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Ask The Mayor: Bloomington's Hamilton on remonstration, COVID cases, Waldron

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Unknown Speaker
It's Ask The Mayor on WFIU we do this every week, but Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton allows us to do this live on Facebook. He's with us now. Hello, and welcome.

Unknown Speaker
Hey, good to be with you, Joe, Happy New Year to you and all those folks listening tuning into this. Thanks.

Unknown Speaker
Thank you for being with us. And for those joining us. We do appreciate your questions or comments. You can email us news at Indiana public media.org. Or you can go online to Twitter. And we have a handle called Ask the mayor there that you can leave a message anytime and we'll get to it one way or the other. And if not for Mayor John Hamilton mayor, Jim Lynn up in Columbus, Mayor Bennett in Terre Haute and we even have a town manager or business operation manager there in Nashville, Dax Norton. So let's just start Happy New Year to first of 2022 with ask the mayor hope you had a great holiday.

Unknown Speaker
Thank you, Joe. We did we had a smaller holiday than we planned given all the stuff going on in the pandemic. So we had to had to call an audible there right right at the end but had a very nice time safe and stayed in town and did some zoom, some zoom meetings with family but I know that a lot of people had to adjust plans and and just got to stay resilient and flexible. I guess through all this.

Unknown Speaker
And as we know from the city sends press releases on COVID cases been breaking records as has almost every entity the state a couple weeks ago hospitals overwhelmed from the city perspective in Bloomington. How much are the COVID cases hurting or affecting city services?

Unknown Speaker
Yeah, you know, Joe, it's something we we think about a lot, let December just a month ago was the highest number of city employees we had test positive ever since the start of the pandemic. So you're in three quarters in. And then this month, we're beating that we're already at 34 cases this month. So we're very concerned about and attentive to trying to keep our employees safe and healthy and protected. So far, we have not had major disruptions you may remember we had a week of we had to delay the recycling Pickup we had we had to close one parks building Banneker center for a week, basically due to staffing shortages. Were but I have to tell you, like I think like a lot of employers were really just kind of on the edge of making sure we were covering our public safety shifts and our sanitation shifts, our water plan operators, all that stuff. So we're, you know, it's very serious. We do hope Omicron that this latest surge will not last very long. That's the kind of some of the indicators again, I'm I'm not a medical expert, but that's what we hope will happen. In the meantime, we're just trying to do a lot a lot of steps to keep people masked and tested and if you're sick Don't be at work and, you know, do the most we can to keep keep our employees on the job like hospitals and, and retailers and everybody else is doing.

Unknown Speaker
Yeah. You mentioned the omachron variant stage that we seem to be in right now. I know things change quickly. So is there anything new that you've learned or in you know, briefings about this variant and what we should know about it?

Unknown Speaker
Well, I think it's just super contagious. That's one thing. So there's much more concern about sharing air with people even briefly can be enough to catch this virus this variant. It does seem to be for the vaccinated, not as serious. But for the unvaccinated. If you catch this, it can still be extremely serious, even fatal. So, you know, we're just we have a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated who work in the city. We're trying to encourage as much that people do get vaccinated with incentives and other protocols. But in the meantime, everybody's masked and we're trying to really protect against against that. The it is true, too. I think that we have a sense that this variant is so contagious, that it tends to rise quickly and decrease relatively quickly. We hope that's the case. I know, the hospital hopes it's the case, there's some indications of that around the country. Again, I'm not the expert on this. But, you know, I hope by Friday, this week, for example, we'll get some reports that give us that in the meantime, our numbers have skyrocketed in the county, as you as you know, you know, we were over over 1000 that we had been below 100. And we're now over 1000 cases, we were hitting multi hundreds per day. So right now we're in the thick of a very hot surge.

Unknown Speaker
And that's for people who are able to get tested. I know testing has been an issue lately. What are the expectations right now or that people should know about going to get testing tested for COVID?

Unknown Speaker
Well, I think the federal government's going to be sharing some more testing. But that I guess a couple things, I'd say one, you kind of have to assume that you are somebody near you might have Omicron. Now, it's just so prevalent. So you just have to act as if you might be infectious. Or you might be near somebody who's infectious if you're not if you're outside your home and your own pod, if you will, as we call it sometimes. So just you just have to be really careful. Second, you know, we are encouraging people to get tested, we know the access is not what we wish it were. But you can you may be able to do it through your workplace. There are some home tests, if you're infectious. If you feeling sick, you definitely need to be very careful and assume you're, you know, you should be stay clear of people. But our health department continues to do the very best we can to bring in new testing sites that I use been very helpful with mobile sites. And we'll continue to try to get as many of those as we can. But in the next few weeks, you just kind of have to be super careful regardless of your testing status.

