Town of NormalNORMAL – Local residents have been asking for it. Chicago natives here rave about it. And at Monday’s Normal Town Council meeting at Normal City Hall at Uptown Station, Council members took another step to bringing the famed eatery to Town.

Council members voted unanimously to authorize executing of a redevelopment agreement with Bloomington Landmark Development Inc. regarding construction of a Portillo’s restaurant which will be located on N. Veterans Parkway. The site is currently the home of a Motel 6. Plans call for the motel to be demolished and construction of the restaurant is slated in time for it to open sometime in August.

Before the vote, Council members discussed the potential benefits of bringing the eatery to town. City Manager Mark Peterson told Council members representatives from Chicago-based Portillo’s had spent the past six months scouting locations in town to place their first restaurant this far south within the state of their original location.

The land currently is home to a three-story, 132-room Motel 6. Plans call for the motel to be demolished and construction of the new restaurant to begin in the spring. The new restaurant and parking will sit on 2.51 acres of land. The motel ownership was compensated for its property.

The project developer will be investing between $8 million and $9 million. Land costs along Veterans Parkway are the highest in the region. The developer must acquire and raze the motel.

Bloomington Landmark Development Inc. is seeking $1,825,000 to meet a standard rate of return for such a real estate investment. The proposed agreement provides for a rebate from the Town of all sales, and food and beverage taxes from the restaurant to the developer to a maximum in that amount. Town Staff estimates it will take about seven years, if not sooner, for the amount to be repaid. That time figure is based on Portillo’s sales projections.

Council Member Cheryl Gaines asked Peterson what he thought was good about replacing one revenue producing business with another in these circumstances. Peterson said the motel brings $35,000 in motel tax to the Town annually. He said Portillo’s would bring in $450,000 in food and beverage tax dollars.

Council Member Kevin McCarthy admitted $1.825 million “was a lot of money,” and asked Peterson if this agreement would have taken place without that clause set by the developers. Peterson said no.

Council Member Jeff Fritzen said the Town has done this before, trying to calm concerns people might have concerning property taxes in relation to the deal. He said the Town most like set a precedent for such agreements over 35 years ago when the original College Hills Mall was built. After the meeting, Fritzen said Normal’s tax base at that time was not strong enough to pay for such projects. To compensate, the Town offered sales tax rebate incentives to the developers of the mall as a means of building a commercial real estate tax base.

Community Investment Plan Gets Approval: Council members heard about the prospective spending on projects which are part of the Town’s Community Investment Plan. CIP is an outlay of the projects the Town looks at to determine its spending needs over a five year period. Council members unanimously passed a motion to approve CIP for the next five fiscal years beginning with 2016-2017 through 2021-2022.

Andrew Huhn, Town Finance Director, told Council members 2016-17’s CIP includes 177 capital projects that are to be addressed during the six-year period, beginning in the current fiscal year. Those 177 projects total roughly $98.8 million. The current CIP also lists $124.8 million worth of potential projects that are not being recommended over the six-year span.

Following the meeting, City Manager Mark Peterson told reporters what items become deemed critical for addressing with funding during those fiscal years “is really a judgment call by Town Staff. There aren’t that many that are considered critical, but those are usually ones that involve needed repairs.” He cited an immediate repair becoming necessary involved repairing a failure in the filter system at Fairview Park Aquatic Center in order for the pool to be used next summer.

Omnibus Agenda Items Approved: Omnibus agenda items approved by the Council included:

• Approval of minutes of the regular meeting on Nov. 21, 2016.

• Approval of Town of Normal expenditures as of Nov. 30, 2016.

• A motion to approve the Town meeting calendar for the year 2017.

• A resolution of intent for the use of Motor Fuel Tax (MFT) funds to finance refunded general obligation bonds.

By Steve Robinson | December 3, 2016 - 10:14 pm
Posted in Category: NCHS, The Normalite

Steve RobinsonMike Clark is back in command of the athletic department at Normal Community High School. He had the post when NCHS’ current building opened in 2003, staying there for two years. At the time, Clark said, with two growing daughters at home, running that department with all its responsibilities didn’t always mesh with family activities or with his kids’ extracurricular schedules.

At the time, his two daughters were in 6th grade and in high school, which led to “my wife, Chris, and I wondering how much I was going to be out at the school and missing the kids’ events, potentially,” Clark explained. Those daughters are now out on their own in the world. Jaci lives in Maryland and Rachel lives in Michigan.

He said his family really enjoys this area and getting a position that would allow him to work in his chosen field while still having family time, at that point, might have meant leaving Normal and Unit 5. The Clarks had really begun to call Normal home and the prospect of having to leave was a definite possibility.

