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Normal plans underpass lighting, plaza possibilities; details COVID-relief ideas

Normal Cultural Arts Director Beth Whisman, and Normal Public Works Director Ryan Otto lead a presentation to the Normal Town Council on Monday, Oct. 2, 2022, in council chambers, Uptown Station.
Michele Steinbacher
Normal Cultural Arts Director Beth Whisman and Normal Public Works Director Ryan Otto lead a presentation to the Normal Town Council on Monday, Oct. 2, 2022.

The Normal Town Council heard from staff Monday about possible uses for the plaza surrounding the planned $27 million Uptown underpass, including one idea to extend the Children’s Discovery Museum exhibit space across the green space.

Other suggestions called for a more general outdoor setting, without structures for play.

Normal leaders envision the area as a shared public space, “not unlike how we’ve used the circle,” in Uptown, said Beth Whisman, Normal cultural arts director.

In a two-hour work session prior to its regular meeting at Uptown Station, the council heard first about ideas for the underpass lighting and plaza.

Later discussion explored using federal COVID-relief funding toward a housing navigator for the Bloomington-Normal community. Council member Chemberly Harris was absent Monday.

Underpass possibilities considered

The underpasswill connect north and south plazas. Those green areas will include an outdoor amphitheater, trails and landscaping. But the space could hold active play spaces, as well as public art.

“I would like to see a sense of place,” something that ties the areas together, said Mayor Chris Koos, who noted how the Uptown Circle’s water feature gives it a unique feel.

But Koos said he wasn’t sold on the idea of making the plaza an active playground.

Of course, the tunnel will have lights for safety, regardless, of possible enhancements, said Normal City Manager Pam Reece. As of now, about $200,000 is budgeted for lighting, said Public Works director Ryan Otto, who joined Whisman in the presentation to council.

This image shows a rendering of the planned underpass at Uptown Station in Normal.
Town of Normal
This image shows a rendering of the planned underpass at Uptown Station in Normal.

But special lighting was the No. 1 ask from those surveyed about possible features of the underpass, said Whisman. If the lighting budget were $300,000 to $400,000, the town could create some really beautiful lighting, she said.

Staff is coming to discuss the ideas now because underpass designs need to account for lighting, and because possible grant funding for specialty lighting, or plaza features, should be sought prior to construction.

“There are some grant opportunities. But we have to know where to start,” she said, adding many programs require financial matches. “The more shovel-ready we can be, the more likely” grants would come the town’s way, she added.

Council member Kathleen Lorenz said there’s a general understanding that about 1% of a major project should be dedicated to public art. In this case, that would be about $250,000.

Whisman noted the lasting impact of professional artists installing works, such as Pontiac’s Route 66 murals.

Proposal: Navigator funded with COVID-relief money

Erin Duncan, who serves on a housing coalition created by the United Way, shared details about a proposed housing navigator position.

The renter-landlord community navigator proposed would be jointly funded as a Normal, and Bloomington program. A combination of higher demand for affordable housing, and rising rental costs, is worsening an already troubling situation, said Duncan.

The navigator would be a full-time social services professional to help with lease applications, the challenges of moving, and connecting resources to people in need, she told the council Monday. Mid-Central Community Action would employ the navigator.

Duncan, an attorney at Prairie State Legal Services who works with families facing eviction, said the coalition is seeking about $400,000. That would cover three years salary, plus create a $175,000 emergency fund.

The fund would help cover clients' who fall through the cracks of other housing support programs.

As part of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) of 2021, Normal received nearly $11 million. Of that total, about $975,000 of Normal’s ARPA funds remain, and need to be spent by December 2026, said Reece.

Town staff suggest using about $775,000 of the amount for infrastructure and capital projects; with $200,000 for social needs. The housing navigator could be funded with the latter, she said.

Duncan, who works with families facing eviction, said the need for a housing navigator existed before the pandemic. But that need has grown and shows no signs of slowing — especially in the current climate of a shortage of housing with an increased workforce need.

“Shelter numbers are going up, and eviction numbers are going up, too,” she said.

Financial trends report

Later, during the council’s regular meeting, Normal Finance Director Andrew Huhn shared a slide presentation aboutNormal finances for the fiscal 2021-2022 year.

The town’s seen a strong revenue turnaround, especially thanks to federal stimulus money being put into the economy, he told the council.

The town’s health insurance fund has taken a hit, which Huhn attributed to more people returning to medical offices and hospitals after the pandemic restrictions were lifted.

In the current fiscal year, revenue continues to be favorable, with expenses tracking below budget expectations. However, Huhn expects that trend to slow over the next six months.

As town leaders begin putting together the next budget — for fiscal 2023-2024 — consideration of inflation and fears of a recession is needed, he said.

Challenges ahead for Normal include finding money to increase its contributions to the police and fire departments’ pension funds, as required by law, and funding road improvements, he said.

In other business, the council approved:

  • A request from The Shoppes at College Hills to pay off bonds early. Normal is not involved, other than facilitating the agreement between The Shoppes and Busey Bank. Paying the bonds off two years early will save The Shoppes about $118,000. 
  • OK’d a contract with IDEAL Environmental of Bloomington to handle lead paint inspections for older homes. It's part of a Normal-sponsored low-income homeowner rehabilitation program. That rehab fund is capped at $275,000, with eligible homeowners able to apply for up to $5,000 in assistance. 

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