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Normal mayor advocates for Amtrak, Uptown, and industrial park

Amtrak train
An Amtrak train stops at Uptown Station in Normal.

Normal Mayor Chris Koos would like to see the community develop guidelines for a shovel-ready industrial park, something the Bloomington-Normal Economic Development Council has begun to talk about. But during a WGLT interview on Sound Ideas, he shied away from specifying what the town should provide to make it happen.

"That kind of assistance is something you've got to look at on a case-by-case basis. Who's coming? What are we trying to accomplish with it? Where are we trying to accomplish it? What's the need to make that go forward? It's not anything you can come right out and say, we need to do X, Y, and Z for this to go forward," said Koos.

By the same token, Koos said Bloomington and Normal should be ready to act if a proposal presents itself.

Potential sites for an industrial park include west Bloomington, north Normal, and northwest Normal, Koos said. Patrick Hoban, CEO of the EDC, noted earlier this week there also is land south of Central Illinois Regional Airport. All those locations have access to freight rail.

Koos acknowledged the brownfield former site of the Chicago and Alton rail yards on Bloomington's west side could be a location as well.

“There is access that's on the Union Pacific line. They own that line. There’s a possibility that ground would be a good location, I think,” said Koos.

Industrial parks tend to begin at universities and then attract private capital for development, Hoban said a few days ago. Koos said he is a fan of public-private partnerships.

“They tend to work very well and be very successful. If you take a look at the Phoenix properties, the old Wildwood property (in north Normal), that was created as a TIF district because it sat idle for so long. And that made a difference for getting that started. There is often a need for the public sector to be involved. But we always have to look at the long-term outcome of it. What is the benefit?” said Koos.

Champaign-Urbana has a research park through the University of Illinois. Peoria is starting an industrial park. But Koos said he doesn't think Bloomington-Normal is behind in such an effort.

“I'd say just in time because of the catalytic effect of what's happening with Rivian, the Phoenix properties, and with Brandt,” said Koos, who thinks the EDC should take the lead on an industrial park because it is a neutral body not disposed to pick one area of the community over the other. He said the council also is a good liaison between the public and private sectors.

Amtrak board

On another topic, Koos said he is still waiting for a U.S. Senate confirmation hearing on his nomination to the board governing Amtrak, the nation’s public passenger rail service. He anticipates the commerce committee session will happen in September because the August calendar is full.

He said he's gone through several meetings with staff about his background and financial information, as they ask questions about his views on policies and issues the Amtrak board will deal with, such as how to handle the Amtrak budget, the transparency of handling that budget, and workforce issues.

“Safety is a primary concern, especially in railroads. Amtrak has focused on that and they're trying to as an organization to step that up to a higher level. We've had some incidents in this country with Amtrak. People sometimes point their finger at Amtrak, but often, it's a combination with the host railroads and the issues they have with infrastructure. Safety is always top of mind,” said Koos.

Amtrak, like many other organizations, is dealing with a workforce shortage. The rail service is advertising heavily about job vacancies.

"That's an issue of trying to get people hired and trained. The hardest step is training and getting (new workers) into the system. Amtrak is no different than a lot of other organizations. They almost virtually shut down during COVID for a period of time. They lost a lot of workers … and it's going to take some time,” said Koos.

He also noted there have been developments on the Chicago-to-St. Louis High Speed Rail Corridor through Bloomington-Normal.

He said "new passenger (train) cars, have finally shown up and are on the lines. They're not fully deployed. They're much nicer cars, more stable in terms of the ride quality, new modern, very, very nice systems,” said Koos.

He said testing also has begun on positive train control systems, a GPS-based piece of technology that allows logistics people to know where trains are. It can improve on-time performance and safety.

“Positive train control systems can override an engineer in the case of a potential collision, or derailment or things like that, shut that train down,” said Koos.

Positive train control is a prerequisite to allow passenger trains to operate at 110 miles per hour along the entire Chicago-to-St. Louis Corridor, a goal for the past several decades.

Uptown South design

The mayor said he thinks a grocery store in Uptown South would offer good service to students and to people who live in new housing south of the train tracks. The idea of a grocery emerged from public input during a recent virtual town hall forum on the design of Uptown South.

Koos said it would not look like a regular supermarket with thousands of square feet and an equal amount of surface parking.

"My sense is a grocery store that would come into the Uptown would be more compact and more walkable than driveable," he said.

Koos said several firms, including Kroger and Schnucks, are testing grocery stores with smaller footprints that can fit into an urban environment. A consulting firm will take the public input and create preliminary designs for Uptown South before engaging t he public in another round of forums and feedback.

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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