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Normal Town Council Races: Development Incentives

Normal City Hall
Incentives to create Uptown Normal years ago remain a campaign issue in the 2021 municipal contests.

The nine candidates running for Normal Town Council split down the middle on the proper role of government in building the tax base and offering development incentives.

There are, in effect, two distinct slates of candidates: four who generally have reservations about using town government to stimulate development; and five who generally want to use development tools, though their willingness to do so depends on several variables.

Donna Toney is the firmest of those against using town government to stimulate economic development, though she said she's not up on the issue.

"Well, um, I am not that versed on that particular subject there. I'm dealing totally with local, but if I had to answer I would really have to know the ins and outs of that to give an answer that would be suitable," said Toney.

Toney said making that call is not the job of council members.

"I don't think it's left up to us as councils. I don't think we should make that decision like that. I'm a person that believes everyone that pays taxes has a right to vote to say yes or no," said Toney.

The town council is a representative body elected to make decisions for the rest of its citizens. When told that, Toney said incentives could be talked about.

Another conservative candidate, David Paul Blumenshine, has not returned WGLT requests for interviews or comments on his candidacy or on his participation in a bus trip to Washington, D.C., for what turned out to be the Capitol insurrection. During previous candidacies, Blumenshine has generally favored only a limited role for government.

Steve Harsh opposes offering incentives for business location or expansion for the most part.

"Well, government has no business picking winners and losers. They have no business giving bucket loads of money to outside businesses that come in and compete with other like businesses," said Harsh.

Harsh said he is not a categorical no, but it's a high bar.

"The only way I can see an incentive at all is if I can see it's a business that's non-competitive with any existing businesses here," said Harsh.

The final Normal council candidate generally against using tax incentives, fee waivers, and other government tools to stimulate business is Karl Sila.

"Mostly municipal government needs to allow the private sector to flourish. That's the best way to build a tax base," said Sila.

That said, Sila can see an occasional government role. He said though, he disagrees with most of the development decisions made by the council in recent years.

"If you have outside economic engines that you can court to bring in, that's a good thing, but you need to make sure that whatever arrangements you make are a good deal for the taxpayer, not just a good deal for whoever you are incentivizing," said Sila.

There also is nuance among the candidates who are OK with approving tax incentives, use of TIF districts, paying for infrastructure, and waiving fees if a business moves in or creates new jobs.

Incumbent council member Scott Preston said he has sometimes said yes and sometimes no to town help for business location and expansion. Preston said he looks forward to a template under development by Bloomington, Normal, McLean County, the Economic Development Council, and Chamber of Commerce.

"Having all organizations and government bodies in agreement with that up front helps developers plan, helps companies plan their growth and ultimately helps elected officials feel comfortable that we are positioning our community as well as possible to be a business friendly community here in Normal," said Preston.

Preston also said such a template will reduce competition between Bloomington and Normal for new business. He rejects the argument that every project is different and may require different offerings, or that putting the cards on the table puts the community at a disadvantage to other cities that know what they have to bid to snag a new business from Bloomington-Normal.

"At the end of the day having clear metrics of jobs created here, the level of jobs created here, jobs retained here, and investment here should be across the board, applicable to any kind of potential government partnership," said Preston.

Incumbent council member Chemberly Cummings answers those who question use of incentives by saying to ignore those options puts Bloomington-Normal at a disadvantage in maintaining a thriving local economy.

“You know whether people like it or not, there is lots of information out there (that) this is really where we are today not even just in our community today but across the country. Incentives are used all the time for economic growth and development," said Cummings.

And in assessing when and when not to approve incentives, Cummings said a town council must consider more than the dollar investment and the number of jobs.

"There's always these additional pieces that come with it. Typically, property tax, a lot of times you are looking at additional food and beverage tax, hotel-motel tax. Usually, what they pay in services is a lot more because of their usage," she said, adding those things pay off in harder-to-measure ways for a community.

Brad McMillan positions himself as a centrist candidate on development issues.

"You have to look at each project, each development separately and carefully look at the merits of it and decide what level of public investment is warranted," said McMillan.

McMillan also said he supports preservation of one of the development tools in the kit.

"I'm glad they extended the Uptown TIF for 12 more years. I think they did that in a responsible way. The TIF creates an economic tool to spur development. I think there have been a lot of positive outcomes because of that," he said.

Tax Increment Financing districts, or TIFs, are a tougher call for candidate AJ Zimmerman, who said you can't make them too broad or too big or take in too much of the tax base.

"To the extent they can be appropriately tailored in terms of size and impact, that's what I would be looking for," said Zimmerman.

And Zimmerman said the context of the times, the town's fiscal health, and the rest of the economy matters. He's not eager to have such a development project come to him right away if he is elected.

"Tools like that are in the toolkit. Given the pandemic and what we are going through now, I think those are probably deeper down in the toolkit than other tools, I guess," said Zimmerman.

The final candidate in the group is another incumbent, Kevin McCarthy, who said for him to say yes to a business incentive to locate or expand, there must be long-term economic and social benefits to the community.

For instance, some critics have said the town didn't need to offer Rivian incentives because the company would have chosen Normal as its production plant home anyway. McCarthy said that's not a certainty.

“Let's not use revisionist history. Let's look at the facts as we were presented then. We had a startup business in front of us. We had a young CEO who had a vision and an idea. He didn't have a lot of money behind him when you start talking about starting a car company from scratch. They needed all the support they could get," said McCarthy.

McCarthy said infrastructure also is important to economic development both current and potential.

Sila said he opposes extending a water main on the west side of town, but McCarthy said the area needs to be shovel-ready for potential businesses to locate near and serve the Rivian plant.

There's also some opposition to road restructuring along West College Avenue. McCarthy said it's more than full-time jobs, construction jobs, and potential long-term water revenue for the community. It's allowing Rivian's workforce to thrive and help the rest of the community.

"If they get to a thousand (employees), you are talking about a $50 to $70 million dollar a year payroll. That's houses, groceries, cars. So, the fundamental question is, although nobody is talking about it in this way is, is a $10 million road work community investment? I think it is," said McCarthy.

McCarthy also said some of the best economic development incentives are not direct. He said what he calls the disinvestment slate of council candidates doesn't address in their criticism of Uptown and other projects is the context of why the council wants certain things in certain spot. He said shaping the community in that way adds to quality of life and only with that will companies not only come but stay.

Of course, with four candidates in the no incentives camp and five in the sometimes camp, not all of either persuasion will be elected. There are, after all, nine candidates and only three people will be elected to the council on April 6.

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