Unknown Speaker
And I believe health administrator from the county, Penny Caudill said something about also look at resources outside of Monroe County as well, you might be able to get tested sooner.

Unknown Speaker
That's true. I know. Just like with the vaccines, we sometimes found that Monroe County was a huge uptake area, and you could go a county or two away and maybe find the vaccines. It's similar, I think for tests as well.

Unknown Speaker
Okay. Let's move on to a few other things. For Bloomington. How about annexation, a milestone hit a couple weeks ago, remonstrations ended? I think it was January 6, nothing official, it's going to take still a few weeks for all the petition signatures to get through the proper channels. But some of the these early numbers that some of the people have been keeping track of say that all but one area has reached that 65% Point to invalidate annexation. What what's your reaction to that? Or what what have you heard?

Unknown Speaker
Yeah, thanks, Joe. I, the main message I give is just take take a few breaths, it's to way too early to celebrate a victory for those who wanted that either way, or to be despair about how it came out, whichever way you wanted it to come out. You know, I'm an advocate for annexation. So I continue to believe it's really important for the city's future. Clearly there were people activated who wanted to gather signatures, but is this is an extremely technical area. Just because you sign a piece of paper doesn't mean that's effective. It has to be the right person. It has to be the right signature. It has to be notarized in different ways. And of course there's the issue of waivers were property owners in the past agreed to be part of the city. So the next step is the auditor's has sent overs, a lot of petitions, our legal team in the city reviews them, we will send them back to the auditor in a few weeks. And then the auditor has the responsibility to put out her final numbers, which we may or may not agree with. And then it's possible that it'll go to court and as you said, if it's over a below certain thresholds, it may or may not go to court. But there's this big looming waiver question of places that agreed to be part of the city that are now not wanting to be part of the city and the state legislature changed it, we think illegally. So they're still, maybe we're in the sixth inning, I don't know of a nine inning game, something like that. So there's a lot to go and everybody can just take a breath and let the process work.

Unknown Speaker
What does that say to you, though, that they know the grass roots efforts to achieve that many signatures? What does that tell you?

Unknown Speaker
Well, look, we know in many ways, once an area gets city sewers, and has those services, that that is often the most important thing for people to join the city. And if they can get city sewers without joining the city, some people, many people may choose to do that. That's one of the reasons that we have waivers. It's the main reason in fact, state law requires us to get waivers. So it's not a surprise I was I was I regret that people spent so much energy and time fighting what I think is good for the city and frankly, good for the whole community and for the region. But I understand it, and we're gonna work it through. And that's why there's a legal process to go through annexation. And we're gonna follow the rules as we have and if we think others haven't followed the rules, we'll have to point that out and see how that gets resolved.

Unknown Speaker
The John Waldron Art Center is open again. I think it's she's What was that a year ago, we had a press conference there inside about a major announcement about the renovation of the center that will first the city took it back from Ivy Tech, and had some renovations done and then was going to open or create a new booking ticket agency that that will be kind of overseen by the city. Can you kind of fill us in on what's going on the Walton Arts Center?

Unknown Speaker
Yeah, Joe, you got it right. We the Ivy Tech, which would run it known it for a year to a decade gave it back to the city about a year ago, we took some time with a with a commission made up of committee residents, local residents and artists and many others who recommended going forward with a kind of a short term plan, if you will, a three to five year plan for the Waldron, which has now been implemented. And that's what we announced last fall and put about a half a million dollars of renovation into the building to get it back up to snuff. It opened again, as we, as we promised the first week of this this year in January. It is available for events there theater companies that are planning to use it. We're in the midst of negotiating kind of the longer term management of that, and expect that to get resolved relatively soon. But over the next soap, so it looks like we have a plan for the next three to five years. And then I think you'll also see more work thinking about the whole community in the performing arts spaces and the culture and support for all of our amazing performers and artists to look over the long haul. Is this place the solution for that? Or should we look at other ideas and that will take place over the next? I don't know year or so. But for right now the wall turns open. We're really pleased to have that back if we can just get this virus under control. But we've got a new HVAC system there to keep the air cleaner and we know we have some theater groups ready to use it in the in the in the spring and fall

Unknown Speaker
with the new management service also oversee the Buskirk Chumley, too.

