in economic development is that lowering the tax rate is going to make it more attractive for people to come here. If we do that, then we’re going to generate even more property tax and sales tax revenue through that attraction. Long-term, that’s what is going to benefit the community as a whole.”

As a lifelong resident of DeKalb and an NIU alumnus, Barnes has long been invested in the local community, recently purchasing and renovating a dilapidated downtown building through his small business.

“The building that I bought was an old department store,” Barnes said. “On the National Historic Register, the building didn’t mean anything, but as a townie, it’s cool. It’s a piece of DeKalb history. Anyone who grew up here knew the old department store.”

Barnes said he chose to make the purchase because he wanted to put his money where his mouth was when it came to community development.

“On the first floor, I refused multiple offers from businesses that wanted to occupy that space because I was really looking for the right tenant that would really help bring more value to downtown DeKalb, and now we have a microbrewery running there, which I think is a really cool addition,” Barnes said.

As mayor, Barnes’ plans for the downtown district include reducing the number of lanes on Lincoln Highway from First Street to Fourth Street, which he said will make the area much more pedestrian-friendly, ideally benefitting local businesses in the area.

“Post COVID-19, after we are done with this construction on Lincoln Highway, which will be completed this year, if the City of DeKalb can just stay out of the way and let commerce happen and let these downtown businesses thrive coming out of the pandemic, that is going to be a priority,” Barnes said.

Barnes also confirmed that, despite his new responsibilities as mayor, he will continue to make time to take part in recruitment efforts for the university, having long taken part in programs like the guided bus tours given to prospective students.

“Being an NIU alumnus and being a townie, I have great love for both entities, and I have a great relationship with President (Lisa) Freeman. I plan on seeing how we can integrate the university and the city together more than we ever have,” Barnes said.