Bloomington Ward 4 candidates focus on historic neighborhoods and infrastructure
The Bloomington City Council will look a lot different after the spring municipal election.
A majority of council seats will be on the April 4 ballot. Only one candidate is an incumbent — Donna Boelen in Ward 2.
The two contested city council races cover downtown and some of its oldest neighborhoods. Julie Emig is not running for re-election in Ward 4. Two men, John Wyatt Danenberger and Steven Nalefski, are running to replace her.
In the city's new maps, Ward 4 runs from Constitution Trail east to Veterans Parkway, and from Croxton Avenue in south central Bloomington to the border with Normal. The ward features several historic neighborhoods.
Danenberger said residents there want to live in a shared community.
“Like me, they value historic preservation, being able to walk to parks, to the trail and downtown,” he said. “They want safe streets, great schools and to live near a central shopping (district). What’s more, they want to be a part of something bigger than their address.”
Danenberger, a lawyer for State Farm, previously served as an attorney in the U.S. Army. Nalefski retired last year as an engineer with the Woodford County Highway Department.
Nalefski said he moved to Bloomington more than three decades ago. He said residents tell him they want the city to spend more on roads.
“I keep hearing again and again that they would like to see our infrastructure brought back to the level it should be,” said Nalefski, who has a fondness for one road in particular, the Mother Road. He serves on the Route 66 Association of Illinois board.
Danenberger, who serves on the Bloomington Planning Commission, said he wants the city to improve its under-the-ground infrastructure in older neighborhoods. Some Bloomington residents have seen their homes flooded during heavy storms. He said the city has offered some help, but hasn't always messaged it effectively, noting as one example the grants the city offered to flood victims.
“This is great news and it’s designed to encourage new homeowners to apply for assistance in repairing basement flooding problems, but the city hasn’t done a great job of putting this out,” Danenberger said. “That’s one project that I think the city could do a little bit better in informing the general public and especially the people that are looking to move to the historic neighborhoods.”
Danenberger said he considers himself more progressive on social issues, but said he's more of a centrist when it comes to municipal government.
“As a candidate who supports social equality for all genders, races and sexual orientation, I may score myself higher for those issues, but on the flip side as someone who is fiscally responsible and is always looking to get the greatest output for the dollar spent, I would say I am smack dab in the middle at a five,” said Danenberger, referring to an ideological scale of 1 to 10.
Nalefski didn't offer a number to peg his political identity. Instead he offered his three priorities in this election.
“My priorities have been fiscal responsibility, prioritizing infrastructure, and support law enforcement,” said Nalefski, adding he's also concerned city taxes are going to make it too expensive for some people to live here.
“Taxes and fees keep creeping up and it’s making it harder for people especially (those) on fixed incomes to still live here, and that’s a big concern to them because they don’t want to move,” he said. “They like living here.”
When asked what the city should cut, Nalefski said the city should hire fewer consultants and not take on any big building projects.
A major project the city council will address in the coming years is its downtown streetscape, a plan that could cost in the tens of millions of dollars over many years.
Danenberger said the city should think big. He'd like to see the city's streetscape design extend north of downtown all the way to Illinois Wesleyan and tie in with the university's innovation hub. As someone who has lived in several European cities, Danenberger said has seen communities successfully make their downtown more bike and pedestrian friendly. He said that could be done here, too, with modifications to appease business owners.
“I think we can kind of do the same, we can maybe do it the American way. We could ask those stores what are your busiest hours? When do people need to come by Red Raccoon (Games) or Bobzbay Books and want to pick up a few books and maybe they have trouble with mobility,” said Danenberger, suggesting the city offer on-street parking during limited hours.
Nalefski said any downtown plan will require lots of input from residents and business owners in the city's core, and he'd prefer incremental changes.
“I’m sure that they don’t want their real estate taxes to go up because of this. That might put them out of business,” Nalefski said. “I would really want to make sure they are involved with that.”
Danenberger said the city may need to temporarily operate in the red to promote reinvestment, keep affordable housing near downtown, preserve historic neighborhoods and maximize federal tax credits and block grants.
The city's downtown arena has been operating in the red since it opened 17 years ago. Both Nalefski and Danenberger said they want to see how the venue fares now that it's under city management.
Nalefski said if the venue still can't break even, it would have to explore other options. Asked whether that might include selling or tearing down the building, he said, "I would think tearing it down would be the least favorable, but if we could sell it to someone that could make a profit, I don’t know if that would be a bad idea, because I’m not sure the city needs to be in the business of running arenas.”
Danenberger said the arena has become an albatross for the city, adding the city will have to get creative to find new ways to fill the facility.
“My feeling is that it’s still underutilized. Having been in the building before, I see no reason it couldn’t serve as a hosting stage for Bruegala or a local convention center, for example, for an electric vehicle manufacturer, a microbrewery, a craft beer convention or the types of conventions other towns have,” Danenberger said.
He also wants the city to further explore smart cities initiatives and how a future with autonomous vehicles might impact transportation.
Nalefski said his background in industrial design gave him the ability to build roads and to solve problems — skills he hopes to bring to city hall.
The voters will decide which Ward 4 candidate is best suited to help steer the city's future over the next four years.
Early voting is underway.