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Aurora aims for new economic development era

The crowd immediately responds Buddy Guy his bBlues Fox festival Saturday new RiverEdge Park Aurora. | Denise Crosby~For Sun-Times Media

The crowd immediately responds to Buddy Guy and his band at the Blues on the Fox festival Saturday in the new RiverEdge Park in Aurora. | Denise Crosby~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: July 24, 2013 6:49AM

AURORA — When City Council Finance Committee Chairman Bob O’Connor hit the campaign trail this spring, he noticed voters were bringing up one election issue more than usual.

“Economic development,” the longtime alderman said. “You drive around, you’ll see lots of these little strip centers, many of them are completely vacant ... All of a sudden people are noticing these things, and they can point out vacant or unused properties that are just sitting there.”

And as residents take notice of the development microcosm happening in their neighborhoods, the city is about to embark on a new partnership that aims to foster economic development citywide.

Aldermen will soon vote on the city’s new proposal that would focus most of the city’s economic development activities toward a new public-private partnership with Seize the Future, an existing economic development organization in Aurora.

Under the proposed new partnership, Aurora will kick $637,000 per year in funding to the Seize the Future Development Foundation. That agreement is good for up to five years with the possibility to be renewed with City Council approval.

As part of the move, Aurora will fold the Aurora Economic Development Commission, the economic development arm formed by the city and the Great Aurora Chamber of Commerce in 1981. Longtime former Economic Development Commission Executive Director Sherman Jenkins retired in December 2012.

David Dorgan, the chief consultant of Seize the Future, is also leaving his post with the economic development non-profit next month. Dorgan said he will stay on as Seize the Future works to hire a new executive director.

Under the proposed growth of the Seize the Future non-profit, the organization will hire a new executive director and three other staff members.

Seize the Future operations will move into office space at 43 W. Galena Blvd. that was previously occupied by the Aurora Economic Development Commission, and where the Aurora Chamber also houses its operations.

The city will also make a one-time payment to Seize the Future for $125,000 to cover start-up costs.

Seize the Future was founded in 2000 as part of the Chamber and became an independent public-private economic development corporation in 2005.

The new city partnership will make sense because of Seize the Future’s positive track record downtown, Dorgan said. He points to Seize the Future’s successes downtown: the creation of Restaurant Row, the Two Brothers takeover of the historic Roundhouse building and the construction of RiverEdge Park. The organization has also negotiated 13 development agreements for small and mid-sized businesses in the months before Tax Increment Financing District 2 expired.

The expanded role for Seize the Future comes from the recommendations of two studies, one conducted by the Aurora Regional Chamber of Commerce of its members and the other by the city of the nation’s best economic development programs, according to city Chief of Staff Carie Anne Ergo.

Under previous years, the amount the city spent on economic development varied. In 2009, the city spent $728,054; in 2010, $414,243; in 2011, $527,848; in 2012, $562,815. The city does not include in those numbers the subsidy the city provided to the tourism bureau or economic development incentive payments, according to city spokesman Dan Ferrelli.

Plenty of support

At a Committee of the Whole meeting recently, aldermen signaled widespread support for the new Seize the Future partnership.

“I’m talking from an alderman’s perspective, but I’ve tried to convey that time has gone by here and we’ve had a lot of desire to get things done,” O’Connor said.

Joe Henning, president of the Aurora Regional Chamber of Commerce, said the public-private partnership was favored by a large majority of the business community that was surveyed ahead of the decision.

A business advisory committee will allow for more collaboration with the city’s business community, he said.

“Business leaders will have key roles in recruiting complementary businesses and growing targeted business categories,” Henning said.

Dorgan said the new economic development model Aurora is adopting is one that has proven successful across the country.

“The business community gets a much more expanded role to give major input into economic development,” Dorgan said.

Jeff Noblitt, chairman of Aurora Downtown and Waubonsee Community College spokesman, said the group is “very supportive of the city’s new arrangement with Seize the Future.”

New director

The new plan hinges on Seize the Future’s ability to hire new leadership for the non-profit within three months.

The organization has hired an executive search firm this spring to find a new Seize the Future leader, Dorgan said. Resumes for the position are due July 15.

Under the new public-private economic development plan, Seize the Future will also increase the number of members on its board to 13, with an alderman holding one of those seats.

Currently, the Seize the Future board has five members filling six positions.

Aldermen are scheduled to vote on the city’s new proposed public-partnership with Seize the Future at 6 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 44 E. Downer Place.

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