B-N newcomers say they feel welcome. They have ideas to make the community better
Adam Farcus moved to Bloomington-Normal in August. They accepted an art teacher position at Illinois State University.
Farcus' timing wasn't great. The hiring surge at Rivian made finding a place to live difficult, especially for someone who wanted their home to double as an art studio. They found a loft apartment in downtown Bloomington, but Farcus has heard how others have had to commute into the Twin Cities because of a housing shortage.
“I’ve heard that celebrated as this metro area now extends to Kankakee or something. To me that feels not like a thing to celebrate, but an issue about people who would prefer to live where they work but don’t have the option to do that so they commute really far,” Farcus said.
Bloomington-Normal has seen a population boom in the last few years, thanks to hiring from Rivian, State Farm and other employers. As new residents settle here, they have questions and ideas to make the community better but knowing where to go to get help can be difficult for newcomers.
Farcus said they are concerned about a lack of affordable housing in the community. Farcus said they've been involved in various community causes where they have lived elsewhere, but they haven't had time to look into that yet, between teaching, art, writing and other career pursuits.
Farcus said they will eventually try to connect with elected leaders and look for charitable causes. Farcus wants to address the housing shortage and support equity, antiracism and the arts community.
Farcus identifies as a queer and non-binary. Farcus said they generally feel welcome in Bloomington-Normal but at times they face micro-aggressions. They said that's not unique to Bloomington-Normal.
Another recent transplant found something they say makes the Twin Cities unique.
“This area has more chain restaurants than any place I have ever been,” said Bridgid Burke, who moved to Normal shortly before the pandemic after living her entire life in Baltimore.
Burke misses Maryland crabs. Her mom is still searching for raw oysters after she moved here last fall.
Burke moved to Normal after her wife, Natalie Shaheen, took a teaching job at ISU. Burke works remotely for the National Federation of the Blind. The cause if close to her. Burke's wife is blind.
Burke said Bloomington-Normal doesn't feel safe for pedestrians. “There seems to be a lot of pedestrian accidents. I am wondering why we haven’t encouraged both the town and ISU to build whatever is necessary to allow people to cross the streets safely,” Burke said.
The town of Normal and the university have been studying pedestrian safety, but nothing has come of it yet.
Burke said when she's not around, her wife walks to the grocery store. That requires navigating four lanes of traffic on Veterans Parkway. “There is a crosswalk there, but it is dangerous if you are blind, because the road is so wide,” Burke said.
Burke said she would like more intersections equipped with beeping sounds and signs in braille for the visually impaired.
Burke said she and her wife haven't pushed for changes and they otherwise are happy here after getting over the culture shock of moving from a big city. Burke plans to run for the Normal Library Board next spring, and the couple is involved in buying real estate.
Who to call?
Residents who have issues to take to city hall, can start by calling their council member. Donna Boelen is a city council member in Bloomington. She's been on both ends of that conversation.
Boelen said she downsized into a new home when her children moved out about a decade ago. She said heavy rains led to frequent flooding in a detention basin in her backyard. “It began to back up and it wasn’t draining and with my house facing the detention basin, during that massive storm, water was actually creeping up to my egress window in the basement,” Boelen recalled.
Boelen went to city hall for answers. She said it turns out the city was in a dispute with a developer over the detention basin that wasn't done properly. Boelen started to collect signatures to pressure city hall when someone finally fixed it.
“That is sort of how you run for office, but I had no intention of running for office,” Boelen said. “I’m an introvert. I don’t like being in the public eye.”
Despite the fix and her aversion for the spotlight, Boelen became a frequent critic at city council meetings for years. She often questioned the city's spending priorities.
When her council member chose not to run for re-election in 2019, Boelen decided she knew enough about how the city the works to run herself. Boelen won and is now seeking second term.
Now that Boelen takes complaints from residents instead of making them at council meeting public comment time, she feels her experience as a concerned citizen should be a lesson for others who want the city to listen.
“I did my homework and I tried to offer a solution, rather that just scream at the council. That doesn’t do any good,” Boelen said.
Meet HUGH, your AI helper
Residents who have more ways to report concerns than ever before, because of social media, email and now artificial intelligence. The Town of Normal, for example, has its own chatbot.
“We have lovingly named him HUGH, which stands for Help You Get Help. HUGH is available 24-7 on our website,” said Cathy Oloffson, the town's director of communications and community relations.
Oloffson says Hugh has an 80% answer success rate. For questions more complex, Oloffson said there's a Report a Problem linkon the town website. Those messages go directly to staff.
Oloffson said it's not 24-7 service, but it's close. “We all have phones as extensions of our hands and our emails come directly to us, so we are pretty responsive,” Oloffson said.
Oloffson said she and her staff of two other full-timers monitor close to 30 social media accounts for public comments and concerns. She said public works issues are most frequent — missed trash or recycling or down tree limbs.
Oloffson said the town communications shop wants to be proactive too. The town recently set up a notification system where residents can sign up to be notified of street closures, community events and emergencies.
Residents who want to proactively learn about their government have ways to do that too.
The City of Bloomington hosts a citizens academy called Bloomington 101. It's an annual eight-week program where residents tour various departments, including police and fire, finance and parks and recreation.
Katherine Murphy is communications and external affairs manager for the city of Bloomington. She runs the academy. Murphy said it's an eye-opening experience for many.
“They’ve been very surprised by the finance presentation, when they find out how much it does cost for a squad car or they find out how much a snow plow costs or wat it costs to puck up the garbage,” Murphy explained.
Murphy said participants are a mix of the curious and the ambitious. She said Bloomington 101 is a good steppingstone for anyone who wants to run for city council.
“It really does give you a behind the scenes look at things you might otherwise not realize and it could prepare you for something, say you want to sit on the council, you might have a little background knowledge somebody else may not.”
Community newcomer Adam Farcus of Bloomington said they have no plans to run for public office. They just want to find a way they can help serve the community. Farcus plans to stay involved in the Education Justice Project at the Danville prison. It teaches inmates to teach other inmates English.
Farcus also wants to be see what the Bloomington-Normal arts community needs to help it grow.
“I would look toward what kind of art is not represented and what to people want,” Farcus said. “People might not know that they want installation art. Maybe you just don’t know that you like it because you haven’t seen it.”
Farcus said there's already a lot going on in the art community in Bloomington-Normal. They say it's part of the reason why they moved here.
Newcomers all have their own reasons for choosing Bloomington-Normal as home, whether it's for a job or for family. While they like living here, each is looking for their own way to make the community just a little better.
This story is part of WGLT’s ongoing series Welcome Home, helping Bloomington-Normal's newest residents learn about the community as it exists, and empowering them to make it the home they want it to be. Learn more at WGLT.org/Welcome.