The speakers’ platform at Tuesday’s event where Gov. Bruce Rauner heralded Rivian Automotive’s purchase of the vacant Mitsubishi plant was a gloomy metaphor for the state of affairs between our local municipal governments.
In cheerier times, Bloomington’s mayor would almost certainly have been part of the official party, standing alongside the mayor of Normal, local state legislators, Rivian’s CEO, the state director of commerce and economic opportunity, the chairman of the McLean County Board and the head of the Bloomington-Normal Economic Development Council as the governor said nice things about Rivian and Bloomington-Normal.
Not this time. There was no invitation for Mayor Tari Renner after Bloomington’s City Council voted to unilaterally end the Metro Zone agreement. Normal officials were so steamed they even decided (temporarily, as it turned out) they wouldn’t be part of the EDC’s annual “One Voice” lobbying trip to Washington 11 days from now. That’s when local officials present a unified “wish list” for federal funding to members of Illinois’ congressional delegation.
Timing of the Metro Zone quarrel isn't good — not while the community is trying to diversify and grow its economy.
Earlier this year, a little-noticed state of Illinois economic forecast prepared by Moody’s identified the Bloomington metro area as one of eight in the Midwest that have slipped into recession, three others in Illinois being Carbondale, Peoria and the Quad Cities. That’s a sobering assessment for a community that not long ago considered itself “recession-proof.”
At Monday’s Normal council meeting, Mayor Chris Koos talked about “cracks in the community’s foundation” as he closed an hour-long discussion about the Metro Zone disagreement, referring specifically to “the realignment of State Farm” and “Mitsubishi leaving the community.”
To their credit, Normal council members generally lowered the rhetorical temperature, not repeating the harshest language that appeared in the prickly statement they issued hours after Bloomington voted 7-2 to end the economic development agreement.
And credit Renner for being in the audience at the Normal session along with Jim Fruin and Diana Hauman, the two Bloomington aldermen who voted against ending the arrangement.
They heard Paul Harmon, Normal’s mayor when the zone was created 30 years ago, say such agreements advance the overall community, but don’t always provide equal benefits to the two cities.
He cited a pair of examples: Bloomington and Normal residents pay the same property tax rate to support the local airport, but the town doesn’t benefit from taxes derived from commercial development the airport has attracted to Bloomington’s east side. And Harmon discussed a relatively new sewage treatment plant financed by fees paid by residents of both cities. He said it has cost Normal “millions” to pump sewage “over the ridge” to the plant south of Bloomington.
What wasn’t mentioned is that Bloomington chose not to contribute to the economic incentives that brought Rivian to the Metro Zone, but that if the current agreement remains in place and Rivian is a success with suppliers and vendors returning to Normal acreage near the plant, Bloomington would get half the stepped-up property and other taxes paid to Normal.
All is not lost. Twin City officials are still speaking to one another. Renner and Koos met privately the day after Normal released its stinging statement. They stood together at Thursday night’s anti-hate rally (a good thing). Renner and several Bloomington council members attended a Rivian reception in uptown Tuesday evening. Council members from both sides of Division Street have exchanged phone calls.
Perhaps the best thing would be for everyone to take a deep breath, get past next month’s municipal elections and then see if we can’t hit the reset button on Twin City cooperation, collaboration and sense of a unified but concerned community.