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Bloomington mayor says city's future is bright, despite 2021's ups and downs

Mboka Mwilambwe
File photo
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WGLT
Bloomington Mayor Mboka Mwilambwe.

Bloomington Mayor Mboka Mwilambwe said Monday night he’s optimistic about the city’s prospects for 2022, despite 2021 being marked by catastrophic June floods and the continuing COVID-19 health crisis.

“There are many reasons for the almost palpable optimism that I sense around the city,” he said.

Mwilambwe said city leaders are busy, but it's good to pause, and take stock of accomplishments, including international candymaker Ferrero opening a plant in Bloomington, city leaders accelerating the completion date on the Locust Colton sewer project, and Bloomington Public Library launching a major expansion.

The mayor’s 15-minute remarks kicked off the council's regular meeting, held remotely due to COVID’s high infection rate in the area.

Also at the meeting, the council OK’d the first steps for a new apartment complex on the city’s far west side, and voted to postpone a decision on whether to increase fees tied to certain legal cases, or whether to send unpaid traffic fines to collections.

In his address, Mwilambwe noted that beyond having to deal with the COVID pandemic, in late June, record precipitation challenged the city’s storm and sewer system. For months following the flooding, the council’s focus was on how best to address the devastation, and minimize future risks.

He said the council and city staff found ways to shave three years off completion of the Locust Colton Combined Sewer System separation, have laid groundwork for a detention basin south of Olive Street, and are investigating other flood mitigation ideas.

Mwilambwe praised the city's staff for its continued efforts to manage the city throughout the pandemic. He took a moment to applaud the city's police and fire departments, in particular, and noted the city's Grossinger Motors Arena was a vital vaccination clinic site last year.

Economic development is looking good for the city, said the mayor, pointing to Italy-based Ferrero’s decision to locate in Bloomington, translating into a $75 million investment. He also brought up an additional $30 million worth of projects which include a west side Aldi grocery store, the new YMCA being constructed on the east side, and the Illinois Cancer Center expansion.

He credited Town of Normal leaders for landing electric automaker Rivian, saying Bloomington also is seeing the economic benefit of Rivian-spawned growth.

Overall, Bloomington saw about $100 million in new construction during 2021, including more than $20 million in new housing starts, he said. That positive trend shows no signs of stopping, he added.

Mwilambwe said in 2021, the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts and the city’s Holiday Pool reopened after the pandemic lockdown. And he highlighted October’s groundbreaking of a new $12 million O’Neil Pool center, now expected to open in 2023, and Bloomington Public Library’s upcoming expansion and renovation.

He said the city continues to invest in street improvements, pointing to the Hamilton Road East-West Connector as a major project for 2022.

“Bloomington is on the rise, and people outside the community are taking notice,” he said. The investments in the city's infrastructure, library and more will help Bloomington attract even more businesses over the next few years, he said.

Collection fees vote postponed

The council voted 6-3 to push back until its March 28 meeting a vote on increasing fees for traffic and other fines that get sent to collections.

Ward 8’s Jeff Crabill moved for the delay, lobbying most of his fellow council members to wait for more details about the proposal. Ward 3’s Sheila Montney, Ward 5’s Nick Becker and Ward 6’s De Urban voted against the delay.

Crabill said the council first needs to learn more about the impact an increase in fees could have on the working poor, and how much the city would expect to collect.

One local group that opposes increasing the fees associated with the fines is the League of Women Voters of McLean County. Laurie Bergner, the local chapter’s president, spoke against the proposal during Monday’s public comments. She said a 2020 League study about such legal system fines and fees found they pose undue hardship on low-income residents.

“Proposing this change, at this time of high inflation, when many are having difficulty keeping up with higher costs for staples such as food and gas, is particularly onerous,” she said.

Bergner said many Illinois communities, such as Champaign, don’t even send unpaid fines to collections.

Apartments to help affordable housing need

The council also voted unanimously to make way for a new 12-acre development south of Enterprise Drive and west of Maple Hill Road on the west side. The area went from commercial zoning to multi-family residential. About 100 units are planned on the site, near Wylie Drive's Marcus Bloomington Cinema.

Council member Mollie Ward, who represents Ward 7, said even though she supported the project, she wants the city and the developers to reach out to the neighborhood over some concerns.

The apartments "address the very real issue of affordable housing in our community,” she said, but people do have concerns, including increased traffic, pedestrian safety, street conditions, debris from previous projects, and flooding issues related to a nearby culvert.

In other business, the council:

  • Heard Ward 7's Ward call for a special commission to address gun violence in the city. She noted Bloomington had two gun fatalities in the year's first two months.
  • Added about $350,000 to a maintenance agreement with George Gildner Inc. for additional utility projects across the city.
  • Settled a $167,338 workers compensation case involving Bloomington Police officer Nathan Glawe, who suffered a disabling injury during a 2019 foot chase. 
  • Clarified that the city’s amusement tax does include online streaming services. Bloomington collects about $250,000 per year from the tax. Monday’s action is expected to result in an increase in that revenue.
  • Amended a preliminary plan for part of Hawthorne Commercial Park, about 20 acres near Woodbine Road, and Pamela and Leslie drives.
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Michele Steinbacher is a WGLT correspondent. She joined the staff in 2020.
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