Unknown Speaker
You know, that's kind of an open question. The Buskirk Chumley theater management, which runs Buskirk Chumley could help oversee this building. And we may do that in the short run. In the long run. They could be together or they could be separate. Right now that's still kind of being negotiated. It looks like they'll be separate for the short term here. But whether that stays over the course of the coming years is is a good question.

Unknown Speaker
And quick follow up on something you just kind of touched upon too. And I know you said this is something to be talked about in the next year. But part of that presser for that press conference was the eventual plans to use the Waldron as like a leverage for a new performing arts center. That's that could be a possibility.

Unknown Speaker
You know, we've we've appropriated the City Council appropriated at our request about $100,000. I think for a really intensive study about how do we most support our performing arts and enhance that it's a huge part of our city. It's part of our DNA. It's also part of our economy to help help develop those. So that study is just getting started and it will look at Hey, should we use the Walgreens? Should we build a new facility? Should we use a bunch of different ones that we have? One of the interesting phrases I had that came out of that early? Early work was how do you create a purpose built career creative arts community. Maybe it's not maybe it's one building, but maybe it's broader than that. But really, if you're if you're a community that wants to purposefully be as supportive as we can of the Performing Arts, the creative arts, what do you do? What should you do? And that means looking at a lot of assets that we have, it means looking at the demand and looking at supply that we have in the community. And that'll be going on over the next year or so.

Unknown Speaker
about just any update on the convention center, Columbus laying the groundwork for there's I talked to Terre Haute, Mayor Duke Bennett last week, and there's it's almost done. It's going to open this spring. What's the latest on the Monroe Bloomington Convention Center renovation and addition?

Unknown Speaker
Yeah, you know, the the COVID pandemic really threw a wrench in a lot of those plans. And I think, Joe, the short answer is we're kind of we're still kind of keeping our powder dry and waiting to see what happens. I continue to believe it's really important opportunity for the downtown and for the whole region to you know, we're a tourist destination. We're a place people love to visit. We tend to have more visitors on the weekends than we do during the week right now. And a convention center can help help address that. But there's no there's no action right now. And then I think there are a number of people interested in it, and certainly put me in that camp of of those interested in seeing it move forward.

Unknown Speaker
Oh, the the Indiana General Assembly is in full swing lots going on at the state house vaccine mandate ban bill, efforts to cut 1 billion in taxes. And some of that includes a business personal property tax that I know mayor's Lindop and Bennett are not happy about. Is there anything that you're kind of keeping an eye on that would affect Bloomington residents?

Unknown Speaker
Well, we have to watch a lot of things, Joe, and I will say often we're we're trying to play defense are concerned about things. You know, I will say, Look, we're pleased we got a $30 million regional economic advancement grant, that that is going to be important for us and we're working closely with our region on that. Tax cuts, we have concerns that the state sometimes cuts taxes that that actually affect local governments and don't help us address the needs that we have, we're already very hamstrung as local governments in what we can do to raise revenue. So that's a concern. There's a there's a repeat concern of really loosening up who can carry concealed permits and handguns right now, very importantly, I believe we are allowed to review those and make decisions about those. You know, we have, in my view, too many guns a wash all over our community. We're seeing gun violence, that's of great concern here as well as of course, you read the newspapers about larger cities and the concerns there. We're watching Of course, you know, we've had annexation bills come through that have been concerned. So we're watching about, I wish they would fix the solar energy credit that they've they've in my view made a really boneheaded decision about not not letting and encouraging more people to produce their own energy and to and to distribute the production of energy in ways that's much more resilient. So we're always watching, I have to say it often feels like we're watching defense wise, but we keep an eye out and hope they'll hope they'll do do some smart things and not do some ill advised things.

Unknown Speaker
You mentioned $10 million in bond money back during the budget cycle there in Bloomington, and you're going to introduce it in this first half of the year. And I believe it was for parks and sustainability. anything new on that?

Unknown Speaker
Are you right, Joe as part of the budget that we got passed for this year. And I think it's a very good budget, thanks to the American rescue plan Act, the Federal money which really helped us do a lot of good recover forward investments. We agreed with the City Council to do a $10 million bond the first half of the year, we're starting conversations about that it's really split into two $5,000,000.05 year bonds. That's kind of the plan to help it accelerate, both on the park side, some of their trails and other enhancements as well as on the public infrastructure sides think sidewalks and bike lanes. And it really it is kind of focused on mobility, sustainability and resilience. And I think it's a really good investment for the city. We also expect to need new revenue for police and public safety, if not for other reasons. So we're starting those conversations with council members and other partners about how to address both of those things.

