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Forty three million dollars may seem like an awfully big figure, but Evanston residents had a wealth of ideas on where the money could be spent at a town hall meeting June 17.
City officials held the virtual town meeting to provide information to and gather feedback from residents about their needs and priorities for the total $43 million the City will receive in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds targeted for COVID-19 recovery.
Officials said they wanted to hear residents views on how to use the funds. “It’s really a significant amount of resource and therefore a significant opportunity for us,” Mayor Daniel Biss said, welcoming residents to the session.
“We’ve received half of it already,” Mr. Biss said. “We’re going to receive the next half a year from now and then, in all likelihood, that’s going to be it. And so, when we’re thinking about what to do with this funding, I think it’s really beneficial if we put ourselves in an ‘investment’ mental framework – in other words, not, ‘How do we set up an ongoing program that will require us to find revenue year after year after year, even if the feds are only providing it for a few years?’ But rather, ‘How do we, right now, make enduring changes in our community that will pay off for years and even generations to come?’”
The more than 60 residents in the meeting had plenty of ideas in that direction. Like many things Evanston, they provided a good dose of commentary to go with their suggestions.
In one breakout group, Jodi Wickersheimer, the Chief Development Officer at the McGaw YMCA, asked about infrastructure expected to be a key area for the recovery funds.
“Infrastructure means water. Infrastructure could also mean sewer and broadband,” she offered.
Evanston Public Library Director Karen Danczak Lyons, participating in the same group, was all-too-ready to expand on that point.
“At the Library, we’re very aware that the digital divide got deeper and wider during the pandemic,” she said.
“Broadband can become synonymous with any other utility throughout the City of Evanston,” she said. “So just as you expect the electricity and the gas to work wherever you live, you should have broadband and Internet there.”
Ms. Lyons said there were children trying to learn at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, and without broadband and Internet, “They were at such an extreme disadvantage. We got a couple of hundred WiFi hotspots and that helped, and we loaned them out.”
Still, she said, it did not come close to addressing the need.
Participants from other groups identified their priorities for the funds in reports from group leaders after the breakout sessions. “This a one-time phenomenal opportunity to upgrade our lead water pipes,” said one group leader. “We also wondered about our train platforms and viaducts and road maintenance. Again, traditional infrastructure.”
“The big priorities were public health and economic impact,” said another group leader, Matt Easterday. “Also, childcare workforce training. These are things that everyone thought were important but kind of fall to the wayside, because we usually focus on infrastructure.”
To another question, “How would citizens like to be engaged in the process?” Mr. Easterday said, “There’s a feeling that more people should have a seat at the table. There’s a feeling that by the time things go back to the Council, it’s too late to say anything, because it’s already decided in committee.”
For another group, the criterion for deciding where the funds should go was “Who has been hurt the most?” reported another group leader. “Where has the most negative impact fallen?”
Christopher Rothwell, another group leader, said his group talked about the Family Focus building as a possible recipient of federal relief funds.
“It’s a hub in the Fifth Ward. It’s an important structure, and there are several nonprofits and organizations that operate at [the] building,” he said. “They’re doing their best, but it needs some serious repairs.”
Another big need identified by the group was housing and “a huge need of affordable housing, and really trying to make it sustainable … What can we do, such as purchasing properties, or what can we do to make sure that the land and the buildings can remain affordable for a very long time but not in perpetuity?” he said.
The June 17 meeting was the second held by the City. A third in-person meeting especially geared for Spanish-speaking speakers is scheduled to be held from 6 to 8 p.m. on June 29 at the Evanston Ecology Center, 2024 McCormick Blvd.
Residents interested in attending should register before the meeting on the City site, cityofevanston.org.