NORMAL – Fiscal incentives for new businesses wanting to become part of Normal’s business community was one of the topics candidates running for three Normal Town Council seats expressed opinions on in a second debate held Thursday, March 7 in the Old Main Room of the Bone Student Center on Illinois State University’s campus.

Two one term Council incumbents – Kathleen Lorenz and R. C. McBride – faced the six declared first-time candidates during a 90-minute session which was presented by WGLT FM 89.1, ISU’s National Public Radio affiliate for rebroadcast Friday. Six other formally announced candidates for the two seats – Alex Campbell, Pat Turner, Dave Shields, Joel Studebaker, Karyn Smith, and Stan Nord — round out the field of candidates and also took part in the session. Karl Sila, a write-in candidate for a Council seat, did not participate in the session, but has announced himself to be a write-in candidate.

“The most important thing you’re looking for when you offer tax incentives and tax breaks should be jobs,” stated Alex Campbell, an ISU student seeking a seat on the Council. “There are a lot of really brilliant minds here at ISU and those folks need to be kept here with livable wages.” He added the jobs being offered to prospective employees should be “sustainable jobs, not just part-time work.”

“I think everything needs to be looked at case-by-case, and holistically, and they are,” McBride said. He added this subject also has an effect on other governmental taxing bodies. “A lot of times we are hearing from someone seeking abatement or tax relief, and quite frankly, it never gets past the Town Staff level because it’s that obvious early on that there is no impact to the community.”

Lorenz reminded “that incentives are a tool that we can use to bring about economic growth that otherwise would not happen.” But even in stating that, Lorenz admitted not all projects need incentives, and all incentives must come with proof of performance results. In terms of offering incentives, she added, “I would like to see that our region, Bloomington, Normal, and the county work better together to have a basketful of incentives and tools from which we can all work together to attract different businesses bringing in good paying jobs which will stimulate the economy.”

Turner said she, too, saw the need for incentives on case-by-case basis. “It’s important that when we are planning long-term projects and those things that call for a great degree of funding, that we look to bring in those investors that will make those changes happen for the long-term benefit of our community.” While doing that though, Turner added, the Town should make sure the incentives don’t prompt companies to leave our community. “We want to welcome jobs, we want to welcome opportunity, we want to create long-term stability.”

“The key words I’ve heard are wages and benefits,” Studebaker said. “We want to make sure these are good jobs which are providing a good, stable life for the people who do them.” He said that means the jobs offered should be permanent in nature. “I am happy to see construction jobs anytime, but we need to be mindful of what we are building.” He cited proposed construction of a five-story mixed use building along Constitution Blvd, part of Beaufort St., and College Ave. recently approved by Council members known currently as Trail East as an example of bringing jobs to the community.

“In the long-term though, that parcel of land is owned by people from Chicago,” he said, arguing the money turned in by people with businesses in that building will not be paying their rent which would enrich locals but rather a company from out of town. “We need to make sure our money stays here in order to build community wealth.”

“I believe we should offer incentives to businesses who hire local and bring in their revenues from outside the area,” Stan Nord suggested. He stated out-of-town businesses who come into town seeking incentives are companies “who need us more than we need them.” He cited Portillo’s restaurant, based in Chicago, which opened a restaurant in Normal in August 2017 as such an example.

“We should not be giving them incentives,” Nord said. “The Trail East Building is bad to give incentives to the builders to.” Contracts have been signed with three business tenants to move into the building when it’s finished, but Nord said those businesses are based in Bloomington. Because of that, “There are no new jobs coming to the community for the incentive the Town is giving. There are no new homes to be bought. There are no new people to buy meals. The Town is simply reshuffling things around at the taxpayers’ expense.”

“I believe tax incentives to businesses should be the exception and not the rule,” Smith said. “Government should focus on its core mission of providing infrastructure, sound roads, a quality education system, because those add value to a business, and those are critical in making a business decision to want to come here.”