But then, as sometimes happens when you need it the most, an opportunity came, from within the district in the form of an assistant principal position at Parkside Junior High School. Clark applied for and got the job. It was a position he held for seven years before he returned to NCHS at the beginning of this school year. He succeeded Andy Turner, who took the A.D. job at Maine South High School in Park Ridge.

In his stint at PJHS, Clark said, “I took another step up the administrative ladder.” As an associate principal at the junior high, being A.D. was just one aspect of his job’s regular duties. He also was responsible for being in charge when the school’s principal was not present.

“As Associate Principal, you wear a lot of hats because you’re involved much more in the curriculum, you’re involved much more in teacher evaluation,” Clark said. “The principal is the building’s instructional leader.”

Clark said doing those other items he needed to do as associate principal meant “you just can’t devote the time to just being the middle school’s athletic director.”

“At the middle school level, when it comes to sports, it should be about skill development,” Clark said, adding that as a result, he said he would never talk to his coaches about wins and losses. “To me, the measuring stick was to find out how the kids were doing when they got to high school “because that’s what middle school should be preparing them for.”

Clark said he met with his team coaches when he arrived at NCHS and is also assessing some building needs. He said among the building needs is to find an area that can be dedicated for use by the Ironmen Wrestling team and to find a way to increase the size of the school’s weight room.

As part of that, Clark said, “I’m looking at ways to generate funds to meet some of those needs.”

The school does get support from boosters and families of students, something Clark is ever-mindful of. “We, first and foremost, appreciate the support we receive,” Clark said. “We are open to suggestions because, at the end of the day, we’re a public entity, so, if people have a question about something, we’d welcome their phone calls and emails.”

Clark is looking forward to receiving that input, because, from being at NCHS before, “I found NCHS to be a place of great support and a real positive group of people to be around.”

Mike Clark will, no doubt, will look forward to helping continue to foster that support during his tenure at NCHS. It will be interesting to see what develops there during his second time around.

By Steve Robinson | November 22, 2016 - 10:05 pm
Posted in Category: The Normalite

Farm Assets ConferenceNORMAL – With a new administration coming to Washington in January, a number of concerns related to the farming could be front and center in 2017.

The 2018 Farm Bill was among those subjects discussed at the Annual Farm Assets Conference, held Nov. 22 at the Carol A. Reitan Conference Center, located at the Bloomington-Normal Marriott Hotel. The conference was sponsored by Illinois Public Media and University of Illinois Extension Office.

The day-long event began with a two-hour session devoted to the 2018 Farm Bill which, if Congress passes it that year, would continue current legislation which was last passed in 2012. The current Farm Bill expires in September 2018.

Some 150 farmers participated in the morning session during which an electronic survey was taken to find out what farmers thought were the most critical issues. High on that list were Federal and State Regulations, and marketing of biofuels. At the low end of items of concern for farmers participating was value-added farming.

A total of 61 percent of those in attendance said conservation was an important element to have in the farm bill.

Crop insurance was another hot topic for discussion, and has become a $9 billion industry, explained Gary Schnitkey, agricultural economist at the U. of I. Extension Office. “When the 2018 Farm Bill is debated in Washington, that will have a pretty large target on its back,” he added.

“Crop insurance has gotten a larger, larger focus in the Farm Bill,” attendees learned from Jonathan Coppess, clinical assistant professor at the U. of I., adding crop insurance is the largest single spending item in the Farm Bill. He added crop insurance is heavily used but also attracts attention from politicians. He added Federal assistance covers 62 percent of crop insurance.

In an interview following his speech to the meeting, Coppess said, “Market prices for the crop will continue to be a big issue because the crop is a means of income and being able to manage financially” for farmers.

“With the new administration that’s coming in, a lot of focus has been on trade,” Coppess added. “Trade is incredibly important to farmers in this state and throughout the country. How the Donald Trump administration handles existing trade agreements and future trade issues is, I think, a big concern everybody has.”

Before coming to U. of I., Coppess served as chief counsel to the Senate Agriculture Committee from 2011-13. At that time, the current Farm Bill was being hammered out in Congress.

Coppess said with the U. S. trading in corn and soybeans with Mexico, and in soybeans with China, “a lot of farmers are looking to see how President-Elect Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric translates into governing.”

“Trade is one of those things that can have a ripple effect, “Coppess said. For example, he added, a trade dispute with China could lead to possible retaliatory actions.

How crop insurance gets addressed, Coppess said, depends on the approach Congress takes to handle budget issues overall.

