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Bloomington council greenlights Connect Transit downtown hub at Market Street garage

Connect Transit leaders look on as the Bloomington City Council votes 7-2 on Monday to approve a plan for a downtown transit center at 202 W. Market Street, the home of the aging city-owned Market Street parking deck.
Michele Steinbacher
Connect Transit leaders look on as the Bloomington City Council votes Monday, April 24, 2023, to approve a plan for a downtown transit center at 202 W. Market St., the location of the aging city-owned Market Street parking deck.

The Bloomington City Council on Monday OK’d a plan to transform its aging Market Street parking deck into Connect Transit’s new downtown hub.

The city-owned garage, at 202 W. Market St., stands between Main and Center streets.

After Monday's meeting, David Braun, who leads Connect Transit, told WGLT the center could open by mid- to late-2025, if all goes well.

Upkeep of the nearly 50-year-old parking deck has proven costly as Bloomington has poured money into it, in a band-aid approach over the past few years, said City Manager Tim Gleason.

He called the council’s 7-2 vote a wise fiscal decision. “We are actually saving the taxpayers’ dollars” by collaborating with the transit project, Gleason told the council.

Tearing down and replacing the Market Street deck on its own, the city would be looking at a roughly $25 million cost, he said. But with this option, Connect Transit injects $18 million of federal and state grants to create a bus transit center.

Meanwhile, Bloomington can possibly add public parking levels atop that — but at a much lower price than rebuilding an entire deck, said Gleason.

After the meeting, he said now he'll pursue federal funding opportunities to build those decks, and regain the 350-parking spaces that will be lost when the garage is razed.

Ward 1’s Grant Walch and Ward 2’s Donna Boelen voted against using the site for the transit center.

Monday’s vote only approves the West Market Street location, and launches a partnership between city and bus leaders to design the center. Further negotiations are needed on how the project will proceed, including whether Bloomington will sell or lease the property.

After the meeting, Connect Transit officials and Bloomington leaders described steps moving forward as a collaboration, with consultations about the project’s details.

Also on Monday, the council bid farewell to four of its members — Ward 1’s Walch, Ward 4’s Julie Emig, Ward 6’s De Urban, and Ward 8’s Jeff Crabill. Council seats in five of the city’s nine wards were up for election April 4, with only one incumbent — Ward 2’s Boelen — on the ballot. She ran unopposed.

Newly elected members will be seated at the next meeting. They are Jenna Kearns, Ward 1; John Wyatt Danenberger, Ward 4; Cody Hendricks, Ward 6; and Kent Lee, Ward 8.

The mayor appointed Walch and Urban to fill open seats. But Crabill and Emig both were elected, with terms beginning in 2019. The outgoing council members reflected Monday about their time serving as elected officials.

Emig, who missed several months last year while recovering from a brain tumor, said she was happy she was able to return and finish her term. She shared a list of challenges and accomplishments over her term. She also said serving on the council during the COVID pandemic provided "an opportunity to become leaders of an upside down world."

Crabill also reviewed many milestones from the past four years. He urged Bloomington to continue on its path to becoming a city that welcomes everyone, and embraces diversity. He said it was an honor serving the people of of Ward 8, especially marginalized people. He spoke about Bloomington's involvement in the Welcoming America initiative, and spoke fondly of the community's immigrants.

Besides Monday’s vote to approve Connect Transit’s downtown site, the council OK’d more than $5 million in upcoming city contracts. Those included about $2.6 million with George Gildner Inc. to oversee this year’s utilities maintenance projects and city sidewalks and alley repairs, and nearly $1.5 million for an insurance and client services agreement.

The council also approved a new equal opportunity initiative focused on encouraging more female-owned and minority-owned companies to work on city contracts, and more female and minority workers to serve as labor on city projects.

Connect Transit tries 2nd location for transfer center

The public bus system has been trying to finalize a location and build an indoor spot for downtown Bloomington bus transfers for more than two years. Despite Connect Transit listing the city’s transfer station as its second busiest location, it consists of just a few bus shelters along sidewalks in the 200 block of Front Street in front of the Law and Justice Center.

Meanwhile, for more than a decade, Normal riders have had a roof over their transfer center on the ground floor of Uptown Station. The public bus agency’s main offices and storage facilities are at 351 Wylie Drive in west Normal.

In 2021, Connect Transit announced three potential Bloomington sites for its downtown hub.

After Monday’s meeting, transit board chairman Ryan Whitehouse stressed the downtown transit center portion of the project won't deviate from the original $18 million budget, he said.

Connect Transit executive Director David Braun said architectural designs won’t start taking shape until this fall. But preliminary visions call for a structure that compliments the downtown atmosphere, and includes some retail space.

"We'll actually clear the site, and we'll excavate a bit, as well. It will be a completely different vision for downtown," said Braun. The center will fit in to the cityscape, and designs will be made in collaboration with Bloomington leadership, added Whitehouse.