“The emphasis on making this a community where people want to live, want to work, will do more to attract businesses and having an educated work force than it would to have a race to the bottom when we compete with our neighbors in Bloomington and McLean County.”

“Each project does need to be looked at on its own merits,” Shields said. He said he would take a “three-prong approach” to decide whether to move forward on projects. “First, does it make financial sense? Where is all the other money coming from? What are we getting back for all that money?” He said he would also be asking what long-term benefit would the Town receive from entering into certain agreements. He said he counts not just economic reward as a benefit but also what jobs would be available as a result. He also would want to know if the opportunity is permanently lost if the Town doesn’t offer an incentive in front of the prospective incoming business.

Other questions asked at the debate included: Should Normal raise Motor Fuel Tax, following Bloomington’s lead, having raised theirs by 4 cents?; Where did candidates think development in the Town should be directed in the next 10 years?; What was the candidates’ definition of a good job? Lorenz and McBride are each seeking re-election to a second term on the Council. There is a vacant seat needing to be filled as a result of Council Member Jeff Fritzen’s decision not to seek another term in what was the second of two stretches on the Council, having first been elected in 1983. He stepped away from politics in 1999, and ran again in 2003, and has been reelected onto the Council since.

By Steve Robinson | March 4, 2019 - 10:51 pm
Posted in Category: Normal Town Council, The Normalite

NORMAL – As a means to help bolster reserves in the Town’s water fund, Normal Town Council members agreed by a 4-2 vote to approve a 2 percent increase in water rates at the governing body’s regular meeting Monday night. The vote took place with Mayor Chris Koos absent from the meeting. Council Members Kathleen Lorenz and Scott Preston voted in opposition to the ordinance which would increase the water rate. Mayor Pro Tem Jeff Fritzen, and Council Members Chemberly Cummings, R. C. McBride, and Kevin McCarthy voted in favor of the measure.

As a result of the vote, residents will be charged $6.57 per 1,000 gallons used, effective April 1. That is an increase of 13 cents. In addition, the system maintenance fee will also increase, from $5.87 per month to $5.99 per month. The increase will result in approximately $186,000 in additional revenue for the water fund from the average household. The Town estimates an average household uses 5,000 gallons resulting in an average of 77 cents in the monthly consumption cost, or $9.24 a month additional tacked onto residential bills.

But before the vote was taken, Lorenz said rather than increasing the cost of water on residents, she wanted Council members to consider pausing on the idea of increasing water rates when she feels the Town should have addressed other areas where prices could have been increased. She cited garbage collection fees and sewer rates could have been increased as an alternative to raising water rates.

Town Approves Budget For 2019-20: Council members unanimously approved the operations and capital investment budget for the Town for fiscal year 2019-20. At a public hearing before that vote, former Town Council candidate Ron Ulmer raised objections to the proposed budget. He questioned the Town wanting to approve the budget when he said notices the Town reduced the number of staff positions last year.

Regional Planning Commission Director Addresses Council: Vasu Gadhiraju, director of McLean County Regional Planning Commission gave a brief presentation to Council members to give an update on what the Commission has been doing in its efforts to find affordable housing in the Twin Cities. She recapped the results of a 2017 survey, the finding of which were incorporated into the Town’s Comprehensive Plan.

Among the results of the survey: County population growth slowed resulting in a reduced demand for housing; Housing in the county, the survey found, is generally overbuilt. According to the results of the survey, growth over the next 20 years can be handled using existing housing, or developments on already approved plans or where there are annexation agreements. Also she said, there are few housing options for the homeless. Added to that, she said, persons with mobility issues have limited options for the ability to live independently.

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

• Approval of minutes of the regular meeting held Feb. 18, 2019.

• Approval of Town of Normal expenditures for payment as of Feb. 27, 2019.

• A resolution authorizing execution of an agreement with Mr. Craig Onsrud for the operation of the Ironwood Golf Course Pro Shop and private golf lessons.

• A resolution conditionally reapproving the final development plan for Phase 2 of the J&M PUD (Cottage Avenue and Village Court).

