DECATUR — In a 4½-hour meeting that had the feel of a corporate retreat, the Decatur City Council reaffirmed neighborhood revitalization as its top priority.
At the same time, the council acknowledged it was not as clear-cut a No. 1 as it was two years ago, with workforce development — the council's No. 2 priority this year — rising in prominence as jobs in key industries remain unfilled.
Council members, meeting on a foggy Friday morning in the Decatur Club's third-floor conference room, agreed that the two top priorities were inextricably linked, noting that they can tear down dilapidated structures, but it won't matter much without a stable workforce to buy and maintain homes in the urban core.
"We are not going to have true neighborhood revitalization until we have very good workforce development," said Councilwoman Lisa Gregory.
"So we need to change how our community works," added Mayor Julie Moore Wolfe. "We've got a lot of open jobs, we've got a lot of people that need jobs or should be trained, and we've got the resources to do it. So we just have to make it all work. And I think we will."
Council members and city manager Scot Wrighton avoided specifics, instead tackling the "big picture" that will form the framework for city priorities for at least the next two years.
Beyond the top two priorities, council members opted to maintain and expand upon four other priorities: taking downtown to the next level, implementing new technologies to improve city services, exploring new revenue streams and cost reductions, and collaborating with other stakeholders on the management of Lake Decatur and other public spaces.
A seventh priority — creating an inspiration vision for Decatur — was dropped, with council members and city staff determining it as aspirational, not something that can easily be measured.
"The 2019 document did a pretty good job of identifying where the council wants to spend its time, its resources and its attention," Wrighton said. "And of course, that document is going to change over time as there are different priorities that come up. But for the most part, we're still basically on track with where they wanted to be."
The "brainstorming" session comes just weeks ahead of the unveiling of the fiscal year 2022 budget. The council's strategic priorities will be used as a guide for key decisions on where city resources are allocated.
As it was in 2019, the session was facilitated by Mark Peterson, a municipal consultant and the former city manager of Normal. He was paid $2,500 for his services, which also included individual sessions with each council member. He will also help Wrighton write a report on the council's priority goals.
A discussion was had on adding more strategic goals, with issues ranging from crime and homelessness to climate change being addressed.
Councilmen Dennis Cooper and David Horn, noting the significant racial disparities in economic and social outcomes, advocated to make race relations and equitable relationships a priority. However, there was no consensus to add it to the list, with other city officials saying those topics permeate everything the city does.
"We don't want to isolate it and park it over here and say, 'well, that's inequity,' when that philosophy should affect how we do neighborhood revitalization, how we do workforce development, how we improve downtown," Wrighton said. "It should affect everything we do."
A general consensus was formed that though they're on the right track with the goals, there needs to be a better measurement of progress. And, when progress is made, to share with the community.
"It's very important to us that we continue to work to improve this community, improve quality of life, get our neighborhoods stabilized and improved and to tell our story," Moore Wolfe said. "We are not doing as good a job telling our story as we are getting things done because the general public either doesn't remember, doesn't pay attention or just doesn't know."
Even small steps should be celebrated, Councilman Bill Faber said.
"Let's put some small steps out there that are visible, that we can tout and trumpet to show that we are making progress to our community, because they don't see it and they don't feel it," he said.