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Divided Bloomington City Council moves forward with downtown street design

Patrick Hoban, head of the Bloomington-Normal Economic Development Council, left, speaks at the Bloomington City Council meeting Monday, Aug. 22, 2022, at the downtown Government Center.
Michele Steinbacher
The Bloomington City Council meets Monday, Aug. 22, 2022, at the downtown Government Center.

A divided Bloomington City Council argued over the time and cost needed for a conceptual redesign of downtown streets, but supporters successfully pushed it forward on a 5-4 vote Monday night.

Backing the one-year, $750,000 design project, were: Ward 4’s Julie Emig; Ward 6’s De Urban; Ward 7’s Mollie Ward, Ward 8’s Jeff Crabill; and Ward 9’s Tom Crumpler.

Voting against the spending for the streetscape project were Nick Becker, Ward 5, Sheila Montney, Ward 3, Donna Boelen, Ward 2, and Grant Walch, Ward 1.

Also at the meeting, the council took steps to begin a complex assessment of whether to install retention basins at two Bloomington sites, approved a three-year contract with AFSCME Local 699; and OK'd early plans for a drive-thru coffee shop between Main and Center streets.

Downtown street redesign

With Monday’s vote, Springfield-based firm Crawford, Murphy & Tilly (CMT) will collaborate with city staff on a yearlong venture to collect data and public input, and then draw up a more detailed conceptual design. The project aims to make downtown a bigger draw with improved streets, sidewalks, and other amenities.

The design's results should be presented to council next summer or fall.

Bloomington Mayor Mboka Mwilambwe said it's been hard for the city to come together on what first to address when it comes to downtown improvements. But, the city can’t wait any longer, he said.

Developing a cohesive design now will help leaders latch on to financial support for downtown streets — both above and below the surface.

“This plan is really about knowing what to do, and when to do it, in practical terms,” said Mwilambwe.

“The longer we wait, I think, the longer it would take us to get things done. And the longer we wait, the more we will miss out on grant funding opportunities at all levels.”

The mayor noted that in the past year, Illinois has allocated more than $150 million in grant funding through its downtown and Main Street program.
He also gave a nod to state and federal plans to improve electric vehicle infrastructure.

The idea is to have a tangible plan to use in garnering grant assistance, especially public grants. Once put into motion, the project could result in $25-30 million worth of updates, Bloomington City Manager Tim Gleason has said.

Several community leaders spoke in favor of the plan during public comments, including Patrick Hoban, CEO of the Bloomington-Normal Economic Development Council, and the McLean County Chamber of Commerce’s Levester "LJ" Johnson and Andy Shirk.

Montney argued plans the city already has completed should have been factored in, reducing the scope of what's needed for the new plan.

Boelen said she voted “no” because she didn’t agree with the council using American Rescue Plan Act funding to develop the plan, while Becker said he thinks the city should spend only about 20% of costs proposed, and complete a design in about one month — instead of one year.

But CMT’s project leader Mike Sewell and Bloomington city engineer Craig Shonkwiler said that timeline and cost estimate were unrealistic.

And Gleason said it’s not uncommon for such a concept plan to cost much more than what CMT is charging.

Sewell said five key areas the firm will address are downtown streets as shared space; making the downtown economically sustainable; creating a uniformed sense of place; connecting the streetscape to the community; and improving the streets' infrastructure.

A look at the potential scope of the streetscape project in downtown Bloomington.
A look at the potential scope of the streetscape project in downtown Bloomington.

Water infrastructure

In another matter, the council OK’d spending about $300,000 on the fiscal 2023 hydraulic modeling project.

Crystal Lake-based Baxter and Woodman Inc. will oversee the project, part of the city’s efforts to step up attention to aging water infrastructure.

Money for the project will be drawn equally from the city’s sanitary sewer and storm water budgets.

The project organizers use high-tech software to create a hydrologic and hydraulic computer model to assess a portion of the city's storm sewers, combined sewers, and tributary sanitary sewers. Data factored in will include rainfall history and reported flooding events, according to council materials. Once ready, experts analyze the data.

Engineers will focus on the watershed's tributary to the proposed East Street Basin near the city’s public works’ garage and the proposed Nicor site pond on West Washington Street. Bloomington city planners have targeted those areas since a 2014 master plan.

The project also will look at data related to areas of Bloomington hit hard by the June 2021 flooding.

Public works, Parks & Recreation union gets contract

Also Monday, the council OK'd a three-year contract with AFSCME Local 699.

This chapter of the American Federal of State, County and Municipal Employees' represents mainly Bloomington's public works, and parks and recreation, employees.

The new contract calls for a 3.5% increase in the first year, a total increase of about $260,000. In years two and three, those union members get a 3% increase, representing about $232,000 and $220,000, respectively. Another $82,000 will go toward $750 signing bonuses.

The collective bargaining agreement is mutually beneficial to the city and the union, said Gleason.

In other business, the council, approved:

  • Initial plans for Omaha, Neb.-based Scooter's Coffee to build a drive-thru shop at 1508 Center Street.
  • Cargill Inc.'s rock salt bid, for $87.34 per ton. The city's budget includes about $500,000 toward salt for the roads.
  • Spending about $150,000 with Wilcox Electric & Service, Inc. to replace a generator at city hall.  

Michele Steinbacher is a WGLT correspondent. She joined the staff in 2020.
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