CHAMPAIGN — Some city council members who walked into what they thought would be a strategic planning session on the future of the Champaign County Economic Development Corp. on Tuesday night left feeling greatly disappointed.
After hearing an almost hourlong presentation from Executive Director Carly McCrory, some council members indicated they felt it was lacking, and issued a wish list that included council representation on the organization’s board and a more fleshed-out plan of its future endeavors.
Council member Alicia Beck said it’s all well and good that the agency is funding well-attended programs, organizing events and encouraging businesses to invest in Champaign, but nonetheless, she “has some concerns.”
Foremost among those: “disproportionate” representation on the organization’s board compared to the level of funding given. Champaign contributes $115,000 to the agency annually, while all the other “investors” combined — the county, Rantoul, Urbana, Savoy and Mahomet — give only about $68,000.
Given that sort of disparity, Beck and several other council members said they want one of their own to sit on the board, and they also want a better idea of just what the organization plans to do with the funding.
“I’m a little torn on the alternative we were presented,” said Beck of a poll city staff gave council members. “In the alternatives, it implies that we’re being given a new strategic plan to consider, and we’re not given that. We were given what you’re thinking about putting in there, and the idea bubbling around, but I don’t know how to vote because there’s no strategic plan for me to vote on.”
By the end of Tuesday’s meeting, council members voted to have a further discussion on the economic development agency’s strategic plan at a future study session, but only after council members Angie Brix and Vanna Pianfetti expressed their agreement with Beck.
“I thought it was a good summary, but not enough for me to give you input on a plan,” Pianfetti said. “I would need metrics. It’s hard to know now how things would move forward without having something to say, ‘Please prioritize this area to other areas.’ That would help with knowing how to help you make a strategic plan.”
Pianfetti added that there is a disconnect between what the council thought it would be seeing Tuesday and what was but a “summary” of the organization’s accomplishments. She also said that a brainstorming visualization diagram drawn by local brand designer David Michael Moore was “hard to read,” so “to even see what your brainstorming looked like was difficult.”
Mayor Deb Feinen said she “doesn’t want to be invited to another meeting” and agreed with Beck and others that if Champaign is the largest funder, its council should have a louder voice.
“A meeting happening in a week is not one that any council member can get to and participate on in a meaningful way,” Feinen said. “Every other board we fund, we have a seat from the council on the board. It seems only appropriate that we have a seat there.”
She added that the graphic is fine, but “I’d rather have the background data.” It may be meaningful for those who participated in the brainstorming session, Feinen said, but “it doesn’t mean that to me.”
On the issue of funding levels, council member Tom Bruno, who voted no on having the organization return for further discussion, said it would be “harmful” for the council to rethink its financial commitment.
“It’s tempting to feel like we’re getting the short end of the stick here in the city because we do so much of the heavy lifting and not all our neighboring governmental jurisdictions do that,” Bruno said. “But I think it would be harmful to our own interests if we decided that because we weren’t being treated fairly by other neighbors that we should pull out of a collaborative effort.”
He added that to outsiders, Champaign-Urbana must look like one community, and he called on the council to fund the organization “four or five times as much” as current levels.
“When a corporate site selector wants to check us off the list, it’s essential that they look to Champaign County and see one organization they can get information from about our entire community rather than Champaign and Urbana having different sources of information,” Bruno said. “The message is that this is two different communities, and it wouldn’t be a good message.”