• A resolution authorizing the filing of Amendments #1 & #2 to the Town’s Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Five-Year Consolidated Plan.

• A resolution waiving the formal bidding process and authorizing a contract with J. Spencer Construction, LLC for the Replacement of Gutters and Fascia at the Normal Theater in the amount of $27,015.

• An ordinance authorizing the publication of a zoning map.

• A motion authorizing execution of a memorandum of understanding between the Town of Normal and the Ecology Action Center regarding the Solar Bloomington-Normal Program.

By Steve Robinson | February 18, 2019 - 10:58 pm
Posted in Category: Normal Town Council, The Normalite

NORMAL – For 23 years, the Twin Cities’ Not In Our Town Committee has been tasked with seeing to it the Town of Normal and City of Bloomington demonstrated to residents and visitors alike that they were inclusive communities. But also in those 23 years, NIOT had never produced written updates to the Town on progress made concerning those efforts.

That changed Monday, as NIOT Committee Member Mike Matejka gave a brief presentation at Monday’s regularly-scheduled Normal Town Council meeting in Council Chambers on the fourth floor of Uptown Station.

In addition to giving some historical background to the work NIOT had done over the past 23 years, Matejka pointed out special events NIOT had hosted in an effort to make young people more aware of opportunities for them. Among those was a “Listening Session” held at Miller Park in Bloomington last summer. Among the goals for that event, Matejka said, “Was to make young people feel part of the community, particularly those of lower income.”

He said NIOT works to make sure students who feel alienated in some way are made to feel welcome within the community. He credited local school administrators with supporting the group’s effort in that area.

Design Waivers For Trail East Building Approved: Before adjourning to executive session, Council members unanimously approved a resolution granting waivers from the Town’s Uptown Design Review Code and supplemental Roundabout guidelines to approve a preliminary plan for the proposed Trail East building, to be located at the eastern edge of the Roundabout.

Representatives for the project’s developer, Iowa-based Bush Construction, introduced their concept for the proposed five-story building at the Council’s Jan. 7 meeting. Among the highlights of the proposed new building are an arcade design, storefront transparency, and several public entrances off of College Ave., Constitution Blvd., and Beaufort St.

A public hearing on the proposed building was held by the Uptown Design Review Commission on Feb. 11, but no residents addressed the Commission. At that hearing, Commission members voted 4-0 in support of the project as proposed with the waivers required for arcade design, storefront transparency, design for a tower which will be part of the structure, and floor heights.

Commissioners approved the project, also, on the condition the developer submit a signage package, landscaping plan, and an exterior lighting plan which the Commission would review in the future.

Mayor Chris Koos did have one suggestion for representatives of the developer who attended the meeting. He said he noted the building has an all-brick look to it along College Ave. He asked the developer’s representatives to consider finding a way to break up that look.

Rivian’s Progress Noted: A Chicago Tribune article published Sunday addressed the Town’s continued hopes for the success of Rivian Automotive, an electric car manufacturer which bought and took over use of the former Mitsubishi Motors of America plant on Normal’s west side. The plant is being used now, with roughly 70 employees currently, and once production of electric cars gets into high gear, it’s anticipated there will be 1,000 employees at the site.

The Tribune article pointed out that a $700 million investment spearheaded by Amazon, announced on Friday, had managed to raise about $1.4 billion for Rivian which would allow the auto manufacturer to begin production next year.

“This year, as they start to develop the assembly line, that will ramp up manufacturing pretty significantly,” Koos said after the Council session. “When they are ready to produce, I think they said they would be at 500 jobs.” He added it was his understanding from what Rivian officials have told him that as production increases, the numbers of staff needed will increase.

When the company negotiated with the Town, Rivian officials estimated rolling out the first vehicles off the assembly line sometime in the fourth quarter of this year. But the company has had to push that deadline back slightly, to sometime in the first quarter of 2020.

