Aldermen Scrutinize BN Advantage, Call for Increased Reporting and Transparency

 (Photo: Bloomington-Normal Economic Development Council/Town of Normal)

(Photo: Bloomington-Normal Economic Development Council/Town of Normal)

A memorandum of understanding between the City of Bloomington and the Bloomington-Normal Economic Development Council sets new expectations for the agency that’s faced increased scrutiny from governing bodies over the last year.

City council members Monday night unanimously approved the agreement detailing the consulting services the EDC provides for the City, as well as performance metrics and a set of ethical standards City staff say they hope the EDC will consider adopting.

The council agreed to contribute $100,000 to regular EDC operations plus another $123,867 to fund BN Advantage, a collaborative economic development strategy between public and private entities in McLean County. Interim City Manager Steve Rasmussen noted both funding amounts were already approved in December.

The EDC heads up two major BN Advantage initiatives, marketing and entrepreneurship, while the McLean County Chamber of Commerce administers workforce development and quality of place.

While council members were quick to praise the work of both groups, they encouraged increased reporting and metrics of success from BN Advantage.

Alderman David Sage said he found some of the performance measures included in the agreement too vague to convey the EDC’s work.

“When I get questions from constituents and taxpayers, what they generally want to understand as clearly as they can is, ‘What is the return on the investment that I as a taxpayer am making in supporting economic development?’” he said.

Interim EDC CEO Mike O’Grady conceded, “Sometimes the tangibles are difficult.”

O’Grady highlighted the EDC’s involvement in attracting three manufacturers -- automotive startup Rivian, agricultural equipment maker Brandt Industries and parts producer American Precision -- to Normal in the last two years.

“It’s the end result such as a Brandt or a Rivian...those are the tangibles that we’re able to show.”

Sage replied he’s like to see the EDC and other stakeholders find better ways to help elected officials show how investing in economic development activities benefits the community.

Alderman Amelia Buragas said while much of the EDC’s work to bring developers to McLean County is confidential, “We are an elected body and we need to be very upfront with the public about where the money is going, why we’re making this investment.”

Chamber CEO Charlie Moore said municipal leaders’ concerns over accountability are understandable: “We owe you answers.”

Moore pointed to the work of the McLean County Regional Planning Commission over the last year to develop BN Vitals, a website with over 200 real-time measurements of the Bloomington-Normal economy.

The site, expected to launch within the next month, will make sure BN Advantage leaders measure not only activities but outcomes as well, Moore said.

Alderman Karen Schmidt said she spoke with Moore earlier that night about the community as a whole getting a better handle on the money spent on economic development.

Schmidt noted the City not only contributes money to the EDC and BN Advantage but also has its own economic development staff.

“If there are all of these different strands and they’re all moving toward the same goal, it’s not always easy to see how they fit together and how that money is being used strategically.”

Moore noted funding for BN Advantage is increasingly private; he said private contributions make up 71% of funding to date, not including in-kind services.