Election 2019: Champaign Mayor Deb Frank Feinen Makes Her Case For Reelection
Champaign Mayor Deborah Frank Feinen is asking voters to elect her to a second term, so she can continue to work on projects she says have helped the city grow and improve. Feinen, an attorney, is facing challenger Azark David Cobbs in the April 2nd municipal election. (You can hear an interview with Cobbs here.) Mayor Feinen spoke with Illinois Public Media's Jim Meadows for this interview.
JM: Deb Feinen, you're running for a second term as mayor of Champaign, and you served this first term after several years on the City Council. What have you found out about the job of mayor, after making the switch from city council in the last four years?
Feinen: It's actually much different than I thought it would be. I'd been a council member for a significant amount of time and I thought it would just be very much more of a higher level council member. But you really do spend a lot more time interfacing with staff. I'm on the phone a lot with other council members working on issues. And you really are the public face of the city for most of the constituency. So people see me, and they think “City of Champaign”, which is really fun and great, but was unexpected. Because I'd been a council member for a long time and didn't have that same recognition.
JM: And at the same time under a council-manager government like Champaign has, you're not, for most purposes, the chief executive of city government. You're the chair of the city council. What does that mean as far as getting things done in the city?
Feinen: Well, I'm first among equals and the city of Champaign is the rule of five. You need five people to agree, or four others to agree with you in order to get anything done. But you do have the opportunity as mayor to really speak directly to issues in a way that can be different from council members. You have more public opportunities for sure, and hopefully, you use your bully pulpit for good and are able to convince other council members of the importance of ideas or issues. But we have really active council members who I really respect. And everybody has different issues they're interested in. And so we're all in it together to make sure we have a really great city.
JM: In the last four years, what do you see as being the biggest accomplishments of you and the City Council for the city?
Feinen: Well I'm really proud of the C-U Fresh Start program. That is something that we have started since I have been mayor to address gun violence. Along with that, we have the Goal Getters program, which is aimed at young adults, high school-age kids, to try to provide some wraparound services for them to keep them out of trouble and get them focused on what they want to do to be successful. We have the CDAP program (Champaign Diversity Advancement Program) and the local hiring program, which are both aimed at minority and women contractors and local businesses to try to have the city utilize those contractors as much as possible and those vendors. We have the Small Business Incentive Program. We have become an ISO-one rated Fire Department. We have the city's Transparency Portal, so you can log on now and see all of our budget information and get as much information as you would like in a pretty easy manner from the city. So there are lots of things that we have done over the last four years. And it really is a team. It's city staff, who are amazing. And it's at least four other council members --- usually most or all of the council members who've been a part of it.
JM: Let me go back to something you touched on at the top of that list. That's gun violence in Champaign and Urbana, which would certainly hasn't gone away. Do you do you feel the city is doing a good job of addressing this? And what more would you want the city to do?
Feinen: I always like to remind everybody that we live in a safe community. That's not to say that we shouldn't take seriously the gun violence issues. And certainly it is something that as a council, is a number one priority. But, it is certainly not solved. But if you look at the data relating to programs like C-U Fresh Start, it takes many years. We're in like Year Two And A Half of the program. So we're not going to see immediate change. We're trying to change people over time. And we also really need to dig in to work with the (Champaign Unit Four) school district and work with many of our nonprofit agencies relating to young kids. What are we going to do to make their lives better, their family lives better? It's economic development. It's making sure people are trained. But it's also reaching out. We need to be funding programs with the school district that make a difference in kids' lives. We need to be paying service providers that we asked to get involved and work with kids in the schools. And we need to take this seriously, because the gun violence will impact on everything else that we want to do at the city.
JM: There's a lot more development going on in Champaign now, than there was a few years ago, certainly in the years of the recession and just coming out of it. And a lot of it's been residential and a lot of that has been student housing. I sometimes hear people wondering if there's too much, in terms of what the actual need is. When you look at all the development that is going on in the city, what do you like? Do you have any concerns?
Feinen: Well I think it's market driven for the most part. I am guessing that developers would be unable to get a loan and cash flow for their project, if there weren't customers for them to fill those beds. And when we reached that cap in the market we will know, because they're not going to be able to get the loans to do the work, because people are going to recognize that they're just risking too much housing. And clearly, we're not there yet because they're still able to get those loans and build those places. I think what we've seen in Campustown has been dramatic. It is mostly related to the city doing the work it needed to do, relating to the Boneyard (Creek). And so, it freed up a lot of properties that were previously flood-prone properties, for development. I also think the MCORE project, which is basically the rebuild of Green Street, and other streets on campus, has made a tremendous difference as well. We look modern and new. I realize that some people don't like that, and they wish that Green Street looks the way that it looked in 1950. But I think as you look at attracting students and faculty to this campus, that continued growth and looking current is something that makes us more attractive. And frankly, the property taxes associated with that new development are what pay for all of the other city programs and services.
