Decatur City Council

Downtown Decatur Clock

I figured we’d be learning about several individuals interested in becoming a city council member, since petitions are beginning to circulate around town.  Apparently there are a number of people who intend to run for one of the three seats on the city council up for election in 2017.  The mayor’s seat is the fourth seat.  So far, there are only two running for mayor but I expect more.  Mayor Julie Moore-Wolfe is running as well as John Phillips, a regular face in the city council audience and the current president of the Decatur Library Board.

To be honest, I’ve been urged this year by some to run for city council and I have thought long and hard about it over the last couple months but the timing is wrong.  I’m still a full-time student finishing up a degree with Oregon State and will be starting a new career next summer.  I think that’s just a little too much on my plate to devote enough time and thought into a campaign.  Plus, a citizen doesn’t have to be on the city council to have an impact in the community.  I’ve learned that over and over again.  I’ve noticed ideas that I’ve suggested have worked their way into the political process.

Part of me would love to run because because I think I’d be good at it.  It would be interesting to experience.  However, I’m also the pragmatic type.  Possibly in the future, I’ll give it a go but until then, all keep on blogging.

With that out of the way, it seems like the race is shaping up to be what it usually is.  There are the “safe” candidates that have the blessing of the powers that be and then there are the renegades and newcomers who face an uphill battle.

For those newcomers, I’ll give a little bit of advice because I’ve been watching these elections for quite a while.  If you want to win, go positive.  Share your ideas, be reasonable, listen to all sides, and learn.  If you don’t do that I can almost guarantee you won’t win.  The majority of people who show up to vote in Decatur’s municipal elections don’t like negative messages or negative people.  Some voters do but not the majority who show up and vote!  There are certainly legitimate issues and concerns to address but do it without attacking individuals in the community.  Then, you’ll have a shot.

I’m eager to learn about all the candidates we’ll be introduced to soon.  Like I’ve said before, it’s always interesting!

 

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After listening to the council meeting last night about video gaming, I went away with a big headache.  A handful of residents, mostly business owners, spoke before the council regarding gaming revenue.  It was educational.

We have to go back first to when the council first approved gaming in Decatur.  I remember the meetings very well.  The council members saw it as a way to boost existing businesses, primarily bars, who have seen their profits shrink since a statewide smoking ban was put into effect and of course, the Great Recession.  The city wasn’t expecting to make significant revenue from video gaming.  The city’s cut is only 5%, while the state makes out like a bandit with a sizeable chunk.  Councilman Funk called the state’s motives a “revenue grab”.

The possibility of gaming parlors locating in nearly every strip mall in town was nowhere on anybody’s radar at the time.  It certainly wasn’t discussed at the council meetings back then.  I’m sure nobody would have predicted that nearly $70,000,000 would be placed into the 350+ slot machines in Decatur in just 2015 alone.  Nobody dreamed there would be 350+ slot machines by 2016 to begin with.  Illinois now has more slot machines than Nevada.

Because there are so many slot machines in Decatur, local businesses have seen their revenue from gaming machines cut by nearly 50% in the past year or so.  The pieces of the pie are simply too small to go around.

What irked me the most about the meeting is that nobody on the council really offered any solutions.  Overall, they seemed reluctant to do anything.  Raising terminal fees was discussed and I expect that to happen soon.  Most of all, the term “free market” kept being thrown around.  The council hopes that the free market will determine when the area has been over-saturated.  I think it already has but that isn’t stopping new parlors from opening up, sucking more life out of our local businesses.

It seems like we should be able to zone areas properly so that gaming parlors aren’t popping up anywhere and everywhere.  However, if you take a look at the city map indicating liquor licenses, which are where most of the gaming machines are located, they aren’t in the “nice” neighborhoods. The inner-city has to put up with the worst of everything.  How are we supposed to redevelop neighborhoods when we congregate the most undesirable businesses inside them?  What a mess!

I think the licenses should be capped.  It’s obvious the free market isn’t working, at least not in ways that benefit local businesses, which was supposed to be the whole point.

As a full disclaimer, I don’t go to bars and I don’t even drink but many of our locally-owned bars do contribute in positive ways to the community, unlike out-of-state parlors.  There’s countless benefits, sport’s team sponsorships, and other charitable giving that comes from responsible bars.  These points were brought up by a local owner.  I had never really considered this aspect before.

