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Ones to watch: 6 stories for Decatur to keep an eye on in 2019
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THE YEAR AHEAD
5 STORIES TO WATCH IN '19

Ones to watch: 6 stories for Decatur to keep an eye on in 2019

The top topics and trends of the new year

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The new year brings a new governor and historic Democrat supermajorities in the statehouse, political turnover on the local level and progress toward major economic and educational goals for the Decatur region. Leaders of city government and the Decatur School District are poised to move forward with initiatives to transform neighborhoods and schools, efforts that will take years to achieve.

Here’s a look at six major stories to watch in 2019.

Decatur City Council and school board elections

This spring’s consolidated elections are guaranteed to change the makeup of the Decatur City Council and school board, though it’s unclear by how much.

Incumbent Mayor Julie Moore Wolfe, first appointed in 2015 and elected in 2017, is facing two challengers: Councilman David Horn, a Millikin University biology professor, and Jacob Jenkins, an employee at the Illinois Department of Human Services.

Three council seats are up in the election, and at least one will be filled by a new face. Councilwoman Dana Ray has said she will not seek another term. Incumbents Bill Faber and Lisa Gregory will be on the ballot.

They face the following challengers: accountant Shavon Francis; retiree Marty Watkins; Taylorville Correctional Center Warden Shelith Hansbro; auto garage owner John Phillips, Jr.; and Rodney Walker, CEO of SkyWalker International Sports Complex.

On the Decatur Board of Education, four candidates are running for three seats; at least two of those elected will be new additions.

Board President Dan Oakes is the only incumbent running. The other two, Brian Hodges and Sherri Perkins, decided not to seek another term.

The other candidates who filed to run are retired teacher Leara Evans; Decatur attorney Regan Lewis; and Andrew Taylor, economic development officer for Decatur and Macon County.

The election is April 2.

Jobs and the economy

Economic and community leaders in 2019 plan to continue partnerships that they say have led to recovery for the region.

Agencies including the Economic Development Corporation of Decatur and Macon County, Workforce Investment Solutions and Richland Community College in recent years have cooperated to help connect job-seekers not only with open positions, but also the training needed to fill them.

Along with preparation for industrial jobs, leaders say the agencies are working to impart something employers also say is needed: essential or "soft skills," like being on time, communicating and dressing appropriately.

Throughout 2018, the number of open full- and part-time jobs in the Decatur region hovered around 1,000, according to EDC President Ryan McCrady. Rocki Wilkerson, executive director of Workforce Investment Solutions, said the agencies will need to continue efforts to let people know about available opportunities.

Decatur ended the year on a high note, making Global Trade magazine’s list of 15 “Cities to Watch” for economic climate and development efforts. The EDC cited the Midwest Inland Port, a transportation hub for goods in Decatur that has been developed over the past several years, as among the community’s economic strengths.

“We’re making positive strides on several significant fronts,” McCrady said.

Decatur public schools plan

Leaders of the Decatur School District in 2018 launched a wide-ranging strategic plan meant to turn the district into a destination of choice for parents. The proposal, which aims to transform use of district facilities and adopt a student-focused approach, will end its first academic year in 2019.

A key component the plan involves reconfiguring the district’s 22 buildings. An initial schedule calls for construction to start this year and end before fall 2021. Estimated to cost roughly $60 million, the plan would:

  • combine the two middle schools at the Stephen Decatur building;
  • combine Harris and Hope Academy at Hope and convert Harris into an alternative education center;
  • move the two Montessori programs into the Thomas Jefferson building together, which would allow for more students;
  • create a second campus at French Academy for Dennis School, a lab school program with close ties to Millikin University;
  • build a new building for Johns Hill and Durfee on Johns Hill's campus, close Durfee and send those students to other buildings.

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Also this school year, the district has identified several goals to support the strategic plan’s implementation, including the development of community partnerships at the building level and a districtwide “whole student” approach that improves academic and social outcomes. Administrators are also seeking to revamp the alternative education program, which addresses students with behavior issues.

"The district needs to change,” Superintendent Paul Fregeau said in August, describing the plan, “and this is the impetus for that change."

Decatur city manager search

Former City Manager Tim Gleason left in June to take the same job in Bloomington, touching off a search for his replacement.

Members of the Decatur City Council have not provided many details about the status of the process, including how many finalists they might be interviewing and when a permanent replacement for Gleason will be named.

Deputy City Manager Billy Tyus was named to fill the position in the interim, but said in October that he would not seek the job for family-related reasons.

The council has hired Gov HR, a consulting firm that helped it find Gleason, to conduct the search. It also asked for public input about what qualities residents would like to see in a city manager.

Mayor Julie Moore Wolfe has indicated that residents won’t be meeting the new city manager before he or she is hired. The position represents "the only person we hire, the only person we fire, so if the person we choose is somebody that the public doesn't like, doesn't want, that's on us and they can fire us," she said.

Council members in December held interviews in a closed-session meeting at the Decatur Conference Center and Hotel, so an announcement could come any time.

Pritzker administration’s impact

When J.B. Pritzker becomes governor in January, the Chicago Democrat will have super-majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly, meaning he is likely to have an easier time accomplishing top priorities than outgoing Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.

One anticipated priority for his administration is the legalization of recreational marijuana, which Pritzker has said could provide hundreds of millions of dollars to help the state budget deficit. He has also suggested options such as sports betting and gambling expansion could offer key revenue streams.

Pritzker campaigned heavily on the introduction of a progressive income tax, but that change would take time. It requires a constitutional amendment that voters would need to approve in 2020.

Pritzker also has plans to move forward with criminal justice reform, creating an agency to coordinate efforts to address what's wrong, and strengthen what's right, with the state’s criminal justice system.

A number of Decatur-area leaders have been named to committees behind Pritzker’s transition effort. Ryan McCrady, president of the Economic Development Corporation of Decatur and Macon County, and Juan Luciano, CEO of Archer Daniels Midland Co., were named to the agriculture committee. The budget committee includes Moore Wolfe and state Sen. Andy Manar, a Bunker Hill Democrat whose district includes Decatur. Manar is also co-chair of Pritzker’s Educational Success Committee.

Michael Carrigan, president of the Illinois AFL-CIO is a co-chair of the entire transition. Carrigan served on the Decatur City Council for 14 years and was appointed mayor from 2008-09.

Decatur neighborhood revitalization effort

The sweeping effort to restore Decatur neighborhoods and enhance quality of life cruised ahead during the first half of 2018, with more progress expected this year. 

Community members met to shape and prioritize goals for the plan, and Tyus in June presented an outline of possibilities to the council. Along with more tangible, obvious steps such as tearing down vacant homes, he also described other economic and social welfare goals. Another main priority: how to attract people to live in the city limits.

The city agreed in December to move forward on nine demolitions, with dozens more anticipated in 2019. Staff plan to have at least 47 homes demolished or out for bid by February, paid for in part by federal grant money.

Officials have said for years that abandoned homes are among the chief problems plaguing the Decatur neighborhoods, but also said there has not been enough money to take them down. Councilman David Horn, in the council’s last meeting of the year, said the city was “far behind” and urged more action.

Decatur’s 2019 budget includes $2.9 million in spending related to neighborhood revitalization, including a $1 million grant from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation.

Tyus told the Herald & Review in December that city leaders know they will need to identify more funding in the coming year, as there are more homes needing to be torn down than money to pay for them.

“We know that recent demolitions are only a start to addressing the problem,” he said.

Contact Allison Petty at (217) 421-6986. Follow her on Twitter: @allison0512

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