State’s Only Farming State Senator Receives Honor: State Sen. John Sullivan (D-Rushville) was honored as the 2016 Friend of Ag Award Recipient by the Illinois Corn Growers Association. The Friend of Ag Award seeks to honor individuals who have made significant contributions to the Illinois agricultural industry and who have sought to represent agriculture in the highest accord. Sullivan, the lone working farmer in the State Senate, is retiring at the end of his term.

By Steve Robinson | November 21, 2016 - 10:18 pm
Posted in Category: Normal Town Council, The Normalite

Town of NormalNORMAL – Seeing taxes increase has never been a popular activity for either politicians or their constituents. There have been times when Normal Town Council members have held off doing so. But at their regularly-scheduled meeting Monday in Council Chambers in Uptown Station, Council members unanimously approved a motion to authorize preparing of the 2016 Property Tax Levy ordinance.

The proposed tax levy will increase from $1.3755 to $1.4028, creating a $13 increase for residents who own homes worth $165,000. The majority of the tax money taken in from the increase will be used to help the Town continue to meet its obligation to fund the Town’s Police and Fire pension funds. The increase amounts to 5.77 percent when the proposed tax rate gets added to the estimated growth in assessed value. Alone, the increase sought is just 1.98 percent.

The Town has no input on the cost of Police and Fire pensions, and even though pension plan levels are mandated by the State, the Town is obligated to provide the necessary funding.

Town Staff must submit a final levy recommendation to Council members for review and approval for their Dec. 19 meeting. Because the increase asked for is above five percent, State law requires a “Truth In Taxation” hearing be held before the Council’s final vote is taken. That hearing will take place prior to the Council’s Dec. 19 session.

The Town, as well as other taxing jurisdictions must submit their approved levies to the county by Dec.27.

But before Council members could begin their discussion of the matter, they heard from two residents opposed to any increase. Ron Ulmer told Council members he would like to see the money from the proposed increase be used, instead, to address transportation needs of low income residents which would help them continue to get around in the community independently. The Twin City bus system will be forced to shut down at the beginning of next year if the State fails to pay the transit company roughly $5 million it’s owed. Ulmer added increasing taxes also leads to an exodus of people leaving the community for places where taxes are seen as not as high.

Resident Marc Tiritilli told Council members there were a list of items which were granted money by the Council, including $67,000 for fiber optic links at Destihl and committing $88,000 annually for Zagster bike rentals. “There is plenty of money in the general fund to accomplish the Town’s goals without a tax increase,” Tiritilli said. “There is certainly room to tighten the budget and cover the additional pension amounts without levying new taxes.”

“I want to assure people there have been many things looked at” before considering an increase, Council Member Cheryl Gaines said. “The State of Illinois decides what it is we have to pass. I want people to know we thought this thing through.”

“Illinois’ problems are far from over,” Council Member Kevin McCarthy said. “With the markets under performing, we sometimes have to do this.”

“We need to keep property taxes as low as we can but we can’t avoid funding pension funds,” Mayor Chris Koos said. He said this was an issue this Council would not take a pass on and decide to wait for a future set of Council members to decide upon.

Council Member Jeff Fritzen recalled Council members passed on voting for a tax increase four years ago.

Council Member R. C. McBride said making pension obligations a priority is important “and we’re doing the best thing we can do with it.”

Work For Proposed Amendment For Taproom Licenses Approved: Council members also unanimously approved a motion for action for a potential zoning change to get underway. Council members voted to propose that Town Zoning Code be amended so that Class P Taproom liquor license holders could be considered within the same classification of businesses similar to Restricted Manufacturing, which are designated Class M-1 under Town Code.

White Oak Brewery holds a Class P Taproom license and wants to use 750 sq. ft. of its 3,000 sq. ft. facility for a taproom. Normal Planning Commission will take up the matter in January, which would involve holding a public hearing during that meeting. If the Planning Commission approves the action, it would go back to Normal Town Council for final approval later that month.

Omnibus Agenda Items Approved:
Omnibus agenda items approved by the Council included:

• Approval of minutes of the regular meeting on Nov. 7, 2016.

• Approval of Town of Normal expenditures as of Nov. 16, 2016.

• A resolution to waive the formal bidding process and authorizing the purchase of metal tree grates for trees located in the area of Uptown Normal from Westchester , Ill.-based Urban Accessories in the amount of $25,459 and approval of an associated budget adjustment.

• A resolution authorizing the purchase of atlas filter replacement parts for Fairview Family Aquatic Center from Carlisle, Ontario, Canada-based Natatorium Consulting Services in the amount of $23,052.