Braun said preliminary ideas call for a mix of transit, retail and parking.

Cars would enter from Monroe Street, while buses would pass through the Market Street entries and exits, said Braun.

Ward 9’s Tom Crumpler, who voted “yes” for the site, expressed excitement at the upcoming project.
“This can and will be a catalyst for downtown development,” he said.

Gleason said keeping the U.S. post office in the center is a priority for the city. Currently, it’s located in the deck’s southern corner, as part of that block.

Initially, the bus agency planned to rehab the West Washington Street building that until five years ago served as the longtime home of The Pantagraph. Officials abandoned that project in April 2022, as costs proved prohibitive. Braun noted that privately-owned building also had historic value that limited the renovation possibilities.

Since then, Connect Transit focused on determining the viability of theMarket Street parking garage location.

The parking deck currently has more than 500 spaces. But Gleason said only 350 of those are used. He anticipates a proposal to replace those 350 in the new structure.

“There are many decisions that are going to come before the next council,” said Gleason, adding in the next few months community engagement and council conversations will move the project forward, before this fall’s design stage.

Diversity initiative launched for city contracts

The council voted Monday to adopt equal opportunity initiatives and goals to boost minority representation, especially on city projects of $50,000 or more.

"This is another continuation of our efforts at inclusion," in this case on city projects, said Michael Hurt, Bloomington’s chief diversity and inclusion officer.

Michael Hurt, Bloomington's diversity and inclusion chief, addresses the Bloomington City Council during its meeting Monday, April 24, 2023.
Michele Steinbacher
Michael Hurt, Bloomington's diversity and inclusion chief, addresses the Bloomington City Council during its meeting Monday, April 24, 2023.

Also known as the diversity procurement initiative, it is designed to avoid discrimination in awarding city contracts.

The city wants to promote minority businesses, and women-owned businesses, as well as disadvantaged business owners. That’s to be achieved through contractors showing they’ve made a good-faith effort to award at least 8 % of any subcontracting to those subgroups.

And it’s not just business owners. The diversity initiative also expects contractors and subcontractors to show they’ve used labor reflecting these goals: Ideally, 10% of total project hours worked goes to minority laborers, and at least 2% by female laborers.

"This is an opportunity to expand the city's largesse by including them," Hurt told the council.

“This creates opportunities for minorities in the community to be able to participate successfully” in contractual work, added Gleason.

Hurt told the council that city staff will work along side contractors to navigate the process. The idea is to show they’ve looked, and done due diligence to meet the requirements. Of course city leaders understand the market won’t always make these percentages possible. The key point is making the effort, he said.

For the city’s part, staff will work to size projects in a way that smaller firms can manage, and staff will recruit for the diverse companies and workers. Bloomington will maintain a database of possible businesses to use, which are verified as falling into the categories outlined, Hurt said.

This looks beyond Bloomington's human resources department recruiting minority city employees. It takes an outward view, and works to create equity on a variety of city projects, said Gleason.

“It’s long overdue, for a community this size,” to have such guidelines in place, he added, noting similar policies were in place in cities he served prior to his role as Bloomington's city manager.

Council OKs contract with union for water workers

The council also OK’d a three-year contract with Machinists Lodge 1000, the union representing Bloomington water division employees.

As part of the agreement, workers get across-the-board raises. The increases will cost the city about $265,000 over the life of the contract. In the first year, raises will be 3.5 %; next year, 3%; and 2.75% in the third year.

Also at Monday’s meeting, the council unanimously approved nearly two dozen other items including:

  • Two major contracts with George Gildner Inc. First, nearly $2.3 million to oversee fiscal 2024 utility maintenance work; and a second contract for almost $250,000 dollars for annual street, alley, and sidewalk upkeep. 
  • A  nearly $1.5 million annual agreement with Arthur J. Gallagher. The company purchases the city’s property, liability, excess liability and excess workers’ compensation insurance. 
  • A roughly $160,000 contract with Decatur-based Bodine Electric for FY24 traffic signal maintenance.
  • A $118,000 annual contract to stabilize the shoreline of Lake Bloomington. 
  • A three-year supply of Fourth of July fireworks from Gateway Pyrotechnics of St. Louis, costing about $115,000. 
  • Buying more than 300 gun safes through Premier and Cos. at a cost of about $60,000. 
  • The annual transition plan, related to the Americans With Disabilities Act. The city has launched an ADA Portalto improve access to compliance information, and file grievances for noncompliance.
  • Changes to more than a dozen categories in the city code schedule of fees. 
  • Appointments for planning commission, Tom Krieger; zoning board, Ross Webb; airport board, John Hanson; historic preservation, Sarah Lindenbaum and Emma Meyer, and library board, John Argenziano, Catrina Parker, and Alicia Whitworth. 

Michele Steinbacher was a WGLT correspondent, joining the staff in 2020. She left the station in 2024.