By a unanimous vote last February, Council members approved an ordinance abating the 2017 property tax levy for Rivian. Doing so was in accordance with the 2016 economic incentive agreement the Town signed with the auto manufacturer. To receive the abatement, Rivian successfully completed a couple of stipulations sought by the Town: To complete its purchase of the former MMNA facility; and invest at least $500,000 in project expenses, but did not include the cost of the former MMNA property. At the time of that agreement, the Town estimated the abated property tax for the Rivian land was equal to $74,900 for the Town and $32,300 for the Normal Public Library.

Concerning the three-month delay, Koos said, “In terms of meeting their obligations for sales tax rebates, they’ve done that handily and continue to do so. That won’t be an issue.”

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

• Approval of minutes of the regular meeting held Feb. 4, 2019.

• Approval of Town of Normal expenditures for payment as of Feb. 13, 2019.

• A resolution authorizing an agreement for construction materials testing services for the 2019 construction season with Bloomington-based Ramsey Geotechnical Engineering LLC (RGE).

• A resolution to appropriate $526,648 of Motor Fuel Tax (MFT) funds for the resurfacing of various streets for the 2018 MFT Street Resurfacing Project.

• A resolution conditionally approving the final plat of Lot 1 of resubdivision of Lot 2 in the first addition of North-Land Commercial Subdivision and Lot 7 in the fifth addition to North-Land Commercial Subdivision by expedited process (Menards, 900 Greenbriar Drive).

• An ordinance renaming Duff Street to Julia Duff Street.

• A resolution considering the release of executive session minutes from June 19, 2017 and October 1, 2018.

NORMAL – Two incumbent Normal Town Council members, and five of the seven challengers seeking to win a Council seat left open by another Council member’s decision not to run for another term participated in a debate hosted by Neighbors Association of Normal (NAN) Saturday, Feb. 2. The event was held in the Community Room at One Normal Plaza, the former Illinois Soldier’s and Sailor’s Children’s Home.

Two one term Council incumbents – Kathleen Lorenz and R. C. McBride – faced five of the six declared first-time candidates during the two-hour session facilitated by NAN Member Lyndetta Alsberry. Five of the six other formally announced candidates for the two seats – Alex Campbell, Dave Shields, Joel Studebaker, Karyn Smith, and Stan Nord — round out the field of candidates and also took part in the session. The sixth candidate, Pat Turner, was unable to participate due to a family emergency. Karl Sila, a write-in candidate for a Council seat, did not participate in the session formally, but was present in the audience.

Lorenz and McBride are each seeking re-election to a second term on the Council. There is a vacant seat needing to be filled as a result of Council Member Jeff Fritzen’s decision not to seek another term in what was the second of two stretches on the Council, having first been elected in 1983. He stepped away from politics in 1999, and ran again in 2003, and has been reelected onto the Council since.

The priorities the Town of Normal ought to consider when offering tax incentives to businesses wanting to come to Normal was one topic which generated numerous comments among the candidates.

“I think one of the most important things you should do with tax incentives is affordable housing,” stated Campbell, an ISU student. “I think it’s an issue that, while it definitely effects students.” But he said he believes the most neglected group to be affected by the incentives are people he put into classification of “non-student non homeowners.” He said he believed it important to see the Town provide incentives to local developers so they can use that cash to create “more mixed income housing.”

“I think that’s super important,” Campbell said, adding, “While it’s just as important to build nice homes, it’s also just as important to build things like newer townhomes.”

Shields said when it comes to what citizens deem important enough to considering offering tax incentives, every citizen will come up with a different need they believe worthy of the incentive being warranted. Those items range from affordable housing to money for a new Normal Library to living wages to senior citizen programming.

“The fact is none of these are mutually exclusive,” Shields stated, adding depending on individual concerns, all of those items are considered worthy of being given priority. “The job of a Council member is to make sure the Town is a thriving, livable place for everybody.” He added each opportunity for such incentives should be looked at for its individual merits and the Town should do “what we can when we can with what we’ve got.”

