When it comes to financial incentives for developers, candidates for Normal Town Council say who receives incentives is just as important as how much they receive.
All eight candidates gathered Thursday at Illinois State University's Bone Student Center for a forum co-sponsored by GLT, The Pantagraph, and the League of Women Voters of McLean County. Voters will choose three candidates in the April 2 election.
A longtime business owner himself, Stan Nord said the town should save incentives for businesses that hire local and bring outside revenue in.
“If it’s a business that’s here simply to sell to us, like Portillo’s or Ross, those businesses need us more than we need them," he said.
Nord offered the Trail East project as an example of misused incentives.
“The three businesses that the council has said are coming into that building ... are already in Bloomington. There are no new jobs coming to the community. There are no new homes to be bought. There are no new meals to be bought. We are simply reshuffling things around at the taxpayer expense.”
Karyn Smith, who teaches business at ISU, said the town can incentivize businesses just by focusing on its core mission.
“Providing infrastructure, sound roads, a quality education system, those have value to a business and those are critical in a business making a decision to come here," she said.
Incumbent R.C. McBride said the town already gives every development offer careful consideration, weighing the net impact on the community and the town’s fellow taxing bodies.
“A lot of times we hear interest from someone who is looking for some sort of abatement or tax relief, and frankly it never gets past the staff level because it’s that obvious early on that there is no net impact to the community,” said McBride, who is also GLT's general manager.
Defining A Good Job
And while nearly every candidate mentioned they think any new development should bring good jobs with it, they had different ideas about just what makes a good job.
Joel Studebaker, a Normal Public Library trustee, said a good job increases the area’s median household income, and offers health and dental insurance and matching dollars for 401(k) investments. Nord mentioned non-entry level manufacturing jobs that pay “well-above minimum wage.” Dave Shields said the community needs long-lasting jobs that provide “useful services.”
Pat Turner, who runs Center for Hope Outreach Programs, said the town should focus on ensuring all residents are fairly compensated with a living wage, no matter what kind of job they have.
“We’re called the fast food capital of our nation, which means a lot of people are serving us in jobs that maybe wouldn’t be good for you or good for someone else, but they do a provide a good service and they contribute to this community,” she said.
Alex Campbell is the youngest candidate running for Town Council. The ISU student estimated he’s also the only candidate still earning a less than $10 hourly wage.
“Wages need to be livable,” he said, commending Gov. JB Pritzker’s $15 hourly minimum wage bill as a good first step. “You’ve seen housing (costs) rise nationally and locally over the past decade, but wages have been pretty stagnant.”
Campbell said even those without a “livable” wage need affordable housing. He called the issue one of the town’s biggest challenges, calling for greater focus on local development and mixed-income housing.
“That’s what has to be most important to a local government is making sure that it’s citizens are safe and have a place to go home to at night," Campbell said.
He also called for the use of skilled trades and union labor “to ensure that we’re building places that are not falling apart like a lot of student housing is.”
His fellow candidates agreed the town can do more to provide residents with affordable housing.
Turner said that begins with a consensus on just what affordable housing means, referencing a presentation by the McLean County Regional Planning Commission (MCRPC) at Monday’s council meeting.
“We need to not look at it as just investment in public housing,” she said, calling for innovative ideas to make sure the community’s housing stock more closely aligns with residents’ economic status.
McBride and fellow incumbent Kathleen Lorenz agreed while there’s still more work to be done, the town has emphasized affordable housing in its long-term planning.
“We do have the benefit of a very good plan and a very expert team at the MCRPC,” Lorenz said. “Part of affordable housing is having equitable and diverse stock, and that’s where we really need to set the policies as council to encourage developers to diversify in the housing stock.”
Shields serves on the Normal Planning Commission and helped develop the town’s current comprehensive plan. He says that document contains more goals and strategies around housing than any other element.
“We have a solid basis of research from which conversations have to start,” he said. “And with Normal’s population expected to increase at twice the rate of Bloomington’s, those conversations need to happen now.”
Studebaker said while the comprehensive plan talks plenty about affordable housing, “there isn’t a plan for affordable housing; there’s only talk.”
“We have developers in town who are ready to do this, who have the networking to get the grants; all we have to do is say yes and make it a priority and it can happen.” Instead, he said, the town has prioritized developments that create construction jobs and property tax revenues.
“Our town council has repeatedly given economic incentives to build luxury apartments, so that seems to be more the focus,” he said.
The candidates also answered questions on gun violence, cooperation with Bloomington, motor fuel tax and the legalization of recreational marijuana and sports betting.
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