ST. CHARLES – Four St. Charles mayoral candidates fielded residents’ questions at a forum Thursday, focusing on issues ranging from empty downtown storefronts to Charlestowne Mall.
Candidates Jake Wyatt, Jotham Stein, Ray Rogina and John Rabchuk are vying for the position, and all four attended the forum hosted by the westside neighborhood group 2R2R at the Baker Community Center.
When candidates were asked about what they would do to improve the downtown area, Rogina said he thinks the “blooming rose” of the downtown area is the Arcada Theatre. He suggested that renewing the Arcada by upgrading its heating system, seats and restrooms, for example, would lead to an expansion of broader cultural opportunities downtown. He suggested putting together a task force comprised of civic and cultural leaders to offer a “helping hand” to downtown businesses.
Additionally, he suggested bringing regular musical entertainment to the plaza downtown, and encouraging bicycling activities in the area.
Rabchuck suggested creating a more identifiable brand for what types of businesses St. Charles wants to draw downtown. He said a few years ago, people complained that there were too many antique stores downtown, and now there are too many bars.
“If you don’t have a brand and an image of what you’re going to be, that’s what happens – you go through these cycles.”
Stein said he would recruit a variety of businesses, including manufacturing, business, retail and office space. He said bringing new businesses downtown would make the bars “stick out” less, and that would cause the less successful bars to leave.
“The ones that are struggling, they go out of business or maybe they’re bought out because it’s more rational for another office to be there,” he said.
Wyatt said he supports bringing more cultural establishments downtown, but parking would need to be addressed. In addressing the city’s liquor laws, he said there needs to be an escalating fine for bars that violate the city’s liquor code. He also questioned why bars are open an extra hour at night.
“I’m a firm believer that nothing good happens after midnight,” he said.
In answering a question about renewing Charlestowne Mall, Stein said he would meet with the owners to either encourage them to sell or work with them to fill its empty stores.
“The one thing you know if you’ve been in the world of finance is … if we drop the price enough, somebody will purchase it.”
Wyatt echoed Stein’s idea of speaking with the owners to work with them or find another investment group that’s willing to work with the city. He also suggested creating a business district around the mall, which would allow the city to impose a one-cent tax on merchandise sold there that could go back to a special fund that could be used to bring in new businesses.
“It needs to start with good old-fashioned negotiation,” he said.
Rogina reminded the candidates that the mall is for sale, and said that the mall could benefit by being in a business district. He said a big-box store would help anchor it, and he suggested bringing in a sports complex to attract new business.
“I’m not going to give up on the mall,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a debacle, but yes, it’s in a distressed state.”
Rabchuck said he believes businesses will crop up if the right attraction is near the mall. He referred to a mall in Aurora that was dead for a few years until the city built around it.
“As things develop around it, there was more activity, and that gave vitality to the mall and it developed,” he said.