This subject is “a crucial question for us right now,” Studebaker said. The Town, he added, “has had a number of controversies over the last couple of years, and so, we need to decide ‘what do we want to decide in this community?’

“For me, one of the priorities is a library,” Studebaker explained. He added that if the Town opts to give money or incentives for a developer for any future project, the Town should prioritize such projects.

“I disagree with the premise that tax incentives are necessary,” Smith stated to begin her response to the question. She said the Federal Tax Code begins by describing what items do not get taxed.

“Rather than make concessions to what gets taxed, I think if we took a look at broadening the tax base, and then examining how different entities are taxed, then we could be sure it was done fairly for businesses and residents alike,” Smith added. Doing that, she explained would keep the Town from being concerned about tax incentives to promote development.

“Tax incentives should be used when there is a need for the community, or if there is an economic benefit for a business to come into the community,” Nord said. “If a business like Portillo’s says it’s not profitable to sell their hot dogs in our town, we should not give them incentives so it would be profitable to be here.” He called the deal the Town agreed to with the Oak Brook-based restaurant chain “straight out corporate welfare.”

Referring to Tax Increment Financing districts, or TIF Districts, Lorenz said they are used “as an economic tool.” She said the point to using them “is to increase the wealth of the community.” She added after government bodies like the Council approve such action, they are considered “a public-private endeavor” where developers approach the Town or other governing body seeking permission to build things such as affordable housing.

Once such a project is approved, Lorenz said, government steps back and “those seeking to construct and capitalism takes over.” She said she provided that illustration to give the roughly 25 people who attended the session an idea of how governing bodies like the Council intend for TIF Districts to function.

Evaluating the need for TIF Districts “need to be evaluated on a case by case basis, and they are,” McBride said. He said the need for such a district came into play in December 2016 when the Council unanimously approved a TIF district for the former Mitsubishi Motors North America plant to be used by electric car manufacturer Rivian Motors.

“We had a plant that was going to be stripped and turned into a concrete slab,” McBride recounted, had Council members not entered into the agreement, along with other area taxing bodies including Normal-based Unit 5 School District.

The subject of Normal offering tax incentives was prompted with candidates recalling Normal Town Council members unanimously voting, also in December 2016, to authorize executing of a redevelopment agreement with Bloomington Landmark Development Inc. regarding construction of Portillo’s which was built and is now located on N. Veterans Parkway.

At the time Council members approved the Portillo’s agreement, Bloomington Landmark Development Inc. sought and Council approved $1,825,000 to meet a standard rate of return for such a real estate investment. The agreement provided 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. The Chicago-based eatery formally opened in August 2017.

Other subjects candidates discussed included issues concerning municipal water policies and rates, candidates’ views on climate change, and funding liability for Town employees’ and retirees’ health costs.

Council candidates are scheduled to meet again in a candidate forum which will be broadcast by Illinois State University’s National Public Radio affiliate, WGLT FM 89.1, on Thursday, March 7. The 90-minute debate will be held in the Old Main Room of ISU’s Bone Student Center beginning at 6p.m.

By Steve Robinson | January 7, 2019 - 10:48 pm
Posted in Category: Normal Town Council, The Normalite

NORMAL – Developers unveiled what they have in mind for the proposed five-story building on the east side of the Roundabout during the regularly-scheduled meeting of Normal Town Council Monday night. During the meeting in Council Chambers on the fourth floor of Uptown Station, representatives from Iowa-based Bush Construction laid out their vision for what that section of Uptown could look like once construction is completed, a project they have dubbed Trail East. They also laid out a proposed time table of when work on the project would begin.

Jerrod Engler, vice president of construction for the construction firm told Council members the five-story structure would be a 120 sq. ft. mix of brick and paneling, and that second and third floors already had companies already interested in becoming tenants. Private residences would make up the fifth floor, he added.