Unknown Speaker
I know we've got five minutes left, so I wanted to get really quick. The Johnson Creamery smokestack is unsafe, and the owners or peerless developers in from Chicago were notified have 60 days to fix it. We did a story on that I tried to reach out to them in Chicago but have not heard back Are they quiet? operating with this or have you heard anything?

Unknown Speaker
Well, Joe, I hope you'll keep calling that would be good that we are we are connecting with them. But that smokestack which is in historic smokestack, I think it was built in 1949, maybe 140 feet. If you, if you look at it carefully, you'll see that it's got some signs of wear and some, actually some some tilt to it, which is of concern. It was that immediate worried making sure we did an inspection in December. A more detailed one was a few years old, but nothing had been done. And we did another inspection in December and just said, Look, this is there's there's risk here. And we don't want anybody hurt by anything that could happen here. So we did put that order in. It's really important that they take it seriously. They have 60 days to get with us and a plan to rehabilitate that. It's really important to be done before the Farmers Market opens. We want that trail. It's right now the Beeline we had to detour the trail in that one block area. So the trail still open Beeline, but it's detoured a little bit right, there. We are, we are in contact with the company. I'm not yet confident that they've taken on what they need to but we've we're going to be in regular contact to make sure they do the right thing.

Unknown Speaker
Alright, we have four minutes left, so much always to talk to Bob. But is there anything else? Any announcements? Anything else that you'd like to maybe look forward to in 2022?

Unknown Speaker
Well, I'll mention a couple of things. One is where we actually have a meeting tonight of the first real formal joint meeting between our new sibling city, Palo Alto, California. So that's kind of fun and interesting as we explore how these two cities, one on the coast and one in the heartland can can learn from each other and share economically and culturally and artistically and other things like that. So I'm really pleased about that. And I know the mayor of Palo Alto will be on the same meeting I'm on tonight. That'll be interesting. I might also mention, we have a relatively new but kind of fun and exciting festival going on this weekend coming weekend called freeze fest. And it's got a lot of ice sculptures and different outdoor activities. And you can check it out on our website or just Google freeze fest, I think Bloomington and you'll find out lots of lots of details and ideas. I understand there were tons, literally many tons of ice delivered. That are we've got some ice carvers and other folks very active with that even as we speak, who are who are preparing for the priests fest. So that's a couple of things that you know, otherwise 2022 Look, we just sure hope that we are going to be closing our way out of the pandemic. And what we talked about with recover forward is to is to pivot into the future. This this decade is super important to 2020s we want to see an advancement on climate change in a more sustainable economy, a more welcoming community and inclusive community. And we've seen a lot of job changes and wage increases and that's, that's terrific. We're going to need to keep working on affordable housing and public safety, which we will but I'm excited that that I hope you know we'll we'll see a real pivoting out of this pandemic. Surely we will. We won't be in the same spot in here. But we we've learned to be humble and will will stay flexible and resilient. And I want to thank the community. So many people who've done so much to help everybody stay as safe as we can.

Unknown Speaker
All right. Thank you so much for being with us. And for those watching or listening. Don't forget you can submit your questions to Mayor Hamilton or any of our mayor's news at Indiana public media.org or on Twitter as the mayor. Mayor Hamilton. Thank you very much.

Unknown Speaker
Thank you, Joe. You always cover a lot of good bases and good questions PJ. Nice to see you again this year.

Unknown Speaker
All right, we'll see you next month.
Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton

Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton on Tuesday's Zoom interview. (Zoom)

Hamilton says the city hasn't had to reduce city services due to increased COVID cases, the Monroe Convention Center expansion is still on hold, a study is underway on the future of performing arts venues.

In this week’s installment of Ask The Mayor, Bloomington Mayor John Hamilton addresses these issues and more during a Facebook Live Zoom event Tuesday. Listen to the full conversation with Indiana Newsdesk anchor Joe Hren by clicking on the play button above, or read some of the questions and answers below. A portion of this segment airs 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. Wednesday on WFIU. Here are some highlights.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

Hren: The city sends press releases on COVID cases and the number has been breaking records as has almost every entity including the state recently, hospitals are overwhelmed too. From a city perspective, how much are the COVID cases hurting or affecting city services?

Hamilton: Just a month ago was the highest number of city employees we had test positive ever since the start of the pandemic. And then this month, we're beating that - we're already at 34 cases this month. So far, we have not had major disruptions. You may remember we had to delay the recycling pickup, we had to close one parks building, Banneker Center, for a week, basically due to staffing shortages.

