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More Questions Emerge At Joint Meeting On Downtown Catalyst Project

Ryan Denham
Alderman Mboka Mwilambwe, right, speaks during a small-group discussion at the joint meeting Monday, Jan. 16, 2018, at Bloomington Police's Osborn Room.

Three government bodies met jointly Tuesday night to nudge forward an ambitious plan to build a new library and transit center in downtown Bloomington, even as several officials noted a lack of public buy-in as one major hurdle to the effort.

Another roadblock appears to be a split Bloomington City Council—a gap that didn’t shrink Tuesday. Three of nine aldermen were absent from the joint session, and two who were there raised concerns about feeling excluded from how it was planned.

Tuesday’s meeting focused largely on the “catalyst” project recommended by the Downtown Task Force’s final report. It proposes knocking down the aging Market Street parking garage and building a new library and Connect Transit transfer center in its place. Proponents say it would address three community needs in one fell swoop.

Most of Tuesday’s two-hour session was spent in small-group discussions between aldermen and members of the Bloomington Library and Connect Transit boards. They tackled various questions: What are the biggest barriers to pursuing the catalyst project? If it stalls, what are the risks and benefits of pursuing library and transit projects independently?

Credit Ryan Denham / WGLT
Bloomington Library Board President Alex Cardona speaks to his small group, including Mayor Tari Renner, left, during Monday's joint meeting.

The lack of public buy-in was cited as one of the main barriers. One of the biggest upsides is the potential that the project could attract federal or state grants or low-interest financing because of Connect Transit’s involvement, lowering its overall cost.

“Everyone says this community needs more collaboration, and this is what that looks like,” said Deb Halperin, director of the Action Research Center at Illinois Wesleyan University, who was one of two volunteer facilitators for Tuesday’s meeting.

But Aldermen Kim Bray and Mboka Mwilambwe expressed concerns with how the meeting was organized. They were among five aldermen who signaled last week their concerns about the meeting by voting to cancel it. Mayor Tari Renner rebuffed them and scheduled the special session anyway. The other three aldermen who voted to cancel the meeting—David Sage, Karen Schmidt, and Joni Painter—did not attend Tuesday.

Mwilambwe expressed concern that aldermen didn’t get the opportunity to shape the questions used for Tuesday’s meeting or the survey sent to attendees by facilitators in advance. A better approach, he said, would be to start by asking aldermen what they think of the project.

That echoes Bray’s comments at last week’s council meeting, when she voiced concerns about how the “meeting was styled, how it was set up, and how the community was engaged.” Bray has previously expressed concerns about this version of the catalyst project.

“If you’re going to do something of this nature, something this big, managing the process is extremely important,” Mwilambwe said. “Some mistakes were made with how the process was managed. And I hope that people will be able to recognize that and rectify that for the future.”

Alderman Amelia Buragas, who chaired the Downtown Task Force, has been one of the catalyst project’s biggest proponents. She disputed claims that aldermen didn't have an opportunity to shape Tuesday's meeting. She noted that Renner sent an email to all aldermen Dec. 15 notifying them of the meeting and asking if they had questions about it.

"It is confusing to me why anyone with concerns about the meeting or the planning process would sit silent and only raise those concerns at the last minute or after the fact," Buragas said.

Urgency and Moving Ahead

Even if the Bloomington City Council doesn’t advance the catalyst proposal, Connect Transit and Bloomington Public Library leaders say they still need to proceed with their own plans. In her opening remarks Tuesday, Library Director Jeanne Hamilton said her facility is bursting at the seams, with growing circulation, not enough parking, and programs that are so popular they once had to use a “bouncer” at an event so they didn’t violate fire code.

Library expansion has been talked about off and on since 2008, just two years after the last expansion, Hamilton said. Connect Transit General Manager Isaac Thorne said his leaders were also moving ahead with their own studies and exploring potential sites. Connect Transit’s leaders have said their existing transfer station on Front Street is insufficient.

Credit Ryan Denham / WGLT
Alderman Scott Black speaks during Monday's joint meeting. Library Director Jeanne Hamilton is at right.

“The library really needs a resolution,” Hamilton said, noting $2 million in deferred maintenance costs. “Some of those projects can’t wait much longer.”

The catalyst project is billed as a way 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—on Olive Street.

Mwilambwe said Tuesday he still supports expansion at Olive Street.

“Let’s stay consistent so that we maintain the public trust,” he said.

Buragas said Tuesday’s discussion was “excellent.”

“What I’m hopeful for is a robust public conversation. I have many reasons why I believe this catalyst project was worthwhile (enough) for the Downtown Task Force to bring it forward and to start the conversation,” Buragas said. “I’m excited to see where it leads.”

Alderman Diana Hauman said she’d like to explore the idea further.

“I hope that the public understands we are trying to work together,” she said. “If it all works out and we can continue this, fine. But if not we’ve at least had the opportunity to sit down and talk. If this doesn’t go forward, there are other opportunities for us to work together.”

Halperin and the other facilitator, University of Illinois College of Law Professor Stacey Tutt, said they will compile notes from Tuesday’s group discussions and the pre-meeting survey responses and share them with the public.

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

You can also listen to GLT's full interview with Buragas:

GLT's full interview with Buragas on Sound Ideas.

WGLT depends on financial support from users to bring you stories and interviews like this one. As someone who values experienced, knowledgeable, and award-winning journalists covering meaningful stories in central Illinois, please consider making a contribution.

Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
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