BLOOMINGTON — Kevin Lower, who is trying to unseat Mayor Tari Renner in the April 4 election, said at a candidate forum Tuesday that he wants Bloomington to become “a much more business-friendly environment.”

“We’re not right now. We’ve raised a number of progressive fees and taxes,” he added. “This costs the bottom line of every retailer in town.”

But Renner countered that if Lower had had his way, several new retailers would never have opened.

Lower opposed a liquor license for the Ovation 10 dine-in movie theater, a tax abatement for Greentop Grocery, and incentives for renovating the vacant former Kmart and Circuit City stores and revitalizing what is now the Empire Crossing shopping center, Renner said.

“If it were up to Alderman Lower we would have nothing sitting there (at the former Colonial Plaza). They would still be abandoned. Now it’s an engine of economic growth,” said Renner.

“I do not agree with the use of incentives, especially in a down economy,” replied the Ward 1 alderman. “Statistically, they don’t work.”

On his way into the event hosted by WGLT-FM and the League of Women Voters of McLean County at Illinois State University’s University Galleries in uptown Normal, Lower walked past more than a dozen Black Lives Matter Bloomington-Normal members who were protesting social media posts he made that have been criticized as racially insensitive.

“I didn’t intend to offend anyone with that statement ... and I am sorry if I offended anybody,” said Lower in response to a question asked at the forum about past social media missteps by both him and Renner. “I did learn a lesson from it. As a leader, I need to watch what I say online.”

Renner, speaking of when he lost his temper online with a blogger and was censured by the City Council, said: “You try to become a better person and move on. And you probably stay away from social media.”

In speaking with The Pantagraph’s editorial board earlier Tuesday the two sparred over how much the city should spend to repave streets.

Renner noted that during his first term as mayor street resurfacing spending has increased 300 percent to catch up on long-neglected repairs.

“I think we should be putting in 1,000 percent more,” said Lower. “We are having businesses look at our community and ask us point blank, ‘What is the deal with your streets?’”

Lower said spending $1.3 million a year isn’t enough. When Renner replied the figure is closer to $6 million, Lower countered that the $6 million includes related costs such as street lighting and sidewalk repairs.

“I am talking about pavement resurfacing,” said Lower. “We need to be dedicating around $5 million alone just to the pavement itself.”

“Kevin, we really are pretty much there,” said Renner. “That’s an empirical thing that we can verify.”

The remarks were made by the candidates when they were asked about the city’s proposed five-year capital improvement plan — which identifies more than $300 million in capital needs for all city departments, including $277 million worth that don’t have secured funding — and where the city could cut spending.

Many of the entertainment venues the city offers should be “morphed into a user fee,” said Lower. “The folks attending those shows should be paying for all of those shows and we should not be subsidizing these venues into the future.”

He said he was referring to the city-owned Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts, U.S. Cellular Coliseum, and “many of things we do in our parks and recreation department.”

Renner replied, “I don’t think we can charge kids to go on a playground and have them have coins or something.”

Renner added: “Obviously, streets and public safety are our highest priorities. That’s the overwhelming majority of the budget. The amount we pay to subsidize amenities is a comparatively small portion of the budget. And I think it’s a critical component. How are we going to get residents and businesses to come here and invest if we have no amenities?”

The candidates also shared their views on immediate and long-term plans for downtown Bloomington; contracts the city could possibly end because the agreements no longer protect taxpayers; how the city can generate more revenue.

Both Renner and Lower, the top two finishers in the Feb. 28, five-way primary, were first elected to their offices in 2013.

Renner, 58, of 2 Sable Oaks Court, teaches political science at Illinois Wesleyan University. Lower, 54, of 1504 S. Low St., sells cars at Anderson Ford in Clinton and is a freelance professional pilot and flight instructor.

Follow Maria Nagle on Twitter: @pg_nagle

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