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GLT stories about immigrants living in Bloomington-Normal.

Bloomington Council OKs Joining Welcoming America Program

Bloomington City Council meets remotely Jan. 11, 2021.

The Bloomington City Council on Monday overwhelmingly voted to join the Welcoming Network, a nonprofit group that prides itself on creating inclusive environments for immigrants through community engagement, job training and other initiatives. 

The 7-0 vote, in favor of the membership in the Welcoming America Initiative, means Bloomington can actively promote “breaking barriers between the immigrant community and the rest of the population,” said Ward 2 council member Donna Boelen, who drafted the proposal.  

Council members Jenn Carrillo, of Ward 6, and Jeff Crabill, of Ward 8, who have opposed joining Welcoming America saying it fails to protect the city’s immigrants from an overbearing federal system, were absent from Monday night’s meeting. 

“There’s a lot of people in this community who think this is an either-or--either this, or Welcoming Cities--and I reject that notion,” said Ward 1 Alderman Jamie Mathy, adding although incorporating both proposals wasn’t Boelen’s original intention, he believes the two ideas could work hand-in-hand.  

Boelen told the council she’d brought the council’s concerns to Welcoming America’s regional director, and learned the program doesn’t pay attention to an immigrant’s legal status. It’s against the network’s philosophy of anti-discrimination, said Boelen, noting that Bloomington’s Immigration Project can help people handle legal status issues.  

Boelen called Welcoming America’s outreach an invitation to collaboration. “It does so by offering it with an open hand, rather than a closed fist,” she said.

Ward 3 Alderman Mboka Mwilambwe said joining the network gives Bloomington a way to help immigrants acclimate to the community. A longtime Bloomington resident, and immigrant himself, Mwilambwe said over the years he has seen these challenges in some of his own circles. 

“There have been issues of dealing with cultural understanding, of how America functions,” he said, noting those challenges might pertain to navigating legal issues, starting a business, or accessing health care.

The local chapter of Not In Our Town co-chairs Mike Matejka and Camille Taylor issued a joint statement in support of both Monday's Welcoming America proposal, and the upcoming Welcoming City proposals: "Welcoming America is an endorsement of a communitywide effort, including local organizations, businesses and others, to create a community environment that is inclusive of our immigrant neighbors.

"A Welcoming City ordinance is a specific directive to city staff and departments on how they respond to and treat immigrants. They are not mutually exclusive, but are mutually compatible."

Several public commenters called during Monday’s remote meeting in support of the latter Welcoming City proposal. Kevin Lopez, Maria Alvarez and Sandra Rosales all called on the council to support it when it comes up for a vote.

“The immigrant community really needs some support-- from the people in charge of the city-- to feel safer, and to live without fear that one day they're going to be separated from their families,” said Rosales, a longtime Bloomington resident.

Transit chief search, downtown transfer site

Also at Monday’s meeting, the council heard that by March, Bloomington-Normal’s public bus system expects to have a new general manager, and a final site identified for a planned $18 million downtown Bloomington transfer center.

Connect Transit is ready to find a spot for its new downtown Bloomington transfer center. Above, artist rendering of center.

“We are fully-funded for this project. We have the money, and we’re ready to go,” said Ryan Whitehouse, Connect Transit board chairman. He hopes later this month, the transit board will have the possible sites narrowed down to three.

The new site is possible from a mix of federal and state funding, from the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration, and the state's Rebuild Illinois Capital Plan.

The Connect Transit board decides on the final location. However, along the way, stakeholders including council members will be able to provide input, said Whitehouse.

“Having a mobile work force is critical. But having a downtown transfer center will also help revitalize downtown because capital investment always will attract more capital,” said Mayor Tari Renner.

New York-based search firm Harris Rand Lusk has met with transit trustees, and senior staff, to help find a new general manager.

The GM will oversee the transit’s $14.5 million operating budget. About 65% of that comes from state funding; 14% federal funding; and 12% local revenue, Whitehouse said. The job should be listed this month, he added. The transit’s had two interim chiefs during the past year. Currently, it's Mark Peterson, the former Normal city manager.

A public survey, seeking input about the general manager hire, is available at the agency’s website.

Whitehouse also told the council, about the agency's continued development of an electric bus fleet, and a solar infrastructure project at the site's Wylie Drive center.

The transit board has increased Twin City stops--going from 35 to 86 locations this year, and another 14 are planned for 2022. Connect Transit aims to have all of its stops fully ADA-compliant by 2024, said Whitehouse.

He also said the agency has extended its no-fare policy until March 8. Because of the pandemic, the transit system hasn’t collected money from riders since spring 2020. 

Whitehouse said ridership is down about 35%, which he attributes to COVID-19. In fiscal 2019, the agency recorded about 2.5 million rides; in fiscal 2020, it was 1.7 million.

COVID-related safety measures include not collecting fare, requiring masks to be worn, and having patrons enter the bus through the rear doors. Extra staff also were hired this year to handle more frequent and thorough deep-cleaning of the vehicles, he said.

Bus drivers also bring riders to COVID testing facilities, if needed.

Council reflects on Capitol Hill riot

Mayor Renner and other council members ended the meeting by reflecting on last week's riot at the U.S. Capitol.  On Wednesday, a pro-Trump mob of mostly white men, purportedly trying to stop the electoral votes from being counted for President-elect Joe Biden, stormed the building in Washington, D.C.

Several people died amid the violence, including a Capitol police officer.

Of the events that transpired there, Renner, who is a political science professor, said America may be the world's oldest democracy, but the riot showed the fragility of its democratic ideals.

"This is something that is not a particularly good day in our nation's history, except, that we did survive," he said. "Our democractic institutions and separation of powers held. The levees held," he said.

Several other council members also spoke solemnly about the riots, and how they believe the nation should address the matter closely, before moving forward.

In other business, the council:

  • Voted 7-0 to amend its liquor license proration policy. The clarification now means businesses can apply more than once to have liquor license fees adjustments, based on whether the business had to shut down due to the Restore Illinois pandemic restrictions.
  • Heard from City Manager Tim Gleason about Gov. JB Pritzker's upcoming Jan. 15 announcement regarding Restore Illinois mitigations. Gleason said he's cautiously optimistic Bloomington will see slight relaxations. Currently, businesses are prohibited from offering indoor dining.
  • Approved Shweta Shukla's appointment to the Cultural Commission, for a term ending April 2022.
  • Approved a $100,000, three-year contract, with Daktronics video system used at Grossinger Motors Arena.

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