• A resolution authorizing execution of an intergovernmental agreement with the City of Bloomington, McLean County, and the Action Ecology Center for solid waste management services.

• A resolution authorizing execution of an intergovernmental agreement concerning the McLean County Geographic Information System Consortium and authorizing the amendment and termination of prior agreements.

• An ordinance establishing parking restrictions on Shepard Rd. between Airport Rd. and Canyon Creek Rd.

Steve RobinsonAuthor Roland Smith visited Kingsley Junior High School and Parkside Junior High School on Tuesday and Wednesday, Nov. 15 and 16, respectfully, and gave presentations to 6th through 8th graders, discussing writing, doing research for his books, trying to give youngsters an insight into how a professional writer works. He also encouraged the students to use their school libraries to help them with their research.

That means constant rewriting, the author of some 26 adventure novels told the students. In addition to the presentations he gave to the classes, he had a pizza lunch with a select group of students who have read the majority of his books, and spent time with a select group of students who are very interested in pursuing writing as a potential future career, and with a group of special education students. It was a full day for Smith, who will turn 65 at the end of the month.

During the assembly speeches he gave to each of the grades, Smith told students his research for his books take him twice as long as the actual writing. He also told them he considers himself “a visual writer.”

“That means when you read one of my books, you say, ‘it played out like a movie in my head,’” Smith told 8th graders at one of the assemblies I sat in on in the school gym.

Smith suggested to the kids they ought to use photographs to inspire them to get their creative juices flowing when they consider creating a story.

Smith told the kids he does storyboards as though the book he is going to write were going to be made into a movie. He said the next step is to arrange the cards he uses to outline the plot of the story in the correct order before putting them onto the storyboard. He said he does that so that the action in the book flows in the order he wants. Then, he said, he can start writing. He writes several rough drafts.

“If there is one thing I want you to learn, it’s that writing is revision,” Smith told the students, making them all repeat those last three words after he said to them in every assembly. He said he writes about 80,000 words for his books and, with revisions, chops that figure down to about 60,000 words.

He told the kids to “get over” the fact that teachers edit their work because it’s all part of the writing process (don’t remind me!). He said he listens when editors make suggestions for changes that could be made to his manuscripts.

“Ninety-eight percent of the time, I don’t have to make changes,” Smith told each group. “But you know what? Editors have a lot of good ideas and they make me look a lot smarter.” (The ol’ editor, Mr. Pyne, has just read that quote and now is trying to contain a smile, I assure you.).

Smith grew up in Portland, Ore. and still lives there. He grew up in an era of Jules Verne books and graduated to reading Ian Fleming “James Bond 007” novels, he told students, giving them a little bit of his background that has gotten him where he is today. He said at age 5, his parents gave him a black oily typewriter for Christmas. He said, at that time, he cried when he got it because he was expecting another kind of gift, and he didn’t know how to read or spell.

But once he learned to read and write, he loved that typewriter, he said. My maternal grandparents had on oily black Royal brand portable manual typewriter I played with as a kid. I loved it. I can relate to some degree.

An 8th grade student asked Smith how much he gets paid for his work (I’ve always wondered about the pay such authors get, myself). He said he get paid based on how many books sell within a six-month period, and is paid 10 percent of what a hardback sells for and 35 cents per paperback copy sold.

Smith is the second author invited by the junior highs. The first was Neal Schusterman, another popular writer of fiction for young people. He visited all four junior highs two years ago. Courtney Knowles, IMC Specialist at both KJHS and PJHS, explained the committee that planned Smith’s visit “thought he would be perfect for middle school students and we have not been disappointed.

“We wanted someone who wrote a large quantity of books, and who wrote different genres so that his visit would appeal to as many kids as possible,” Knowles said. From what I saw throughout that day, Smith did just that.

To Smith’s point about revision, Knowles said the teachers who invited Smith wanted kids to pick up on his message of practicing their writing, just as musicians and athletes in junior high school and high school must constantly practice their crafts.

In case you’re wondering, you could say I do a little practicing myself, especially when it comes to writing a column. I have done this for almost seven years and it took me the first year to finally decide to write out each column longhand before putting it into the computer. That way, basically, all I’m doing by the time I’m at the computer is typing. But it took the first year of this column for me to realize that was the right step for me.

These kids were told revision is necessary. The one word he didn’t use is that, occasionally, it can be painful (That’s where “Writer’s Block” occasionally makes itself known). But if you have an idea you want to express, you must write. And if you are willing to write, Smith inferred, you must be willing to rewrite.

I will give this column the once-over (make that twice-over) and hope I don’t need too many rewrites before deadline.