JM: Besides the residential development there's the commercial development going on. What do you see coming? And what is the city really looking forward to, in your view?
Feinen: I'm excited. There is some development that's going to be happening in Midtown, kind of where Chester Street (a gay-friendly bar and dance club that closed in 2017) used to be. We're going to see a development there, and I think that that area will continue to grow. Midtown Plaza has a bunch of residents who are going to need services and places to eat and go out. So I think that growth will continue to expand between downtown and Campustown. And so that's going to be really a fun connector. Certainly out at the Curtis Road Interchange, that growth will be fun to watch. We're getting some restaurants out that way. And I would expect that with the hotel and all of the workers out there, we're going to start seeing a lot of service related businesses as well. We continue to grow. I'm excited about the pace of it. And one of the things that's been really fun downtown, is we are primarily local businesses. And most downtowns can't say that.
JM: With the building of this new development, residents of some neighborhoods like Clark Park and Old Town Champaign have voiced concerns about big building projects in their neighborhoods that they fear will change the neighborhood character. I know that the city council in the last few months had looked at some different zoning regulations but at the same time some proposals that came --- well for instance, the Conservation District proposed by a group of Clark Park residents was voted down. What do you think the city should be doing in this area?
Feinen: So in In-Town, (a cluster of zoning districts in the older part of the city that includes the Old Town neighborhood) we actually had a two or three year process with the neighbors to talk about what development was appropriate and what densities were appropriate. And I think the neighbors are generally happy with the process that happened there. With respect to Clark Park, we have not engaged in that longer process. I think that zoning is the appropriate way to look at the maximum size and what we're going to do there. We have a meeting scheduled in April for Clark Park and Clark Park neighbors to get input. I wouldn't say begin getting input, because we're about a year and a half into talking with Clark Park about various issues relating to zoning. But I am hopeful that with zoning we can come to a compromise that maybe satisfies the neighbors' concerns about the character of their neighborhood and the things that make their neighborhood unique and why they live there.
JM: The City Council voted recently to buy land in the Garden Hills neighborhood for a detention pond for a big drainage improvement project there. And the big message I gathered from residents is that they want everything to happen sooner because there's going to be, at the current schedule, about a 10 year gap between buying that land and actually doing the work on the project. Do you see any opportunity for speeding things up?
Feinen: Yes. I mean, certainly, that that is a possibility. I think there are a couple things that are driving it. First I think it's important to note that the Champaign City Council actually voted to increase the storm water utility fee, specifically to move this project up. It was ---
JM: Just for Garden Hills? I know that they went up this year when they're going up in 2021.
Feinen: We moved the Garden Hills project from being out about 30 years to out about 10 years, based on the storm water utility fee being raised. So yes, that is the primary function of the storm water utility fee increase. I get why the neighbors are frustrated. But I also know that projects like this take time. And so some of it is finance. Can we afford to move it even faster? But some of it is just, we have to design it. We have to have engineering. We have to get the work done and that will be time consuming. This is not just a drainage project. This is a complete rebuild. This is drainage. This is sidewalks. This is lighting. This is landscaping. Think about the significant change of the Glenn Park Basin (the detention pond installed at Glenn Park, located between Mattis and Miller). That's the kind of project we're talking about in Garden Hills. Even if we had all of the funding ready to go, sitting in the city coffers, I don't think it can be done in a couple of years, because of the scope of the project. So you know the balance is understanding that the neighbors are frustrated and that we're trying to move it as quickly as we can. We also have other city projects that need to get done. And we need to be able to have the capacity to get it done.
JM: Are there other infrastructure projects that that are waiting that you would like to see the city make progress on in the next four years? And I know that just in terms of drainage, there has been stuff done with the Boneyard, but also with the West Washington and the John Street watersheds in recent years. Are there more unattended-to items out there?
Feinen: Oh my gosh. We have a 10 year capital improvement plan. So we have a hundred million dollars’ worth of unattended items for capital improvements. There's always a backlog on capital improvements. I think that not everything rises to the level of Garden Hills drainage. And certainly those neighbors, rightfully so, want things fixed. I would also say with respect to Garden Hills, we accepted it as an annexation. It was not built in this city to city code. And so that's part of the problem. We're going back and fixing Garden Hills now, because it wasn't built the way it should have been built originally, because it was built out in the county.