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What To Do About Downtown: Bloomington Council Candidates Share Ideas

Empty buildings. Aging infrastructure. An arena losing money. What can the city do to revitalize Downtown Bloomington?

Candidates for city council took on the question at a GLT and League of Women Voters forum Tuesday night.

The city’s explored the issue at length before, as candidates pointed out, with its comprehensive plan and the Downtown Task Force.

“Why don’t we take action on that?” Ward 8 candidate Jeff Crabill said, holding up a copy of the task force’s final report. “We have a lot of plans that we just haven’t taken action on.”

“Downtown Task Force members came up with what I think are really solid, achievable and inexpensive proposals for how we keep downtown moving and more inviting,” said Ward 6 candidate Jenn Carrillo.

“I have watched those recommendations sit on the shelf, because some people on the council didn’t even want to entertain the idea of a joint library and transportation hub. Even my opponent, who talks pride in always being open to conversation, didn’t show up to that meeting,” she said.

Her opponent is incumbent Karen Schmidt, who said the city’s creation of a new economic development department last week is “the very best news the downtown has had.” She said the department will provide the resources and focus the city needs to move ahead with recommendations for downtown.

RELATED CONTENT: GLT's 2019 Voter Guide

She also believes the department will help the city refine its approach to economic development incentives.

Schmidt noted the council passed a resolution last year putting in writing the city’s commitment to a “but-for” policy: that the city would offer incentives like tax abatements and TIF funds only if the project would not continue without the extra help.

VIDEO: Watch Tuesday's Bloomington City Council candidates forum.

Her fellow candidates said they would also review the question of incentives on a case-by-case basis.

Ward 2 candidate Donna Boelen said “base” businesses like Rivian that support high-level jobs should be prioritized over “non-base” businesses like Portillo’s for incentives.

Ward 4 candidate Julie Emig said the city needs to keep its fellow taxing bodies in mind when making those decisions.

“Over 60 percent of our property taxes fund the public schools; how will District 87 be affected, and for how long?” she said.

Carrillo said while she would be more likely to support incentives given to developers that use project labor agreements and community benefit agreements, she’s generally against using incentives.

Karen and Jenn
Credit Jeff Smudde / WGLT
Ward 6 Alderman Karen Schmidt, center, with her challenger, Jenn Carrillo, left, and Tuesday's forum.

“More often than not, the result is redistribution of wealth in the wrong direction; in other words, people with very little end up handing over money to people who have a lot,” she said.

Eminent domain is another approach the city recognizes as a tool for economic development but hasn’t used, and on which council members haven’t reached an agreement.

The legal procedure would allow the city to take control of privately-owned properties, like the Front N Center building, that remain undeveloped.

Crabill called it an “aggressive measure,” concerned about the message such an act would send to business owners.

“If you don’t do what we want, we’re going to force you to sell that property to us.” Instead, it's the city’s job to encourage property owners to develop downtown, starting with asking what they would need to make development happen, he said.

Ward 4 candidate Don "Chip" Frank said the city needs to be cautious when considering taking private property for public use. Ward 2 candidate Georgene Chissell agreed the city should claim eminent domain as a last resort.

Schmidt said there are circumstances where the practice could “take a nonproductive building and move it forward.” Carrillo too said she would be “supportive but cautious” of using eminent domain. “There are certainly some downtown properties that I can think of where this is the last resort and all other avenues have been exhausted,” she said.

Candidates disagreed what the city should do with one building already in its possession.

Grossinger Motors Arena management company VenuWorks reported in September the city-owned arena will likely never turn a profit. The company’s executive director told aldermen they can expect an average $500,000 annual operating loss on the facility.

Ward 4 candidates Frank and Emig agreed the city should continue supporting the arena, but explore ways to improve its performance, including renegotiating VenuWorks’ contract.

Chissell said the city should try selling the building.

“A lot of people say nobody wants to buy it, but we said the same thing about the State Farm Fire building as well,” she said.

Crowded room
Credit Jeff Smudde / WGLT
Tuesday's forum was co-sponsored by the McLean County League of Women Voters.

But Schmidt said selling the arena couldn’t make up for its losses. She said the city should at least create an advisory group to gather ideas to use the building more effectively, including capitalizing on youth sports.

Crabill and Carrillo agreed the community should have a say in what happens to the facility.

Boelen’s solution: close the doors.

“We are not gaining revenue. We are losing money, so in a sense it would be better to close the doors, turn off the lights, turn off the heat,” she said.

Asked about the costs to hold onto the building, Boelen said the arena will “always continue to be a drain” because of the high operating costs.

Candidates also responded to questions on gun violence, housing, street improvement priorities and funding, video gambling and restricting legalized marijuana and sports betting.

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.

Breanna Grow is a correspondent for GLT. She joined the station in September 2018.