Mayor Sam Cunningham says investment is the key to Waukegan’s future

Waukegan Mayor Sam Cunningham, left, gets ready to discuss city issues with Hal Coxson, middle, during Waukegan Main Street’s 35th-annual “Lunch With the Mayor” as Josh Beadle introduces them.

From the short-term perspective of governing during a pandemic to large-scale, long-range community development projects, Waukegan Mayor Sam Cunningham’s vision has a common theme — investment.

Cunningham discussed his vision for the city during Waukegan Main Street’s 35th-annual “Lunch With the Mayor” done virtually Monday, broadcasting live from City Hall in a primarily question-and-answer format.

Moderated by Hal Coxson, a local, longtime consultant, Cunningham primarily expressed his ideas on responses to questions posed by Coxson and previously submitted by Waukegan Main Street members.

Investment is not solely about putting money into projects, but the city investing in partnerships with the county, state and the federal governments; investing in relationships with the business community and residents investing in what Waukegan can offer, both now and in the future.

With Waukegan’s three miles of mostly undeveloped lakefront as a draw, Cunningham said that is a major part of the city’s future. He is ready to take an important step to look at what can be done in the future.

“I’m seeking a RFP (request for proposals) to develop the three linear miles of our lakefront to take it to another level,” Cunningham said. “We want the experts to tell us what can be done, and how we can do it”

Cunningham sees entertainment as the primary engine for near- and long-term prosperity in Waukegan. With approval from the Illinois Gaming Board for a casino near Fountain Square, he sees that as something which will bring jobs and revenue to the city as soon as 2022

“I have been dubbed the casino mayor, and I accept that all day and all night, but that is not what I am looking for.” Cunningham said. “I’m looking for an entertainment center (that has a casino) in Lake County, in Waukegan, for the better part of northern Illinois.”

With the Illinois Tollway, Route 41 and Waukegan Road converging near Fountain Square, Cunningham said it is an ideal location to draw people from around northern Illinois. He also plans to work with state government to see improvements to Belvedere Road and Grand Avenue to make it easier for people to get to downtown Waukegan and the lakefront.

Entertainment is the foundation for Cunningham’s vision of potential development along the city’s lakefront as well. He said the proximity to the lakefront is appealing to a variety of forms of leisure, from music to bird watching.

“I believe we can be the northern Navy Pier of Waukegan,” Cunningham said. “We sit between two metropolitan cities on three linear miles of lakefront property. I believe we can do a lot of recreational deals.”

Entertainment is not the only investment area Cunningham envisions. He said he wants to see the water plant significantly expand its capacity because he believes there is a ready market for Waukegan’s Lake Michigan water.

Our biggest future, our biggest asset is our water plant,” he said. “We can talk to those neighboring communities out west. The wells are going to run out much sooner than later. Why not (have) Waukegan be the supplier of water throughout this county?”

Coxson opened the questioning with the challenge of governing through the coronavirus pandemic to balance public health and the health of the business community. Cunningham said he learned what was necessary to keep people safe, like wearing masks and social distancing.

“We first moved to the lane which this pandemic is in, which is the medical lane,” Cunningham said.”We put together a SWAT team of professionals who understand emergency management. We are now aligning ourselves with agencies who can push dollars out to the small business guy.”

Not everything was about investment. Coxson also asked what the city was doing to assure it does not have situations like the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May, or Jacob Blake in August, by police.

Waukegan’s first black mayor, Cunningham said he was shielded by his mother and others from the racism of the civil rights era. Now he has to grapple with the issue as the city’s top elected official.

“Some call it murder,” Cunningham said. “You thought this would never surface again, but here it is in the 21st century with some of those (same) issues. We have to own up to the fact of what they are. George Floyd in my opinion is not policing. Own it, accept it, but learn from it.”

Cunningham said protesters are welcome, but they should work with city officials to assure safety. What is needed is what some call community policing today, and was a “beat cop” in his youth. He said police need to be part of the community.

“This is what we want,” Cunningham said. “We get to that point, (and) we’re building a relationship with the community.”

Between tending to basic needs during the pandemic, to looking at eventually supplying water to neighboring towns to the west, Cunningham continually struck an investment theme because he said it is necessary for the government to spend so residents are willing to do the same.

“Those are the things we’re going to be investing in, not just today, not just tomorrow, but for the next 10 to 15 years,” he said. “Investing in our community is a must if we want to have the residents build up our community.”