These responses were submitted by Joel Studebaker, a candidate for Normal Town Council. The questionnaire was prepared by GLT in partnership with the League of Women Voters of McLean County. See more candidate responses.
What in your personal and professional background has prepared you for this position? Include any experience serving in local government.
I’ve lived in Normal for 10 years. In that time I’ve been a teacher, a project manager, and instructional designer. I’ve worked in public schools, been self-employed, and joined two startups. I’ve worked from home, commuted to Bloomington, and commuted to Chicago.
In those same 10 years I’ve been a student and I’ve graduated. I’ve been a volunteer and a member of the Normal Public Library Board.
I’ve also been unemployed, and I’ve worked minimum wage restaurant jobs to get by. I’ve had some great times and great opportunities—I’ve also cashed out my retirement savings early so I could pay to have my electricity and water turned back on.
Mostly, I hope that the ideas I bring to the table speak for themselves. I’m proud to say that I have succeeded and struggled in this community, and I believe that gives me valuable perspective. But no resume or personal experience can compensate for a deficit in values and ideas, and that’s how I hope voters will judge me as a candidate.
Since 2000, the town has embarked on a massive redevelopment of Uptown Normal. What do you think of what’s been done so far? What should be done in Uptown in the future?
Uptown has been heavily discussed, so I’ll keep this simple.
Updates to infrastructure, like new roads and Uptown Circle, have been good. Subsidies for luxury apartments overlooking Uptown Circle are bad.
Investment in our historic theater and facades for old buildings has been great. New developments like Uptown Crossing (CVS) and One Uptown on the Circle detract from that charm.
The Children’s Discovery Museum and Uptown Station are amazing public assets. Meanwhile, the decision to sell land adjacent to the library (now Heartland Bank) was detrimental.
Moving forward, I’m concerned about who will be left out. I’m concerned that local businesses won’t be able to afford Uptown rents. I’m worried that the loss of convenient parking will be detrimental to Uptown businesses, and visits to Uptown will become too difficult for residents with health and mobility difficulties.
My priorities in Uptown will be local business, local ownership, accessibility, and affordability. That kind of development will be slower and smaller in scope than the block-wide construction projects we've seen in the recent past—but it will also be more sustainable.
When is it appropriate for local government to use incentives to achieve an economic development priority? How would you make those decisions?
First and foremost, we need to determine our priorities. But we also need a predetermined set of incentives we are willing to give to achieve them. We must be done with building incentive packages on a case-by-case basis.
I strongly believe that incentives should only be given to projects that meet a public need. We should always tie incentives to outcomes—like wages, number of employees, and benefits.
Finally, we should have a public process to create a Community Benefits Agreement with any business receiving significant incentives. The public should have a voice in the process.
If faced with a challenging budget situation, what would be your approach to balancing taxes and fees against preserving or expanding programs and services?
We know these kinds of challenges are difficult, and we must approach them on a case by case basis with community input.
What new programs or initiatives do you think the town should pursue?
First, we should support local entrepreneurs. If we can offer incentives to multi-billion dollar corporations from other countries, we must be able to support local entrepreneurs as they build a new business.
Second, workers in Normal should have reliable hours, consistent schedules, and a guarantee that they will receive enough hours to meet their obligations. We should follow the lead of other communities that have expanded employees' rights with a Fair Work Week.
Third, we should seriously explore the option of a municipal bank that can offer more flexibility for funding public projects, supporting residents in crisis, and kickstarting emerging businesses.
Finally, we must take the troubling findings that African-Americans are disproportionately likely to be frisked, searched, and arrested in Normal. We should bring in a third party to audit the outcomes of our policing on an annual basis and invest in training to eradicate this problem.
What should be the town’s role in expanding affordable housing opportunities?
In 2016, WGLT estimated that taxpayer support for One Uptown on the Circle was $8.4 million, or 60% of the entire project cost. Many residents know this building as the site of a prominent vacancy on the circle. It is also home to some of the most expensive rents in Normal—starting at $1,650/month for a one bedroom apartment, and maxing out at $4,200/month.
That isn’t right—especially when we know that there are not enough affordable homes in our community to meet demand. We must prioritize the construction and maintenance of affordable housing in every part of our community—not only on the outskirts of town.
We also know that recent graduates and young professionals carry more debt and have more barriers to homeownership than previous generations. Because of high rents, it’s becoming more difficult to build savings. And because new construction continues to be larger and higher end, it’s becoming harder to build equity without gambling on an aging house that may require serious investment. Our economy—particularly our real estate market—depends on addressing these serious issues.
As a member of the Normal Town Council, I will:
Oppose public subsidies for luxury homes, apartments, and condos; work with community partners to jumpstart the construction of mixed-income housing developments; support programs that help homeowners make critical investments in their property (like efficiency, solar panels, and unexpected repairs); work with Illinois State University to address the housing needs of students.
Do you think the town needs a full-time communications manager and/or economic development coordinator? Why or why not?
As a council member, I will be more interested in outlining a vision for economic development and community engagement than micro-managing staffing decisions in those departments. It is the administration’s job to determine what staff are necessary to achieve the vision set by the council. If there is a question about the value of any staff role, we should first reevaluate the vision they were asked to implement.
Do you support either physical expansion of the Normal Public Library at its current site or construction of a new, larger building? Why or why not?
Our library is an incredible resource for our community, and I’ve been proud to serve on the Normal Public Library Board of Trustees. Our library is busy every day, maintains a packed schedule of programs for all ages, and serves our community in incredible ways. Our library faces one huge limitation—its size. Expansion has been needed for a decade.
Yet in 2006 the Town of Normal sold land adjacent to the library to Bank of Illinois for $10, boxing the library in with little room for expansion.
That’s why the library board—with the encouragement of the town—underwent an extensive, public process for designing a new building. The plans are exceptional, but the town has yet to commit any funding to it.
In fact, despite years of talk about a new library building from town staff and councilmembers, the library has not been included as a priority in our annual Community Investment Plan.
The library is ready for a new building, but the council needs to do more than talk about it. It’s time to make the library a priority and commit to a funding schedule for a new building.
Do you think the town should offer up money, land, or other incentives to support development of a multisport complex in McLean County? Why or not?
I want to be clear on this issue: the town should absolutely provide adequate spaces for residents to engage in recreational sports, intramurals, and local leagues. However, the town should not invest our limited resources in a large-scale, privately owned sports complex.
The proposed complex—estimated to cost $43 million—has been called a “public-private partnership.” In reality, the public would bear the upfront cost while a private business reaps the bulk of the benefits.
Instead, I believe we should focus on building and maintaining a network of excellent parks and fields that serve our community’s needs.