By Mike Matejka
As we take a deep breath after the 2018 elections, the 2019 municipal elections will be upon us. Council candidates are campaigning in Bloomington & Normal, not to mention school board and Heartland College candidates.
In Normal, one issue will be Uptown development. Some candidates are already criticizing the Town for Uptown, particularly the economic incentives, purporting that money spent on Uptown hurts Unit 5 schools.
A missing point is these arguments is that new construction and property enhancements leads to new assessments and more tax revenues for local schools.
If I had a time machine, I’d like to take those candidates back to Uptown before it was “Uptown.” Remember downtown Normal 20 years ago? Perhaps you’d like to have a fine dining experience. The choices were multiple – sausage, pepperoni or cheese pizza. What was then downtown Normal was a collection of pizza parlors, t-shirt shops and a few student bars. There was no Medici, no Maggie O’Mileys, no Jesse’s Grille in the Marriott. The Coffee House was there, but no Coffee Hound. Catching the train meant cramming into the small station south of the tracks. There was no traffic circle, just a “Y” intersection at Beaufort and North.
Thanks to long-term planning and a vision, downtown became “Uptown.” Yes, the Town spent serious money, much of it rebuilding the water, sewer and road infrastructure. The multi-modal train and bus station and the Children’s Museum became the triggers, thanks to governmental investment. What followed was two hotels, dining outlets like Medici and Maggie’s and an enhanced and vibrant urban area. $181 million in private investment has followed the Town’s tax-supported outlays.
A new Trail East building is going up on the circle’s northeast corner. There will be tax incentives to the developer, but only after the building is completed. Is this hurting Unit 5 schools? Stop and think – the new building is going up on two Town-owned buildings and a parking lot. Because they are owned by government, their tax value is zero. A five-story office building is going to create much more tax revenue, not only from property taxes, but also from the construction jobs and long-term workers who will inhabit the structure, eating lunch and spending money in Uptown. Unit 5 passed a resolution endorsing these TIF uses last May. A five-story building is going to aid our schools many times more than a parking lot.
Uptown Normal is being studied nationally for what a smaller city can do to revitalize its core. This not only helps the local tax base, it helps make Illinois State University a desirable place for students and faculty. That again helps support the local tax base. So don’t be fooled when candidates cry that construction and development hurts the schools – in the long-run, a tax incentive to locate in an urban core is a long-term pay-off for Normal and Unit 5.
Mike Matejka is the Governmental Affairs director for the Great Plains Laborers District Council, covering 11,000 union Laborers in northern Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota. He lives in Normal. He served on the Bloomington City Council for 18 years, is a past president of the McLean County Historical Society and Vice-President of the Illinois Labor History Society. He currently serves on the Normal Planning Commission.
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