A lot of employers were really just kind of on the edge of making sure we were covering our public safety shifts and our sanitation shifts, our water plan operators, all that stuff. So, you know, it's very serious. We do hope Omicron, that this latest surge will not last very long.

READ MORE: Monroe Co. confirms 196 COVID-19 cases, government opens at-home test registration

Petitioners say they have enough signatures to block annexation.
Petitioners marked the end of the remonstration period at the Monroe Co. Courthouse. (Joe Hren, WFIU/WTIU News)

Hren: A milestone hit a couple weeks ago, remonstration ended January 7. Nothing is official, it's going to take a few weeks for all the signatures to get validated. But some of the early numbers say all but one area has reached that 65% mark to invalidate annexation. What's your reaction to that?

Hamilton: The main message I give is just take take a few breaths, it's to way too early to celebrate a victory for those who wanted that either way, or to despair about how it came out, whichever way you wanted it to come out.  I'm an advocate for annexation. So I continue to believe it's really important for the city's future.

Clearly there were people activated who wanted to gather signatures, but this is an extremely technical area. Just because you sign a piece of paper doesn't mean that's effective. It has to be the right person. It has to be the right signature. It has to be notarized in different ways. And of course there's the issue of waivers where property owners in the past agreed to be part of the city.

So the next step is the auditor has sent over a lot of petitions, our legal team in the city reviews them, we will send them back to the auditor in a few weeks. And then the auditor has the responsibility to put out her final numbers, which we may or may not agree with. And then it's possible that it'll go to court, and as you said, if it's over or below certain thresholds, it may or may not go to court.

But there's this big looming waiver question of places that agreed to be part of the city that are now not wanting to be part of the city and the state legislature changed it, we think illegally.

Hren: What does that say to you, though, the grass roots efforts to achieve that many signatures?

Hamilton: It's not a surprise. I regret that people spent so much energy and time fighting what I think is good for the city and frankly, good for the whole community and for the region. But I understand it, and we're gonna work it through. And that's why there's a legal process to go through annexation. And we're gonna follow the rules as we have, and if we think others haven't followed the rules, we'll have to point that out and see how that gets resolved.

READ MORE: Bloomington Annexation Coverage

The Waldron Art Center in downtown Bloomington
The Waldron Arts Center in downtown Bloomington.

Hren: The Waldron Arts Center is open again after being taken over by the city, renovations and new management overnight - what's the latest?

Hamilton: We took some time with a commission made up of local residents and artists and many others who recommended going forward with a kind of a short term plan, if you will, a three to five year plan for the Waldron, which has now been implemented. We put about a half a million dollars of renovation into the building to get it back up to snuff. It opened again, as we promised the first week of this year.

We're in the midst of negotiating the longer term management of that, and expect that to get resolved relatively soon. But we've got a new HVAC system there to keep the air cleaner and we know we have some theater groups ready to use it.

READ MORE: Bloomington 'Thinking Big' Leveraging Waldron For New Downtown Arts Center

The City Council appropriated at our request about $100,000 for a really intensive study about how do we most support our performing arts. It's a huge part of our city. It's part of our DNA. It's also part of our economy. So that study is just getting started and it will look at, should we use the Waldron? Should we build a new facility? Should we use a bunch of different ones that we have? What should you do? And that means looking at a lot of assets that we have, it means looking at the demand and looking at supply that we have in the community. And that'll be going on over the next year or so.

Monroe Convention Center sign

Hren: Any update on the convention center expansion? Columbus is laying the groundwork for one. I talked to Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett last week, and their's is almost done.

Hamilton: The COVID pandemic really threw a wrench in a lot of those plans. And I think, Joe, the short answer is we're still kind of keeping our powder dry and waiting to see what happens. I continue to believe it's really important opportunity for the downtown and for the whole region. We're a tourist destination. We're a place people love to visit. We tend to have more visitors on the weekends than we do during the week right now. And a convention center can help help address that. But there's no there's no action right now.

Hren: The Johnson Creamery smokestack is unsafe, and the owners, Peerless developers from Chicago were notified they have 60 days to fix it. Are they cooperating?

Hamilton: If you look at it carefully, you'll see that it's got some signs of wear, actually some tilt to it, which is of concern. We did another inspection in December and just said, look, there's risk here. And we don't want anybody hurt by anything that could happen here. They have 60 days to get with us and a plan to rehabilitate that. It's really important to be done before the Farmers Market opens. We are in contact with the company. I'm not yet confident that they've taken on what they need to, but we're going to be in regular contact to make sure they do the right thing.

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