Urbana needs a new CAO !!

For Urbana to shed its “bozo” image, the City needs to replace its Chief Administrative Officer (CAO), Mr. Bruce Walden, with a more effective individual.   During his two decades tenure of as CAO, Urbana’s economic growth has fallen hopelessly behind that of Savoy and Champaign.   The retail Champaign had two decades ago is just now coming to Urbana.   Almost every high tech company coming to to the area recently has chosen Champaign over Urbana.

Years ago Mr.Walden and his staff lost the battle for the area’s first Wal-Mart to Champaign.  Soon thereafter the News-Gazette featured a large photo of Mr.Walden with the vacant fields of Lincoln Avenue near I-74 in the background where Wal-Mart could have been.   A substantial downward spiral followed, several illustrations of which follow:

  1. The subsequent development of the Lincoln Avenue/I-74 area took many years and remains insignificant compared to development along Champaign’s I-74 corridor.
  2. Wal-Mart has recently come to Urbana, not before first opening a store in Savoy and building a newer store in Champaign.  (Urbana’s inept policies created such a retail void that Wal-Mart would have been a bozo not to build in Urbana when it did.)
  3. The lack of services and businesses which serve growing families makes Urbana an inconvenient place to live.  Can you name your favorite Urbana major bookstore, movie theater, children’s dance or gymnastics studio, or appliance store? Two children’s dance studios, both once located in downtown Urbana, have each built new facilities in Savoy and Champaign respectively.  
  4. While Champaign and Savoy subdivisions of luxury homes sell out almost instantly, Urbana’s Stone Creek remains embarrassingly sparsely populated after several years.
  5. A column by Tom Kacich in the May 25 2005 News-Gazette column reported that homeowner incomes in Urbana zip codes are 15% to 40% lower than homeowner incomes in Champaign’s zip codes.   He rightfully concluded that this causes most aspiring families and national and local specialty retail and service businesses to choose Champaign.   Walgreens is the only national non-fast food retailer along Philo Road in Urbana because that neighborhood’s low-income residents, often without transportation, need a place to fill their government subsidized prescriptions.   Other retailers along Philo Road have closed in recent years.   Mr.Walden conceded that “Urbana has more low-income residents than we used to.”
  6. During Mr.Walden’s tenure (a) the Philo road commercial district experienced deterioration of several large apartment complexes, significantly deteriorated, with resulting significant increase in both crime and business closures; and (b) the relatively new east Urbana low income housing complex, Prairie Green apartments, precariously close to the Philo Road District, has become drug and crime ridden—a place that anyone with a job or family avoids.  

Any “positive” development in Urbana either has been, or soon will be duplicated or exceeded in Savoy-Champaign.   For example,

  1. A new luxury apartment complex, intended to attract graduate students is planned for the Philo Road district.   However the relatively high crime rate overflowing from nearby apartment complexes, and its distance from campus, movies and entertainment will leave it uncompetitive with a similar, conveniently located complex planned in Champaign at Fourth and Springfield—walking distance to both the university campus and the superior music, movies and restaurants of downtown Champaign.
  2. While neighborhood shopping centers in Champaign, such as Old Farm Shops, attract high quality specialty retailers, similar neighborhood centers in Urbana either have more mundane retailers (such as the Schnucks Commons on Main and Vine) or remain largely unfilled (such as the shopping center behind the Walgreen’s on the NE corner of University and Cunningham).  The prospects for the new retail area on the NW corner of Cunningham and University seems equally precarious.

Downtown Urbana has evolved much more slowly than downtown Champaign, which has become a regional entertainment center sprinkled with high tech businesses and luxury condos, with the new $30M “M2 on Neil” project and redevelopment of Christie Clinic land still to come.  Mr.Walden and Urbana’s planning staff has failed to duplicate Champaign’s downtown development successes.  While Champaign’s city planning staff began catalyzing its downtown development, Urbana wasted time hiring a consultant to perform a downtown study.  This study produced obvious proposals and conclusions which a competent city staff (like Champaign’s) could easily have produced internally.  Mr.Walden bears responsibility for not developing and attracting an appropriately skilled staff.  The time Urbana and the consultant wasted developing the downtown study provided Champaign an insurmountable head start on downtown development.

Although local folklore suggests Urbana is more liberal than Champaign, Champaign has been the more successful in achieving diversity and a sense of community.   Diversity in Champaign is, like evolution, proven.  In Urbana, diversity borders on unintelligent design.   A few examples can illustrate this:

  1. In 2000, out of 29 full or part time hires, Urbana hired zero minorities.  This record has been somewhat improved recently, but Urbana still lags far behind Champaign, where minorities have been an integral part of city staff for decades.
  2. While we often read about minority owned businesses in Champaign-Savoy, we rarely read about such located in Urbana
  3. As of December 2006,
    • Urbana’s 7-member school board has only one black member,
      while Champaign’s 7-member board has two black and one Hispanic members.

