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Council tackles sustainability—Economic dialogue continues

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Should Village economic development efforts focus on strengthening local resources or working with regional partnerships? Should the bulk of money earmarked for development be used to pay a staff person, or instead to develop local resources? Is transparency appropriate to the economic development process?

These were some of the issues raised at a discussion on economic development — which Council has chosen to call economic sustainability — at the May 18 Village Council meeting. Council will continue the discussion at its next meeting on June 1.

At the meeting, Council unanimously approved a motion from Kathryn Van der Heiden that Village Manager Mark Cundiff prepare documents to move ahead with hiring a part-time development staff person. Council President Judith Hempfling, who had submitted a proposal for a different strategy, voted in favor after it was clarified that there would be further discussion before taking the step of hiring someone.

At issue is how best to use the $150,000 that Council has earmarked for economic development in the 2009 Village budget. That amount is the accumulation of three years of so-far-unused $50,000 yearly economic development funds earmarked by the 2006 five-year property tax levy. In a previous meeting, Cundiff said it could cost the Village almost $50,000 yearly to hire a part-time staff person, including benefits and taxes.

While Cundiff had previously encouraged Council to hire a full or part-time economic development employee, he said at the May 18 meeting that he had changed his mind and now believes the money would be best used in the near future to hire consultants for specific tasks. Because a significant part of the economic development staff person’s job will be working to fill the Center for Business and Education and that facility will not be ready for two years, the Village should wait until that time to make the financial commitment of hiring someone, Cundiff said.

In the meantime, Cundiff encouraged Council to pursue a variety of smaller actions to support existing businesses or attract new ones, including linking with regional resources and using the Village’s Revolving Loan Fund and upgrading the Village Web site and brochures.

Council President Judith Hempfling and villagers Benji Maruyama and Dimi Reber also encouraged Council not to use the bulk of the economic development money to hire a staff person. Rather, Council should create an economic development advisory board with representation from diverse aspects of the community, according to a draft proposal Maruyama presented. The board would bring diverse perspectives on economic development to the process and would advise Council on developing a plan based on local strengths, which include green energy, arts, health/wellness, education, diversity and local food, the proposal states.

“We have tremendous resources in the village,” Maruyama said, urging Council to tap into those resources while also using consultants to perform needed tasks.

This strategy would not only provide diverse perspectives but “focus on the strengths that make the village unique, and that haven’t been thought of as a part of economic development,” Hempfling said.

But the proposal does not acknowledge the already existing large employers of the village, according to Council Vice President Karen Wintrow, who stated that she was also not comfortable with its largely local focus.

Most state and regional development efforts “are all about regionalization, moving outward, not inward,” she said, saying that such efforts encourage municipalities to focus on “how to interact with their neighbors, not how a community of 3,700 can sustain itself.”

Wintrow also questioned the need for a transparent process. Requiring transparency in economic development is unrealistic, Wintrow said, stating that most businesses have no interest in revealing their plans and thus would be uncomfortable taking part in such a process.

All in all, Wintrow said, the proposal seemed to indicate that differences between Council members on economic development are larger than she had thought.

Transparency is important because recent local economic development efforts have created distrust in the community, according to villager Kathleen Boutis, who said that the issue has come up often in her talks with other villagers, who desire “to be at the table” of economic development planning, not to hear business secrets.

Establishing an economic development advisory board would be “re-inventing a wheel that doesn’t need to be re-invented,” Van der Heiden said, adding that Community Resources, of which she is an ex officio member, is already filling the role of a community improvement corporation, or CIP.

Council members expressed interest in asking Community Resources to become the Village’s designated CIP, which it currently is not.

The Council discussion touched on “rifts in the community and distrust we’re facing,” said Council member Lori Askeland, who stated, “Is there a way to come forward and be honest about those rifts?”

Several villagers encouraged Council to hire a staff person to focus on economic development. The Village needs to have a paid employee to take advantage of opportunities such as a recent contact from a call center that sought a new location, according to Community Resources Chair Lisa Abel. Because Community Resources is all volunteer, it was difficult for members to respond quickly.

“If you don’t have a point person, you can’t deal with these inquiries,” she said.

In other Council business:

• Council members initiated a discussion on the revised Village Comprehensive Plan, which was submitted by Planning Commission. The planners have been revising the document for the last year, after Council requested that they do so.

Council will continue the discussion at its June 1 meeting.

Two Council members indicated several areas of discomfort with the revision. Both Hempfling and Askeland stated their discomfort with wording having to do with the size of the village. The revised plan states that while villagers have traditionally preferred remaining small, “this may not be preferable or even desirable…”

Hempfling also questioned language that referred to the Village’s Urban Service Boundary, which is the area around the village in which water and sewer can be gravity fed. The current language seems to invite development into the area, Hempfling said, stating that she is uncomfortable with that emphasis. However, questioning that boundary will provoke controversy in the township, according to Planning Commission Chair John Struewing. Wintrow stated she sees the language as purposefully ambiguous, and that it would be a mistake to try to change it.

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