I’m not saying people can’t place a bet here and there.  That’s their choice but I don’t think slot machines need to be available every twelve feet in the city.

More than anything, I haven’t talked to one person who likes what is becoming of Decatur, in regards to the gaming parlors.  It’s not the Decatur I want to live in.  If we’re trying to market Decatur in a positive light, then why are we settling for something that affects people’s lives and perceptions of Decatur so negatively?  It’s easy to answer that.  It may not have been about revenue for the city when they passed it but it sure is now.  This, many of us did foresee.

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I watched the city council meeting on Tuesday to discover what goals the city council are prioritizing.  It was a somber, kind of depressing discussion because, though were goals expressed, I didn’t sense much confidence that any of them are going to happen any time soon.

Every council member was in agreement that the city would benefit from constructing an overpass on MLK over I-72 to open the area up to development and ease traffic along 51.

Another issue that was brought up was parking in downtown.  Though there are several thriving restaurants, there’s few retail shops.  One of the reasons for this is that there isn’t enough available parking.  Downtown parking has been an issue forever with no easy or cheap answers.  Parking meters were removed a few years ago and angled parking was added but there’s only so many areas to park a car.  Nobody offered any solutions but the issue was brought up.

Neighborhood redevelopment, infrastructure, the Us-51 bypass, and the need for major road improvements on Brush College Road were also echoed by many but overshadowing everything was the need to attract more jobs.

Finding money for the goals is tricky.  Increasing taxes and fees is out the window because the city has already been there and done that too many times.  For neighborhood redevelopment, the key is likely public/private partnerships, and possible state/federal grants.  Residency requirements for city employees will definitely be discussed further when union contract talks come up, which I’m sure will go over well!  The city would like to keep city workers here to keep more revenue here.  Residency requirements for new non-union employees has already been approved.  The city is bleeding upper-middle income families to nearby communities, leaving older and lower-income people behind to financially support the city.  That kind of math just doesn’t work.   It’s a tough, tough issue but not unique to Decatur.

I hope I didn’t thoroughly depress everyone.  I’m still optimistic and I am an out-of-the-box thinker, for better or worse.  I think there’s things we can do.

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The city council will be discussing community goals at the July 5th meeting.  A PDF file of the proposed goals can be downloaded from the city’s website.  I’m not going to go over every single item since anyone can read through the document but there were some things that stuck out that I found particularly interesting.

The goals are grouped together into five main categories:

  • Prioritize & Support Infrastructure Improvements
  • Creation of First Class Tech Community
  • Continued Creation – Development Community of Choice
  • Neighborhood Revitalization
  • Organizational Operations

Infrastructure improvements and neighborhood revitalization are fairly self-explanatory.  Organizational operations pertain mainly to city staff operating more efficiently.  The creation of a first class tech community refers to fiber optic cables.  Development community of choice refers to developing pro-growth business policies, connecting Decatur to Amtrak by either bus or rail, extending city bus hours on certain routes, skills training, amongst other things.

Things That Caught My Attention

Respondents requested more business incentives, restaurants on the city’s south side, Chipotle, Trader Joes, Burlington Coat Factory, and a food truck park in front of Northgate Mall.  Road improvements for Mound and Main Street from Garfield to Eldorado were also requested, as well as beautifying the city’s main corridors.

Truck Park?

I would probably agree with all of the public’s recommendations listed in the presentation except the truck park in front of Northgate Mall.  I think Northgate would benefit by demolishing the closed car wash on Pershing to make the mall more visible from Pershing.  With an abandoned eyesore blocking the view of the mall, I can’t imagine it impresses too many prospective retailers.  I don’t think a truck park would impress them either.  A more welcoming and impressive entrance from Pershing is needed, in my opinion.  I’m not opposed to a truck park locating elsewhere in the city if it fits in well with the surroundings.

Mound Road Retail Development

The other main thing that jumped out at me was retail development at the Mound and US 51 intersection.  It is listed as a goal.  The Target area is pretty much full, so I’m assuming the city is wanting to continue to develop other areas in the vicinity, possibly to the north and/or northeast of Target.  This is probably one of the busiest intersections in the city and I’m sure Decatur would love to capture shoppers before they head on north to Forsyth and attract out-of-towners from nearby I-72.

