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Duchnowski: Vintage DeKalb sign not out for good

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014 10:49 p.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, Jan. 17, 2014 10:55 a.m. CDT

Ek!

That’s what’s missing from the vintage DeKalb Theatre sign restored and installed this fall at Debutantes School of Cosmetology and Nail Technology, 145 N. Third St. Debutantes’ owners were notified that two letters in the neon sign weren’t lighting up Tuesday morning and started making calls.

“The neon is essentially a gas inside a glass tube,” co-owner Tom Rogers said. “Apparently, one of them has broken. I’m not sure if that’s vandalism, if it’s the extreme cold. This is new to us. At this point, it doesn’t really matter what it is.”

Rogers said staff at Virgil Cook & Son Electrical assured him the problem wasn’t electrical, which left him searching for a contractor who specializes in neon. He reached out to Wagner Electric Sign Co. of Elyria, Ohio, the company that restored the marquee last year.

Debutantes, and the city of DeKalb, already have invested quite a bit in the marquee and the image it’s meant to project downtown.

Dubbed the “Theatre of Tomorrow,” the DeKalb Theatre opened in March 1949 and operated with a single screen until 1991. After the theater went out of business, several other businesses used the space and left the marquee dark.

But Rogers and then-Alderman Brendon Gallagher encouraged city leaders to spend up to $90,000 to restore the landmark using proceeds from tax increment financing, which is a special taxing mechanism that sets aside taxes associated with increased property values for economic development. Rogers promised to pay the electricity to keep the sign lit, and is footing the bill for any repairs.

After the restored sign was unveiled just before Corn Fest, Rogers saw some online commenters – and the Daily Chronicle editorial board – question the wisdom of using economic development funds for the sign. But he said most of the direct feedback he received was overwhelmingly positive.

“People just love the way it changes the street,” Rogers said. “It gives a feel to the downtown like: Wow, open for business, looking good. It’s been very encouraging. We’re trying to create an environment that is more inviting, that says: ‘Hey there are things happening in downtown DeKalb.’ ”

So, if you drive by the marquee and wonder why part of the town’s name is missing, fear not: Things are still happening in DeKalb, and the sign should be back to its former glory soon.

• Jillian Duchnowski is the Daily Chronicle’s news editor. Reach her at 815-756-4841, ext. 2221, or email jduchnowski@shawmedia.com.

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