    • Urbana’s City council has one minority member, while Champaign’s council has two.
  4. A10/23/05 News-Gazette article noted that Champaign’s Latino population is growing faster than Urbana’s, and with good reason: better jobs, more
    convenient shopping, better schools and a city government and library which has done much more than Urbana to integrate Latinos into the community.
  5. Consider the series of downtown Champaign Streetfests (evening street concerts) being held during the summer 0f 2006.   The July 19 News-Gazette photos of the second Fest, held the previous Saturday, indicated the racial, political diversity of the audience.  The arrangement of tables and chairs on two closed-off blocks of Walnut Street created a joyous community meeting, where all groups mingled and chatted.
  6. A 23 July afternoon ribs and blues fest at Champaign’s Douglass Park (in an almost exclusively minority neighborhood) had a surprisingly diverse audience.
  7. The cultural diversity of attendees at Champaign’s annual Taste of Champaign Festival regularly exceeds that of Urbana’s Sweetcorn Festival.

In the past two decades Champaign seems to have achieved both diversity and substantial economic growth.

At the January 17 2006 Urbana City Council meeting, a presentation by Mr.Walden described Urbana’s loss of property tax revenue allegedly attributable to the University’s expansion into Urbana.  In an interview in the July 2006 issue of a locally distributed newsletter, the Urbana Reporter, Mr.Walden reflected on his efforts as an advocate for Urbana concerning the University’s expansion:

“It has been my persistent effort to educate University decision makers on the impacts of their decision making on the local level.”

and

“The Jury is out on whether I have been totally successful in this cause, but I have think I have made a difference.”

Actually, a rational jury would reject this latter contention.  The University has never, and will never participate, with either Urbana or Champaign in any way which compromises the University’s own interests, although the University will revise plans if the cities can be helped without cost to the University.  The UofL administration knows that the success of Champaign-Savoy-Urbana’s derives from the University—not the other way around.   For example,

  1. The University compensated the Urbana school district for educating the children of Orchard Downs students only because not doing so would strain the school district, and hinder the university’s ability to attract faculty.
  2. The University allowed the construction of a residential commercial complex on Gregory Avenue just south of Krannert Performing Arts Center because the complex could be built without affecting the University’s long range plans.
  3. Similarly , the University will condescend to work with Urbana on re-developing Orchard Downs because (a) the age of Orchard Downs makes it uncompetitive with other housing options for graduate students privately available, and (b) the University cannot expect the state legislature to fund any grandiose reconstruction there.  However, in order to obtain the most advantageous development, Urbana’s City Council would be well advised to hire Steve Carter (Champaign’s City Manager) and Champaign’s planning staff as negotiators, rather than depend on Mr.Walden and Urbana’s less capable staff.

Mr.Walden’s years of scapegoating the University for Urbana’s imagined woes, has had two undesirable effects.

First it has soured Urbana-University relations.   Champaign instead sagaciously nurtured a positive city-university relationship, resulting in various economic partnerships with the University.   A series of News-Gazette articles several years ago alluded to the poor relationship between Urbana and the University—a burden Mr.Walden must bear.

Second Mr. Walden’s wailings has delayed Urbana from growing along its non-UI borders.   Champaign has wisely sought and will continue to experience growth on its non-UI borders.   Examples include much housing, Thomas Moore High School and proposed NW Champaign medical facilities by Carle and Christie.   (And isn’t Carle planning to close its SE Urbana facility?)

Urbana has only recently discovered it non-UI borders, and only did so because a group of residents living beyond Urbana’s borders, several years ago, threatened to form a new village of Big Grove, which would have “land-locked” Urbana.   This forced Mr. Walden and city staff to negotiate hurried and unnecessarily costly annexation agreements for land adjoining the city, without which much of Urbana’s now relatively modest outward growth likely would have either not occurred, or occurred even more lethargically. Urbana, with its delayed start, will never attract the range of businesses and high tech industry Savoy-Champaign already has.  

Coincidentally on not, the emergence of Urbana’s bozo image has coincided with Mr.Walden’s tenure as Urbana’s Chief Administrative Officer—and he has done nothing significant to correct that image.   Rather than waste effort studying the University’s effect on Urbana, which the city can only cajole rather than control, Mr.Walden should report to public the very real economic costs of Urbana’s bozo image.

Finally, the location of new member sof the Champaign County Chamber of Commerce reported in the Chamber’s July through September 2006 News-Gazette supplements: Champaign 26, Urbana 2, Mahomet 3.   This score, reminiscent of many Illini football scores during the 2005 and 2006 seasons, again reflects two decades of Urbana relative economic inconsequence.  

In the Urbana Reporter article cited above, Mr.Walden stated “I think we have turned the corner on several fronts.” and alluded to various developments in Urbana.   Urbana does not yet have the retailers that Champaign attracted twenty years ago.   If Urbana had had better leadership the past 20 Walden years, Urbana would have always been on a straight path without corners to turn, and Urbana would today be competitive with Savoy and Champaign.

Although Mr.Walden’s personal integrity, like that of former Illini football coach Lou Tepper, has never been questioned, Urbana residents need to urge their mayor and city council members to seek a new Chief Administrative Officer.

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