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Council Candidate Studebaker Wants To Rethink Town's Economic Development Strategy

Joel walks in Uptown
Joel Studebaker For Normal Council
Joel Studebaker is running for Normal Town Council in the April 2019 election.

One of the candidates running for Normal Town Council wants to see a different approach to economic development.

Joel Studebaker, 28, is a Normal Public Library trustee. He’s an Illinois State University grad and a former music teacher. He most recently worked as a trainer for Democratic political candidates.

"The town's development model is over-reliant on having developers coming from out of town to establish either chain restaurants or large-scale apartment buildings and office complexes with taxpayer subsidies."

“The town’s development model is over-reliant on having developers coming from out of town to establish either chain restaurants or large-scale apartment buildings and office complexes with taxpayer subsidies. And in my view that’s not sustainable,” said Studebaker. “Because what we’re already doing is allowing other people to invest in us right now. In the near term that yields construction jobs and some property tax growth. But in the long term that just leads to extraction of money from our community to other places.”

Studebaker singles out Normal’s partnerships with Chicago-based Tartan Realty and Iowa-based Bush Construction. Both have developed property in Uptown Normal.

A better approach to economic development, Studebaker said, would emphasize local investors. He concedes that may take longer, but he said it’s worth the wait.

“It’s difficult. You have to do it over time. It’s not just signing a contract with a developer, letting them build something, and waiting for property tax revenues to come in 14 years later. It’s more difficult to talk about. It can feel less tangible to develop in that kind of way, but I think that’s the right way to do it."

Studebaker said he's not opposed to all partnerships with out-of-town companies. The Rivian deal made sense, he said, because the Mitsubishi Motors plant had been abandoned and the town's tax breaks were tied in part to the wages of the new jobs being created.

He’s less convinced that the tax breaks provided to Brandt—because of the promise of hundreds of manufacturing jobs—were necessary or will yield good-paying jobs. Those tax breaks came from McLean County government and Unit 5, among others.

“We need to draw these clear lines between when we’re incentivizing somebody to come here and really build something, when we’re making an investment in our community because we expect it to be fully repaid, and when we are giving handouts to somebody to try and lure them here without ensuring they’re going to be the kind of community partner we really want,” Studebaker said.

On other issues:

  • Studebaker says the town needs to develop a plan for how to fund a future library. He says the recent acquisition of more surface-lot parking may only increase the need for more space, as it becomes easier for people to use the library.
  • He says Bloomington-Normal may be too late in developing a multisport complex. A better time would’ve been 10 to 20 years ago before so many other communities did the same, he said. He’s also skeptical of the upfront costs that may be required by a public-private partnership.
  • Studebaker says the town has done a “tremendous job” on infrastructure, especially in Uptown Normal. He also praised the recent passage of the multifamily recycling ordinance, though he would’ve preferred it happen years ago. 

Studebaker is seeking one of three open seats on the council April 2. R.C. McBride and Kathleen Lorenz are seeking re-election. Jeff Fritzen is not. Other announced candidates include Stan Nord, Dave Shields, Karyn Smith, and Pat Turner. McBride is also the general manager at GLT. 

“I’ve been surprised over the past four years at how often the council votes in lockstep,” Studebaker said. “They tend to vote in lockstep more than anything on these controversial economic development issues. To me that’s a concern. I don’t see them taking seriously the concerns of residents. And to be honest, when I look at the council as a whole, I often feel they treat people who come with concerns rather condescendingly. And I would like to see that change.”

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.