I grew up in the neighborhood directly to the southeast of the intersection so I know a lot of the history surrounding that part of town, from the neighborhood being annexed by the city in the late 80s, when Walmart opened just to the north, to Mound Middle School being closed, and Target being built.  Heck, I remember when Mound Road was rock and horses and chickens lived on the property where Thorntons gas station is now located.  And I’m not THAT old!

I know more land will be developed for retail purposes in that area.  It’s just a matter of time and I’m okay with that as long as it doesn’t destroy the character and property values of the surrounding neighborhoods.  If it’s another gaming parlor, heck no!  If it’s tasteful restaurants and retail that would fit well inside a neighborhood, I’d consider it.  It could be a tremendous asset to the area if it’s done with the neighborhood in mind. My land management training is kicking in here.  Natural resource management is primarily about land management.

I’d like to see standards built into any type of proposed development in that area with strict guidelines as to what can locate there and what can’t to preserve what’s already functioning well.  It makes no sense to sacrifice a neighborhood for retail.  Responsible homeowners tend to stay and remain invaluable assets to the community, if they’re happy in their surroundings and with the city.  Retail businesses come and go.

Well, I’ll end it here because I’m getting long-winded.  I’ll have a rundown of what the council members had to say on here next week.  Have a happy and safe 4th of July!

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We’ve probably all had our fill of national politics.  I know I have, so I thought I’d turn to something that is hopefully a little less absurd – local politics, as in the city council, school board and park district.  All three have a greater impact on our lives than anyone in the White House does, assuming that person in the White House doesn’t blow up the world.  I can’t give any guarantees, considering one of the candidates.

Just little hints are beginning to surface on how the local races will present themselves.  For the city council, the seats of Jerry Dawson, Chris Funk, and Pat McDaniel are up for election in 2017.  The mayor’s seat is also up for election, currently held by appointed mayor Julie Moore-Wolf, who took the seat after the death of Mayor McElroy.  Dawson is the only one that has indicated that he will not seek reelection.

As far as who the challengers will be for those seats, there’s not much to go on just yet.  Chris Riley, who is currently an elected commissioner serving the park district, is the first to publicly throw his hat in.  If he wins then his seat with the park district will be open, assuming his term is about up.  I believe it is.

The school board is kind of a mess at the moment.  After the fiasco of not renewing the contract of a superintendent most people felt was doing a good job, not many people are pleased.  Admittedly, I’ve never followed the school board that well.  It’s enough to try to keep up with the city council and park district but I know there’s a lot of discontentment out there with the school board.  I’m not sure who will seek reelection and who the challengers will be.  I think everybody is ducking for cover at the moment.

If social media comments, and just my personal conversations with Decaturites means anything, there’s quite a few people not terribly impressed with the city council.  Several increased taxes, some decisions that didn’t sit well with much of the electorate, and a very unpopular city manager hasn’t made this bunch the most beloved council of all time.  I’m not just hearing dissatisfaction among the usual naysayers but of people who usually are much more positive, so it’s different this time.  The only council member that is getting any love at all is Bill Faber.

Since I have been writing this blog for so long, I’ve been through quite a few elections and I’ve learned the type of candidate that usually wins and those that don’t. Without serious name recognition in the community, it is very hard to win.  I’ve seen candidates pour a lot of money into yard signs,  billboards, and commercials and still lose big time.  Labor candidates have a hard time because there’s not many union-affiliated folks out there anymore.  Minority candidates generally have it tough too.  Not many people come out to vote for municipal elections but those that do generally are well-informed.  They follow city politics religiously. So, if you don’t know the issues well, you’ll be found out.  That’s the number one reason why many candidates have failed.

I still remember one interview on the radio in which a candidate’s answer for everything was getting rid of parking meters downtown.  High unemployment?  Parking meters.  Neighborhood woes?  Parking meters.  Cancer?  Parking meters.  It was too painful to listen to.  There’s been some horrendous candidates in the past and unfortunately some won!  And there’s been some that I think deserved more serious consideration and went away wounded.  One thing is certain – it’s always interesting.

 

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