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Crowd of hopefuls jockey for spot on 4th Ward ballot

Constituents listen as 4th Ward alderman candidates square off during forum Freeman Elementary Aurora's west side Thursday February 21 2013.

Constituents listen as 4th Ward alderman candidates square off during a forum at Freeman Elementary on Aurora's west side on Thursday, February 21, 2013. | Jeff Cagle~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 25, 2013 6:28AM

AURORA — The last one to get in the 4th Ward race was the first one to get out.

In a last-minute move that tossed votes to one candidate and threw another under the bus, aldermanic hopeful Kevin Mathews dropped out of the 4th Ward race last week.

Mathews’ departure from the crowded 4th Ward field leaves six candidates vying for one of two April ballot spots in Tuesday’s general election.

Will the next 4th Ward alderman follow in the steps of outspoken, and sometimes controversial, current 4th Ward Alderman Rick Lawrence? Or will the new alderman pave a different leadership style in the changing ward?

The redistricted 4th Ward looks much different from the West Side ward where Lawrence was first elected — so much so that the change in ward boundaries motivated Lawrence to instead run for the at-large alderman post this spring. He said there would be too many challenges in representing a ward that straddled the Fox River.

In announcing he was quitting the race, Mathews threw his support behind 20-year-old candidate Jay Leonardi, a student. And Mathews said he would not vote for candidate Bill Donnell, chairman of the Aurora Planning Commission, characterizing Donnell as another “yes man” for Mayor Tom Weisner.

Rounding out the field of 4th Ward candidates are Mavis Bates, Aurora Township Democrats chairman; small business owner Duanne Kleckner; actor Mike “Leo” Leonardi; and mailman Chuck Norris.

In two debates last week, the candidates tackled business, vacant buildings and taxes.

Vision for downtown

Bates said she will advocate to bring small businesses downtown.

“Why don’t we start with businesses that don’t need too many feet on the street, like software companies?” Bates said.

She said bringing more people to live downtown will create a demand for services in the area.

Kleckner said his business is located on LaSalle Street downtown, and he’s witnessed big changes on the street.

“But we’ve got a ways to go. We have education downtown and entertainment, but we need businesses to pay taxes that support the downtown,” Kleckner said.

Jay Leonardi said the city needs to change its focus to bring technology-driven companies downtown. He works for his family’s business, Leonardi’s Appliance.

“We need to be a more business-friendly city,” Leonardi said. “We need to focus on our young entrepreneurs ... to draw them to Aurora.”

Mike Leonardi said the city needs to sell its strength downtown — architecture, the railroad and a beautiful river.

“We need to fill the storefronts, but we’ve got to do it by selling our strengths,” he said.

Norris said people are scared to go downtown, and the city needs to focus on changing that perception.

“You can put anything you want downtown, but if the safety’s not there, you aren’t going to go,” he said.

Donnell said for the past two years, he’s worked in North Island Center downtown, and he sees an entertainment hub beginning to take shape.

“RiverEdge Park ... is going to be an economic engine to not only bring (Aurorans) downtown but people from out of town,” Donnell said.

TIF funding

When asked how he’d vote on a deal that sees the city committing $750,000 in tax increment financing funding to bring a new restaurant to Restaurant Row in the city’s downtown, Donnell said he supports the use of TIF dollars to improve infrastructure in these buildings.

“TIF money in the downtown is collected from the business owners in downtown ... specifically to encourage development in downtown,” he said.

Bates said she can’t wait to see a beautiful restaurant in that spot.

“I vote yes for the TIF money,” she said. “Know (that) this money did not come out of taxpayer money ... it came out of businessmen’s pockets that decided over the long run they wanted to make an investment in Aurora.”

Kleckner said he would vote against the project.

“Restaurant Row has got a long ways to go,” he said. “There’s too many loopholes ... it’s not a piece of cake.”

Norris said he will support anything that gets a thriving business to relocate downtown.

“Those old buildings are killing us,” he said.

Jay Leonardi said he would vote against the Restaurant Row deal.

“It’s already failed in the past, and we’re going to throw $750,000 at a restaurant that’s been around for a year. I want to see more people come to Aurora that have skin in the game,” he said.

Mike Leonardi said TIF funding should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

“People don’t have discretionary income right now. I don’t think restaurants are a viable thing to invest in right now,” he said.

Vacant buildings

They are the buildings in the 4th Ward that start with the moniker “old” — the old Aurora Christian High School on the West Side and the old Copley Hospital on the East Side.

Donnell said he would love to see a business occupy old Copley Hospital, but if that’s not possible soon, it should be torn down.

“If they become a detriment to our community, we ought to work hard to remove them,” he said.

Norris said he would like to see community organizations move into buildings when appropriate.

“We need to get rid of empty buildings so they don’t create crime,” he said.

Mike Leonardi said that if the buildings are not viable, the city should spend the money to knock them down.

Jay Leonardi said that in addition to tackling the ward’s vacant-building problem, the city needs to make sure the Jericho Circle public housing complex is not rebuilt. He said when it comes to social services, the ward is overextended.

Kleckner said old Copley is unsafe.

“We’re stuck with those buildings, and the neighbors have suffered. If (Mayor) Tom (Weisner) lived next to that (building), it would have been gone a long time ago,” Kleckner said.

Bates said she wants to give residents a say in what is done with those vacant buildings.

“The neighbors were surveyed, and they want a green space. I think (a park) could increase their property values,” she said.

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