Engler explained the developers envision the building having a food mart located where it faces the corner of College Ave. and Constitution Blvd. Another tenant showing an interest and being added to the project is Windy City Wieners restaurant, currently located at 108 E. Beaufort St. Windy City Wieners, Slingshot Cowork at 106 E. Beaufort St., and the building which formally housed The Pod art center at 104 E. Beaufort St. would all come down to make way for the proposed development.

Town Public Works Director Wayne Aldrich told Council members all utilities for the new building would go underground along E. Beaufort St. and the Town will foot the bill for making that possible. He added construction could result in some street closures. He added the Town has been in contact with and will stay in contact with property and building owners in the area throughout the construction period.

John E. Bishop, senior architectural manager for The Farnsworth Group, told Council members structural design on the project would begin in May and implementing the design would begin in June. Anticipated completion for the roughly $30 million project would be August of 2020.

The proposed development had residents both in support of it and against it speak to Council members prior to the developers’ presentation. Resident Stan Nord in telling Council members he opposed the project, adding, “The Town should subsidize $4,200 per month rents. Normal is more than Uptown. Other parts of Town have needs.”

Resident Mike Matejka told Council members he supported the project and added he hoped the developers would use local union workers in the construction process.

In voicing his objection to the project, former Mayoral Candidate Marc Tiritilli told Council members, “Preserving artwork was mentioned when this project was brought up. Let’s shift to keep the artwork. There are ways to preserve the historic nature of this town.”

Mural Relocation Discussed: Concerning artwork located at 104 E. Beaufort St., Council members unanimously approved a resolution to waive the formal bid process and authorized City Manager Pam Reece to enter into an agreement with Bloomington-based The Farnsworth Group for removal and relocation of the mural there in anticipation of that location becoming part of the future development in Uptown discussed earlier in the meeting. In 2011, an art business, The Pod, located at that address, began giving access to artists to create a mural on the building’s west side which was visible from the Roundabout.

But the business closed in January 2017 and the store has been vacant since. During public comments to Council members at the start of the meeting, current Town Council candidate Karyn Smith registered objections to the destruction of the mural as being part of what would happen in order for the proposed five-story building to go up on that site. Smith said the change in the cost of construction of the five story building is all due to a change made by the developer.

Although not part of the original plan when Council members approved the plan in October, 106 E. Beaufort St., too, along with 104 and 108 were slated to be torn down for the building site. That change moved the project’s cost up by $800,000, from $29.2 million to $30 million. The Town’s contribution, too, has jumped as a result, from $8 million in future property taxes to $8.65 million in property and sales taxes.

Reece told Council members the cost involved in removing the mural from the building and relocating was researched by the Town and found to run between $56,200 and $81,560. She added the Town may seek to recover costs incurred in the project from the building’s previous tenants.

Council Approves Special Use For Rooming House: Council members unanimously approved a special use permit for a building in a residential neighborhood. A two-story home at 405 Normal Ave. is being considered as a rooming house for use by Alpha Omicron sorority. The sorority would like to use the building to house 23 students and a house mother. Normal’s Zoning Board of Appeals gave conditional approval to the project at their Dec. 18 meeting.

James Knightright lives a couple doors down from the building and told Council members he wasn’t concerned about the students who would be coming into his neighborhood, but rather that the process used by the Town “excluded locals” to give their say on the matter. In addition, he told Council members a parking ban on that street in force from 6a.m.-9a.m. was “inconvenient and treats students disrespectfully.”

Widmer Appointed To Children’s Discovery Museum Board: Mayor Pro Tem Jeff Fritzen announced to the gathering the appointment of Rob Widmer to the Children’s Discovery Museum Foundation Board. Recently retired as President of Heartland Community College, Widmer, a grandfather of 11 children, has had opportunities to experience first-hand. He is filling an open seat of the Board and his term expires July 30, 2021.

Two Omnibus Items Approved: Council unanimously approved two omnibus items: Approval of minutes from the Council’s regular meeting of Dec. 17, 2018, and payment of Town expenditures as of Jan. 3, 2019.