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One Voice trip lays groundwork to attract federal funding to B-N

Randy Stein
Modernization of a Bloomington-Normal Water Reclamation District treatment plant on West Oakland Avenue in Bloomington was one of the priorities during the One Voice trip to Washington, D.C. by Bloomington-Normal officials seeking federal help.

The mayor of Normal said Tuesday the recent annual One Voice lobbying trip to Washington, D.C., was fruitful. The idea behind the One Voice trip is to have various community interests lobby lawmakers and federal agencies for the highest priority projects in the community.

Having a variety of stakeholders present in meetings is efficient, and having just a few top priorities makes it less likely the region's efforts will be scattered. It also signals to federal agencies that the entire community wants a certain project. One notable past success is the federal grant money that helped build Uptown Station in Normal.

Mayor Chris Koos said this year, the highest priority is to get financial help to rebuild the west plant of the Bloomington-Normal Water Reclamation District. Koos says it's an old plant, built in 1926.

"There are EPA mandates to remove phosphorus from the system and that's going to cost a lot of money," Koos said on WGLT's Sound Ideas.

It'll cost an estimated $160 million at last count to fully come into compliance with the mandates, according to WGLT reporting in 2019. And Koos said it's not just the federal rules that make it a good idea.

"As we're seeing expansion in our manufacturing and our businesses in the community that puts an additional burden on the water reclamation district. Being able to deal with that is going to be part of this discussion," said Koos.

Normally, Koos said, the community might not have much chance of getting money for something like this, but the high cost of the improvements has caused communities nationwide to take a big gulp.

"The federal government usually doesn't get involved in that. They try to do it with state pass-through funding and things like that. But they realize there is a broad need of water infrastructure in the United States, so there will be funding," said Koos.

If federal help doesn't happen, the Bloomington-Normal Water Reclamation District could take out bonds and then bill the cities and residents over time.

Another project the One Voice participants pushed on Capitol Hill and in meetings with the Federal Aviation Administration and Department of Transportation is the extension of Airport Road across Illinois Route 9 to the Central Illinois Regional Airport.

"They'd like to get a cargo road that goes into the area where FedEx is and entice more cargo distribution centers to use the Central Illinois Regional Airport as an air hub for cargo," said Koos.

The current access road to the FedEx hub is deteriorating because of the traffic and this would address that issue, too. Koos said the request is as much for economic development as it is for infrastructure.

"One of the things they would like to do it to be able to attract a cold storage facility. There is not one in central Illinois. I think Indianapolis and St. Louis are probably the nearest, then Chicago," said Koos.

Koos said the water reclamation treatment plant is the more urgent of the two projects, noting the airport road is just in the design stage.

He said the One Voice Trip also emphasized workforce development training money for Heartland Community College.

Sometimes it takes multiple years of making the case for a project before federal action comes.

Unit 5

On another topic, Koos said the stressed financial situation of the Unit 5 school district could have broad implications for the community. If the district chooses to deal with its $13 million budget problem solely through expense reductions, it could mean cutting on the order of 150 teachers and increasing class sizes substantially.

Koos said that would not help Bloomington-Normal continue to grow.

"That could affect future development in the community. It could also affect the willingness of people to stay in the community. It's very, very important we have a strong and vital school system," said Koos.

The Unit 5 board takes its first whack at the deficit on Wednesday with $2.2 million in proposed reductions to music and foreign languages and eliminating 36 educator and two administrator positions.

"If your education system is not robust and strong, the community as a whole suffers," said Koos.

Koos says Unit 5 will get some help when the true value of the remodeled and greatly expanded Rivian plant comes on property tax rolls next year and the Uptown Tax Increment Financing District expires in 2026.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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