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B-N Leaders Talk 3C's: Cannabis, Census, Connect Transit

State of Bloomington-Normal event
Eric Stock
/
WGLT
Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner (left to right), City Manager Tim Gleason, Normal Mayor Chris Koos and City Manager Pam Reece addressed business leaders Thursday at Illinois Wesleyan University's Hansen Student Center.

Government leaders in Bloomington-Normal will face some big issues in the new year. Some aren't unique to them, such as legal marijuana and the census, but others like public transportation and the Uptown underpass are.

Twin City leaders addressed those hot-button topics during a McLean County Chamber of Commerce State of Bloomington-Normal event Thursday at Illinois Wesleyan University’s Hansen Student Center.

Cannabis 

Illinois cities and counties are scrambling to get new rules in place to regulate the sale of recreational marijuana when it becomes legal in January. Some cities have opted out, which only means they won't allow a licensed dispensary in their city.

Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner reiterated his desire for the city to be cannabis friendly. He said if Bloomington will have to bear the costs of legalized marijuana, such as through law enforcement and social services, it might as well try to cash in some of the revenue by landing a marijuana business.

“If we get those, we will get some course of revenue and if by virtue of that, we don’t have to raise taxes for a year or two, or maybe even six months, that’s OK with me,” Renner said.

Bloomington's city council is expected to adopt its marijuana policy at a meeting on Dec. 16. Normal has already adopted its guidelines for marijuana dispensaries, but Mayor Chris Koos admitted it will be a bumpy ride early, especially with so many unknowns.

“What’s the revenue model, what does it do to the black market, things like that,” Koos said. “We’ve got a lot of questions we have to answer on that.”

Because of those unknowns, Normal City Manager Pam Reece said the town isn't budgeting any revenue from cannabis sales.

Koos noted the largest growth in marijuana use among the first legal cannabis states are among those 55 and older, though he conceded as a college community, marijuana has already been here for years.

Renner said change can by scary, but “the world isn’t going to come to an end if cannabis is legal in our state any more than it did in California or Nevada or Colorado.”

Census

Bloomington and Normal officials also told McLean County business leaders they are working to ensure they have an accurate census count next year, amid concerns that some populations, including renters, the homeless and undocumented immigrants, could go undercounted.

County leaders have a committee studying the issue, and Reece said the town has its own group looking for ways to target those hard-to-count populations.

“(We) just tried to bring in a broad spectrum of folks who are interested, who have a very strong social media presence, who are very good at marketing and can help us spread the word.”

Bloomington City Manager Tim Gleason said it will be “all hands on deck” to help make sure every person is counted.

“We are going to be equipping our city employees with a flyer trying to market this as much as we possibly can because this is critical when we talk about federal funding and different opportunities,” Gleason said. “That population count for it to be accurate, we’ve got to get this right.”

Illinois could lose as many as two congressional seats based on population projections. State and federal funding are also tied largely to population.

Uptown Underpass

Normal is seeking more public dollars to make its long-planned underpass at Uptown Station a reality. The federal government recently awarded the town $13 million, which mayor Koos called a "haircut" as the town was seeking $16 million for a project that's projected to cost $22 million.

He has said the town wants to use as little local funding as possible. Reece said the Illinois Commerce Commission has pledged $1.25 million for the project. The town hopes to secure additional funding through the state capital bill.

“I think that we are going to definitely pursue other funding sources to reduce the town’s obligation to that expense to that project,” Reece said. “We are working hard, we will see how that turns out.” 

Connect Transit

While the town awaits the possibility of additional dollars for its underpass project, government leaders in Normal and Bloomington await the findings of the Connect Transit working group that's taking a deep dive into bus operations to see if these buses could be run more efficiently.

Reece commended Connect Transit for its ability to secure federal dollars for electric buses and better bus stops, but she said the bus service and the town need to make the buses more accessible.

“Connect Transit does have a lot of work to do,” Reece said. “They are not perfect, nor is Normal. We have improvements to make in our sidewalks and in our (Americans with Disabilities Act) ADA accessibility and such as we are working on that.”

Renner said better visioning for the community's public transit could come from a more diverse transit board, something he said has been lacking in his 6 ½ years as mayor.

“We have lots of people of color. We have east-siders, west-siders. We’ve got millennials, we’ve got 20-somethings and 30-somethings and others,” Renner said. “We have diversified our boards and commissions, but that doesn’t mean every single one of them is diversified.”

Renner has two appointments to the seven-member board to make next year. Renner plans to submit nominees after the working group is done. Normal also has one vacancy on the board.

Editor’s note: Connect Transit Board Chairman Mike McCurdy is WGLT's program director.

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Contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu