Aurora council candidates: Don't focus only on downtown
Most candidates vying for a contested seat on the Aurora City Council say they're encouraged by economic development taking place in the state's second-largest city, though they have varying ideas for how and where to prioritize growth moving forward.
Voters have a choice for alderman in three wards, as well as for the at-large seat, in the April 6 election.
In the 4th Ward, incumbent William Donnell is facing John Bell. Ward 7 is a race between incumbent Scheketa Hart-Burns and challenger Saul Fultz. Newcomers Shweta Baid and Arjun Nair are vying to represent the 10th Ward, a role being vacated by mayoral candidate Judd Lofchie. And the contest for the open at-large seat is between Raymond Hull, Brooke Shanley and Ron Woerman.
The candidates weighed in on economic development issues during a recent Daily Herald endorsement interview.
A 45-year resident and former East Aurora District 131 school board member, Hull said he has watched various administrations attempt to reinstate Aurora as an "anchor of the Western suburbs" for entertainment and retail, as it was decades ago. Though pleased with the recent progress, he believes efforts need to expand beyond the downtown and into the neighborhoods.
Developers, too, need to be vetted more thoroughly before the city grants them approval, he said.
As a restaurant operator who also has a hand in various development projects in town, Woerman said he is uniquely positioned to help Aurora grow economically. Pointing to his own efforts to repurpose an aging downtown structure into apartments, he said he would prioritize revitalizing vacant buildings and shuttered storefronts citywide.
He does not believe his involvement in city projects, such as the redevelopment of the former Copley Hospital campus, would be a conflict of interest if he were to hold an city council seat, saying he would recuse himself during any related votes.
Shanley, an educator for District 131 and Waubonsee Community College, said the city needs to evaluate the economic impact and long-term complications of the COVID-19 pandemic before deciding how to move forward. She said she supports Aurora's work to offer grants and help struggling businesses stay afloat, adding, "There's always room for improvement."
Any additional relief funding that becomes available should be evenly distributed across the city, she said, and not just to the downtown area.
As a two-term alderman, Donnell says he's proud of the city's efforts to attract developers and breathe new life into aging properties in both the 4th Ward and the downtown. Creating additional rooftops is expected to draw new residents to the area, generating foot traffic and supporting new restaurants and other establishments, said Donnell, a retired park district landscape architect.
But Bell, a pastor at Wesley United Methodist Church, says residents aren't being given enough of a voice as the city undertakes major projects. A "thriving community" of local business operators, entrepreneurs, artists and others want to be involved in the town's development, he said, and should be privy to the incentives and opportunities offered by the city.
Hart-Burns, who has served on the council for three decades, said she is proud of the progress made to beautify, renovate and attract business to her ward. The East New York Street corridor, in particular, has been flush with activity, she said, though she also noted the city's "aggressive" work to find developers and business owners to revitalize the downtown.
Having recently moved back to his hometown of Aurora, Fultz, an associate pastor, says there's room for improvement. Securing a big-box grocery chain and promoting minority-run businesses are among the priorities for his ward, he said.
"There are too many vacant buildings that need to be filled," Fultz said. "That should be our push and our mission."
Baid and Nair agree the Fox Valley Mall is a staple of the 10th Ward, a major revenue generator that has lost some of its anchors and been hit hard by evolving economic times.
Finding creative approaches to reviving the property and others facing a similar fate, such as the Pacifica Square shopping center, is a key focus for Baid, a small-business owner. It takes a blend of large and small businesses to ensure the city thrives, she said.
Nair, a DePaul University law student, stressed the importance of building up local businesses but said city leaders need to first consider how certain projects could impact the community as a whole.
"Development for development's sake is not the best model," he said.