Weisner: Aurora ‘ready for prime time’
By Stephanie Lulay email@example.com March 21, 2013 2:24PM
Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner makes his State of the City address at Piper's Banquets in Aurora on Thursday, March 21, 2013. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media
Updated: April 23, 2013 1:35PM
AURORA — In his State of the City address Thursday at Piper’s Banquets, Mayor Tom Weisner declared Aurora “ready for prime time.”
In the recap of the city’s 2012 accomplishments, Weisner said that Aurora has experienced a “long, cold winter” and that gangs, violence and a recession were part of a “seemingly endless cold spell.”
But good ideas and good efforts began to sprout in the city like spring flowers, the mayor said.
As in past years, Weisner made a few surprise announcements at his address. The city will donate about $220,000 from a recent court settlement toward the building of Aurora University’s STEM Academy.
Aurorans can also look forward to blues legend Buddy Guy once again headlining Blues on the Fox, June 14-15. The Blues Weekend will open the city’s new RiverEdge Park.
Weisner said that the city is in negotiations with a private sector investor who intends to occupy the long-vacant former Elks building for an arts and entertainment use.
The city will also restructure its Economic Development staff in a new partnership with Seize the Future, he announced.
“In 2012, all of our efforts really came together to make a truly milestone year for the city,” Weisner said of the no-murder year.
The city held the line on taxes and the Paramount Theatre’s Broadway series brought more than 200,000 people to the city’s downtown.
“Aurora stands resilient, strong and ready to face the future. Aurora is ready for prime time,” he said.
Rapid infrastructure changes dominated the city’s downtown in 2012 as the city replaced both Downer Place bridges, opened up Downer Place and Benton Street to two-way traffic and began removing parking meters downtown.
Critics raved about the Paramount Theatre’s Broadway series, and crowds flocked to shows. In 2011, 12,000 people subscribed to the Broadway series; in 2013, the Paramount had 23,000 series subscribers.
Weisner said he will be with his wife Marilyn at the last performance of “Fiddler of the Roof” Sunday. He invited the audience at Piper’s Thursday to tag along.
“I’ll buy you a drink if you show up,” Weisner cracked. “Water’s pretty cheap.”
In 2012, the city helped the CultureStock used bookstore open, and it quickly has become a gathering place for residents, artists and musicians.
In a TIF-backed deal, Batavia-based Aliano’s announced last month that they will open a location in Restaurant Row. Weisner said the business will follow other restaurants that opened downtown with the help of TIF funding: Ballydoyle’s and the Two Brothers Roundhouse.
This year the library will break ground on a new main branch location downtown, July 4 fireworks will return to the city’s downtown, and a city-owned LaSalle Street building will become a coffee shop, headed by a non-profit that specializes in veterans outreach.
Progress snuffing out violent crime took time during the city’s “long, cold winter,” but Aurora eventually achieved the milestone of a no-murder year in 2012, Weisner said.
But that number changed gradually: 26 murders in 1996; 8 in 2001; 4 in 2006 and zero in 2012.
Violent crime dropped nearly 40 percent in the last five years and 50 percent in the last decade.
In addition to Aurora police efforts, Weisner recognized former Kane County State’s Attorney John Barsanti, now a Kane County judge, who “went after the bad guys ceaselessly and to the best of his ability.” Current Kane State’s Attorney Joe McMahon continues to aggressively prosecute violent criminals, Weisner said.
“Working together we have made the city safe. We are ready for the prime time,” Weisner said.
The city will launch a significant rebranding effort spearheaded by new city Communications Director Clayton Muhammad.
“(Aurora) is safe, sustainable and a business friendly city, but if we don’t tell anyone, how will they know?” Weisner asked.
The city has budgeted to spend $100,000 per year for the next four years to tackle rebranding “locally, nationally and then globally,” Weisner said.
On the heels of the retirement of former Economic Development Commission Executive Director Sherman Jenkins, Aurora will implement a new strategy that will see the city’s Economic Development department fall under Seize the Future, an Aurora non-profit that promotes economic development. That contract would be reviewed annually, Weisner said.
The city’s economic development plan needs to be “aggressive, accessible and accountable,” Weisner said.
Businesses invested more than $126 million in 2012 in Aurora.
In 2012 and the beginning of this year, Russia-based confectionery group Merletto purchased the old Lowe’s building in Aurora at 2372 W. Indian Trail; Mitutoyo built a 90,000-square-foot corporate headquarters and a state-of-the-art calibration lab, slated to open this fall; family-owned Konen Insurance doubled the size of their business when they moved to the Aurora Corporate Center.
Konen and Mitutoyo both received tax increment financing from the city to spur their investment.
The city doled out $3.8 million in TIF funding last year to bring $27 million in business investment to Aurora.
But there are misconceptions about how TIF districts operate, Weisner said.
“Schools, parks and others agree (to a TIF) in hopes that development within the TIF will create a stronger commercial tax base that will benefit them in the future,” Weisner said.
TIF #2, which recently expired, is a great example of a TIF district’s success, he said.
When the city created that TIF in 1989, the unusable wetland that would become Chicago Premium Outlets produced $25,000 in tax dollars each year.
Fast forward to 2012, and the now-developed area, which includes the Aurora Corporate Center, generates more than $8 million in property tax revenue annually, Weisner said — a 32,000 percent increase.