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Politics and Government

Downtown Bloomington Catalyst Project Stirs Dissent During Consent Agenda

Kim Bray at a meeting
Ryan Denham
Alderman Kim Bray speaks during the Bloomington City Council meeting Monday, Jan. 8, 2018.

Bloomington aldermen butted heads again Monday over a proposal to build a new library and transit hub downtown, even as a local developer pitched his own competing vision for a catalyst project to revitalize the city’s central business district.

Aldermen Amelia Buragas and Kim Bray, both members of the Downtown Task Force, sparred over whether the Bloomington City Council should meet Jan. 16 as planned with the Connect Transit and Bloomington Public Library boards to discuss the library/transit project. Bray, who’s expressed opposition to the library/transit project, successfully moved Monday to cancel the council’s Jan. 16 Committee of the Whole meeting. That would’ve been used to bring together all three boards to discuss the project.

Bray’s move was largely symbolic; Mayor Tari Renner can schedule a special meeting for the three bodies to discuss the idea. But it’s the clearest sign yet that aldermen are not finished talking about an issue on the table for years—the library’s expansion.

Credit Ryan Denham / WGLT
Alderman Amelia Buragas, who also chaired the Downtown Task Force, during the Bloomington City Council meeting on Monday, Jan. 8, 2018.

The 20-minute discussion unfurled during the consent agenda—typically when aldermen bundle together easy-to-approve, noncontroversial action items. Renner said he only became aware of Bray’s plans shortly before Monday’s meeting.

“It’s just really hard for me to understand why it is you (Bray) do not want to sit down and have a conversation with the library board and Connect Transit, which is all next week is,” said Buragas, who chaired the Downtown Task Force and supports the library-transit project. “I’m not sure what is driving that thought process or why that’s viewed as an ineffective or inefficient way to get information to help this council make a decision.”

Bray shot back, arguing there are “more impactful and efficient ways” to gather input from aldermen about the library-transit project, rather than the joint meeting. She said Buragas’ hard push for the library-transit project was inappropriate.

“There was not a lot of input from rest of the council as to how this (Jan. 16) meeting was styled, how it was set up, and how the community was engaged,” Bray said. “I think that’s unfortunate. And it’s unfortunate that our community leaders and friends were led to believe that there was overwhelming council support for such a meeting.”

Ultimately, aldermen voted 5-4 to cancel plans for the Jan. 16 Committee of the Whole meeting. Bray, who represents Ward 9 on the city’s east side, was joined in support of canceling the meeting by Aldermen David Sage, Mboka Mwilambwe, Joni Painter, and Karen Schmidt. Renner said he "absolutely" intends to schedule a new meeting to discuss it anyway.

"We don't shut down a conversation without all the stakeholders including Connect Transit and the library board at the table," Renner told GLT.

Final Report Presented

The fight came as the Downtown Task Force presented its final report to aldermen Monday night. Most of its recommendations focus on beautification and other low-hanging fruit. They’re not nearly as controversial as the so-called “catalyst” project to knock down the Market Street parking garage and build a new Bloomington Public Library and Connect Transit hub in its place.

Aldermen embraced many of the non-catalyst recommendations in the task force’s report. Ward 7 Alderman Scott Black said residents want a more vibrant, busier downtown.

“There are a lot of value in the things we’re talking about. Even outside of a catalyst,” he said. “The things up here aren’t controversial. We can all talk about adjusting parking and putting up murals and those sorts of things. I just want to make it happen. I don’t want to sit here six months from now and talk about what a great report that was.”

The catalyst project is the task force’s biggest swing, hoping to drive more daily foot traffic to downtown’s core. The idea does align with the city’s 2013 Downtown Bloomington Strategy and its 2015 comprehensive plan, both approved by previous councils and the basis for the task force’s work. The comprehensive plan, for example, calls for communitywide services like the library to be in the city’s core, preferably downtown.

But more recently, aldermen have signaled a preference for keeping the library where it is—and possibly expanding it—on Olive Street. Alex Cardona, president of the library’s board, said Monday his trustees were ready to meet Jan. 16 and are still open to dialogue. But he said big questions remain about any new location.

“Whether Mayor Renner calls another meeting now or tables it, I think the window for any of this discussion in regards to other locations is closing rapidly, because of budget discussions,” Cardona said. “So if there’s any other discussion that has to happen in regards to other locations at city council direction, that has to happen as quickly as possible. If anything, we’re way behind with what has to happen with due diligence.”

New Plan For Hotel-Conference Center

Meanwhile, developer Jim Pearson with The Vantage Group Ltd. made a surprise pitch to aldermen Monday during public comment. Pearson said he wants to build a new conference center and an adjoining 110-room hotel next to Grossinger Motors Arena. It would be located north of the arena, on a city-owned parking lot.

Pearson, who serves on the Bloomington Planning Commission, called it a public-private partnership, although the details of that arrangement are unclear. A downtown hotel has been kicked around for years, though it’s never gained traction.

“I have brought you a solution and a goal for success,” Pearson said. “Are you willing to step up and join the partnership team concept for Bloomington’s revitalization as the new premier city of the Twin Cities?”

Pearson said he’ll submit a “detailed scope and draft outline” of his plan to Interim City Manager Steve Rasmussen within the next two weeks.

Editor's note: GLT Program Director Mike McCurdy is chair of the Connect Transit board.

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