Bloomington city leaders look ahead to 2023
Bloomington City Manager Tim Gleason and Mayor Mboka Mwilambwe said 2022 has been a good year for the city.
Speaking in end-of-year interviews, both men said COVID-19 is largely in the rearview mirror, revenues have been strong, and Gleason said the city is starting to get past the 50% to 100% COVID-related cost increases in materials and projects.
The city council has provided clarity on priorities for next year, he added, with the city trying to be conservative on revenue projections in planning for the new budget.
Mayor Mwilambwe said if everything goes according to plan, there will be a library ribbon-cutting as that expansion project finishes next year. He said another celebration could be at O’Neil Pool. But Mwilambwe, as he often has, emphasized infrastructure and an additional bid proposal for roadwork.
“That's going to help us test the waters and see if we can begin to expand our street repair program. Generally, we've been about $7 million-plus (per year) but we're trying to do a little bit more,” said Mwilambwe.
There is a constraint on how much work contractors can take on and municipal governments have been at that limit in the last year.
“This would signal to contractors that yes, if you are willing, if you build up the capacity, then the city is very interested in enhancing our ability to do street repair,” said Mwilambwe.
On Gleason’s list for next year is reviving Grossinger Motors Arena.
“We're trying to get everything in order so we can start booking acts. We are actively trying to do that now. But we are looking at the summer of '23 and maybe even the fall and winter of '23 is what we're looking at," he said.
Recently, the city hired a person to direct both the arena and the Center for the Performing Arts. The arena also is on Mwilambwe’s radar. Even though the roster of events is thin, the mayor said he doesn't think the timetable of mid-to-late next year is unreasonable.
“That's just how things are, I used to do events, although not quite as large. It's not a formula, you know, it's more of an art form. You have to work with entertainers, with their availability. Some just happen just like that, (snaps fingers) because the entertainer was available and willing. In other situations, after three, four, or five different tries, then you got the right person,” said Mwilambwe.
Mwilambe said he's had several conversations with staff and Gleason about the direction for the arena and the outlook.
“The way I view things is that we're not that big, but we also not that small. We need to find what is our niche. Sometimes, it can help to have a really big entertainer for the marketing value of it. I could anticipate that happening when we are trying to announce we are back in business. But generally, I see our niche being one where we bring acts that people want to discover. They're maybe not as well known. They're on the way up,” said Mwilambwe.
He noted the venue booked the musician Drake before he peaked. Now, booking Drake would be cost prohibitive.
"Either folks who are ascending, or people who are maybe in a descending phase of their career, and where financial demands will not be as much,” said Mwilambwe.
Connect Transit has reduced service twice in two months because it can't find enough drivers to staff the routes.
Bloomington-Normal bumped up support for the transit agency by $150,000 a couple of years ago with an agreement to go to $300,000. Demand and services were expected to grow. Gleason said the rest of the increase is supposed to be in next year's budget. He said Connect Transit’s difficulty in hiring drivers should get some grace as the pandemic recovery continues.
“We are satisfied at this point. You know, in this moment,” said Gleason.
That won't always be the case.
“Now, if I'm still sitting in the same situation with a lack of clarity, it might be a different response a year from now,” said Gleason, acknowledging if the supply of drivers does not improve and a reassessment needs to happen, it won't be a simple job.
“You definitely have to pull some of the past data and draw those comparisons. Some of those conclusions are also based on what the needs are today. There's so many different variables when you look at a transit system, trying to meet the needs of your community,” he said.
The bus system has reduced weekday service on some routes and ended service earlier in the evening on weekdays. It also has reduced weekend start and stop times.
Mwilambe also said he is unwilling to set a deadline for the bus system to restore service, preferring to wait to see whether measures taken to hire more drivers are effective. Connect Transit has offered signing bonuses and to pay for training to get a commercial drivers license, or CDL. The agency also is offering more flexible hours and some part time work.
Mwilambwe said he is not aware that Connect Transit is missing any potential opportunity to look for drivers.
“I know they're out there on social media trying to hire, or at least let people know these opportunities are available. One thing I could suggest is maybe try to spread out a little bit more to go beyond local folks because clearly, we're having a concerning issue,” he said.
It will be late winter or in the spring before the issue of a potential transfer center for Connect Transit comes up for public conversation, according to Gleason, who said it will take that long for the bus system to do studies on the preferred site — the current Market Street Parking Deck.
"Connect Transit is advancing that and meeting some of the study requirements they have because of the state and federal money they have," said Gleason.
Previously, Connect Transit studied the former Pantagraph newspaper building as a possible site for the transfer center, but results showed it would cost too much to rehabilitate.
Recovering council member
Gleason said city council member Julie Emig had hoped to be back for December council meetings after dealing with a protracted health issue. She has not been back yet, but Gleason said she is doing well and is expected back to council duties at the first meeting of 2023 on Jan. 9.
Finally, Mwilambwe said he looks forward in the new year to city council election in April that will bring four new council members — and new energy and ideas to the city.