Above, Waukegan Alderman Sam Cunningham with his daughters Syerra, left, a student at U of I Springfield where she studies environmental science; and Samantha, a student at Zion-Benton Township High School. – family photo
by Long Hwa-shu
Sam Cunningham, veteran Waukegan alderman, envisions a Navy Pier on the city’s lakefront with a ferris wheel spinning and entertainment to attract people to the beaches – largely a wasteland with vacant industrial buildings waiting to be redeveloped.
“Until we can bring people to the lakefront, all the planning to revive downtown is just empty talk,” said Cunningham who has thrown his hat in the ring for mayor after 18 years as alderman for the First Ward which includes downtown, the county seat – all but a ghost town after the offices close.
He criticized the idea of building condos on the lakefront which has often been broached by city officials and planners as nothing short of trying to build a castle in the air. “Nobody wants to live in a condo with nothing else around it. No stores and restaurants,” he said, adding, “That’s not going to happen.”
If elected, Cunningham, a Democrat, will be the first African-American mayor of a city with a population of 90,000 – 20 percent black. Cunningham, 49, believes that he is quite electable to lead Illinois’ 9th largest city on the strength that he has been reelected alderman term after term, with an increasing margin. He is on his 5th term.
“I have lived in the city all my life and know it inside and out,” said the 1984 Waukegan East High School graduate who went to Central State University in Ohio where he earned his bachelor’s degree in business management.
“We need a new leader and a new outlook to take the city to the next millennium,” said Cunningham who believes with his 30 years of experience in business, he can ably fit into the shoe as the city’s chief executive.
Incumbent Mayor Wayne Motley, a retired Waukegan policeman and former city clerk, is seeking reelection to a second term.
Until we can bring people to the lakefront, all the planning to revive downtown is just empty talk.” – Five term Alderman Sam Cunningham, candidate for mayor of Waukegan
Cunningham said he would like the lakefront to be like Chicago’s Navy Pier but on a much smaller scale as a centerpiece of the lakefront’s redevelopment for area residents and tourists. If elected, he said he would create a new department of recreation and entertainment as part of the redevelopment.
He pointed out that the fact the Waukegan Scoop Hot Rod Holiday was able to attract more than 10,000 people downtown over the weekend amply shows that the right mix of entertainment will help revive the area.
“We need more restaurants, but they will not open unless we can bring large numbers of people downtown,” he said.
To present a good, positive image, he said the city should rebuild or resurface its main arteries so that out-of-towners will experience a smooth ride instead of a bumpy, rocky drive. He is also for building a sidewalk from Sheridan Road to the lakefront to convenience pedestrians.
With all the programs he has in mind, Cunningham said the city should operate within its means. He is critical, for instance, the renovation of the Genesee Theatre which began before the current administration.
“Originally, it was for $15 million, but it went over by $10 million which has created an extra burden for the taxpayers,” said Cunningham who owns Cunningham Insurance Agency, a brokerage that writes auto, life and home insurance policies which he founded in 2010.
Prior to that, he worked as an agent for Metropolitan Insurance Co. for three years and was Waukegan branch manager of Enterprise Rent-A-Car for which he was instrumental in opening a branch in Vernon Hills. He also worked for Allstate Insurance Co. in customer service.
He has worked for the city as a code enforcement officer and in animal control. Currently, he works part time as an education coordinator in the Lake County Jail. Basically, he said his job is to help inmates get a high school education.
Cunningham said, if elected, he will name a deputy mayor or a chief of staff to run the day-to-day operations.That, he said, will free the mayor to handle external matters such as going to Washington and Springfield to seek funds for the city and to lobby for legislation that will benefit it. It would enable him to oversee the larger picture and set long-term goals for growth.
“I don’t believe that the mayor should micro-manage city affairs,” he said.