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032016-blm-loc-1commentary-renner

Barry Spraggs, right, and Rick Lovell, who work for IronHustler Excavating of Peoria, look at demolition at the front of the new Dick's Sporting Goods, formerly Kmart, at 1608 E. Empire St., at Colonial Plaza. The work is part of a $10 million renovation of the shopping center, which is in a new tax increment financing district. Eilersom Development Corp., Midlothian, Va., is in charge of the $3.4 million store renovation.

 

The City of Bloomington has made great progress on many fronts over the last year – improving transparency, fixing our streets and infrastructure, balancing our budget, creating jobs and growing the local economy.

Transparency

We continue to move forward in making government open to citizens and creating a strong service culture in City Hall. I hold regular mayoral open houses every Friday from 4:30 to 5:30 before regular Monday city council meetings. Anyone can just stop by and ask questions, get answers and have problems solved on the spot if possible. Bloomington has received a website transparency award from the Illinois Policy Institute – we are one of the top rated local governments in Illinois. Rebuilding public trust is a top priority for me.

Infrastructure

Our streets and infrastructure have been neglected for decades and can’t be fixed overnight but we are making progress. Over the last year we completed a $10 million street resurfacing bond program but much more is needed. We are moving ahead with a second wave — Streets 2.0 that includes a 20-30 million dollar bond paid for by the quarter penny sales tax earmarked for streets. This is necessary and will make a huge difference in the condition of Bloomington streets. We are also moving ahead with capital improvement plans for our sewers, storm water and sidewalks.

City finances

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One of our biggest challenges has been our city’s budget. Expenditures were rising but our revenues were either flat or declining. This “structural deficit” was estimated last year to be over $7 million. That’s why we acted decisively. Just four days into the new fiscal year, I appointed a budget task force to analyze city operations, services, costs, fees and revenues. The group worked for four months in open public meetings to come up with recommendations. The city council began work on these the moment the Task Force completed its work. We are still analyzing some of the recommendations but the proposed budget for fiscal year 2017 is now balanced! Further, we are now projected to have balanced budgets for the next three years. Unlike other governments, we have gotten our fiscal house in order.

Economic development

We have made great progress in growing the local economy over the last year – despite the obvious setback of the closing of the Mitsubishi plant. Hy-Vee opened a new store at Landmark Plaza on a site that had been empty for years. We are creating a TIF district in Colonial Plaza where Dick’s sporting goods is building an anchor store in the old K Mart. We have been working with our two movie theatres to help them reinvent their operations. The Palace cinema on the Eastside completed a $6 million renovation, to change its business model (they have fewer seats but serve food and beverages). The Galaxy cinema on the Westside has opened the area’s only Imax theatre. We have worked with Green Top grocery on Bloomington’s first multi-million dollar investment on Constitution Trail. Kroger is building a new $25 million Marketplace store. This will be the first such super store in Illinois. After a long process of securing funding, the Route 66 Visitor’s Center opened last spring at the McLean County History Museum. Until recently, Bloomington has not tried aggressively to tap into the Route 66 travel industry. We are now working on attracting the largest single multi-million dollar private investment in downtown – our cultural and historic core. The proposal is for a privately owned hotel, conference center and parking garage around the Front and Center building that has been abandoned for many years. Any city incentives to the developer would have to be paid for by the private

investment itself. We would not commit any of our current city revenues. An independent analysis by people in the business of vetting these types of projects confirms that this is possible. Success on this project would be a major source of jobs and could help us reach a tipping point in downtown revitalization.

We have made great progress on many fronts but there is still much to be done. We face many challenges ahead. I look forward to working with all of you to make Bloomington an even better place to live.

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Tari Renner is the mayor of Bloomington.

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