If the past is prologue, there is disagreement on what the past means for Uptown Normal.
A recent report on the Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district in Normal drew praise from some council members who have seen the area go from dumpy and run down to a vibrant district. The report went to the council without a chance for members to read it beforehand because the TIF administrator was still finishing it up.
Now, Normal Town Council member Karyn Smith has had a chance to digest the results. Smith questions some of the conclusions of the report, but said it has enhanced her understanding of TIF and of the way Uptown used to look.
“My understanding is that the TIF program is intended to provide governments with a way to attract private investment to an area that is defined as blighted," Smith said. "Normal did pursue that and seeing some of the pictures (the administrator) displayed of the previous uptown Normal area were images I had not seen since we did not arrive on the scene till 2008.”
Smith said she pushed the administrator on the report suggesting a large amount of private investment coming from a small amount of public investment. She questioned the administrator’s $90 million local investment number; that means the town puts in 30% and gets a 70% offset for those dollars. She does not agree with that.
“Those state and federal grants,” Smith said, “are still coming from taxpayer funded programs. I’m not against accepting the money. What I’m saying is it's disingenuous to include that as what we are using to support this project, that our tax dollars are in essence a part of the state and local grants and should be included which would bring it to … 43%.”
The TIF report and town note the development and the state and federal grant funding would not have happened at all, but for the town's committment. The TIF administrator also noted state and federal grant money would also have been spent regardless whether the Town of Normal benefitted.
Smith said programs should be evaluated by the total burden to taxpayers.
She also disagreed with another part of the TIF benefit calculation.
“When I alerted (the administrator) to the rents that are paid for the Uptown One space, he acknowledged that those are above market rents and, rightfully, the marginal amount that is above the market rate should also be factored in to support investment in this TIF project.”
The Town of Normal has historically claimed they are at market rate for that class of office space.
“If you look at the square footage and the type of space and you look at comparables—that we’re not providing similar amenities for any other government offices in this community—I believe it is dollars that could be spent better elsewhere,” said Smith.
Smith said she is asking for a pause on Uptown action and another look at Trail East even though the council has approved development agreements and design proposals and the developer is incurring costs flowing from those agreements with the town.
“I have been pushing for at least allowing a discussion of the possibility of modifying the design to allow saving the facades," Smith said. "What would be wrong with having that discussion because we’re already committed to a cost in the neighborhood of $100,000 just to move the mural wall but you find citizens who are anxious about the fact that they’re losing a finite amount of historical spaces and it may not satisfy the historical preservation definition but it provides historical significance to our longtime residents,” said Smith.
Smith said those people haven’t had an opportunity to weigh in on these matters. She thinks that there should be a discussion as to whether the town now agrees on a model that was designed 20 years ago and may not synch with residents’ ideas of what they want their community to look like.
Though these proposals were passed through town government, Smith said she is not looking to void what has been previously greenlit, merely to permit more public comment than has been allowed previously.
“What I am saying is nothing is harmed by having conversations and what frustrates myself as a member on the council is that there seems to be a real pushback against simply allowing the opportunity to air this as something that people want to express their opinion.”
Various town councils have weighed in on each piece of development as it came to the council. The town consulted the public on all the pieces of the Uptown plan and its second iteration through a series of focus groups and charrettes.
People like you value experienced, knowledgeable and award-winning journalism that covers meaningful stories in Bloomington-Normal. To support more stories and interviews like this one, please consider making a contribution.