Streator’s 911 ambulance service, job creation, the future of the Incubator and city improvements were among the many topics addressed Thursday night by Streator mayoral candidates Tara Bedei and Brian Crouch during a candidates forum.
Bedei, who was appointed mayor a year ago when Jimmie Lansford resigned, is opposed by Crouch, who sits on the City Council. Bedei has served on the council since 2013 and Crouch since 2014. Both are currently the longest serving members on the council.
Bedei said she wants to make Streator a great, safe and affordable place to live and work, outlining her four initiatives as long-term economic viability, enhancing quality of life, making Streator a destination and engaging the youth in the community.
Crouch said he wants the city to be more aggressive reaching out to businesses and industry. He said he made the decision to run for mayor because he believes things have been “at a slight standstill” in town.
“I know COVID played a big part of that, and we are getting out of it,” Crouch said. “We’re still not progressing the way we were prior to COVID coming on. I think that there’s a lot more that can be done.”
About 50 residents attended the forum Thursday organized by the Streator Area Chamber of Commerce and Industry at the Eastwood. Between an introduction and closing remarks, the candidates – including five City Council hopefuls – answered five questions drawn at random with 3 minutes allowed for their responses.
The opening question asked candidates if firefighters should be cross-trained as EMTs to provide 911 ambulance services to the community. Streator established its own ambulance service in October with contracted personnel from American Medical Response Solutions.
Crouch said “the ball was dropped” by contracting AMR, believing the city should have paid the $400,000 subsidy to private provider Advanced Medical Transport to continue service in the community, a subsidy that would have grown to $750,000 in year three of the deal. He said he believes having firefighters handle ambulance duties would be a substantial cost to taxpayers and said the city would have had more options at the end of the three-year period if it had paid AMT.
Bedei touted the city’s ability to establish an ambulance service with its own ambulances, equipment and billing mechanism within 8 months of AMT requesting payments. Bedei said several options were reviewed, including cross-trained firefighters as EMTs as well as outsourcing personnel, which is what the city opted to do.
“It was a lower cost,” Bedei said. “Lower cost was a lower risk at the time.”
She said it’s too soon to say if the city should continue outsourcing personnel or cross-train firefighters, noting “I’ll know in year 3,” when the contract with AMR ends its term which direction the city should go. The idea is for the established ambulance service to be self-sustainable by the end of the term.
Though one of the questions asked how the council can attract job creators, Bedei and Crouch needed no prompts to talk about their plans for economic development.
Both candidates suggested the city seek an economic development director. Crouch questioned if the city can afford it, but believed the city was not getting those services from the city manager position. Bedei said she would like a full-time economic development director also to promote the city and write grants “to go after funding for our community.”
Bedei said the city had success when it looked at sales tax leakage reports and recruited those businesses to the community, noting the city once determined $4 million in women’s clothing sales were leaving the community.
“Not long after that, we attracted the businesses,” Bedei said. “We need to find our needs and talk to people who can fill that.”
Bedei also suggested a retail incubator similar to the Batavia Boardwalk that allows businesses to operate in small retail spaces with low rents, noting the former Lipton Tea building lot could be an ideal location.
Crouch said the city needs to be more proactive in reaching out to businesses, especially those that may be paying higher costs in cities or suburban areas and attracting them to Streator. Twice he said he would work with the city manager “whoever that may be” in those goals.
He defended his vote against a $30,000 incentive to a prospective Arby’s restaurant, saying he believes the money is better spent on bigger industries or local businesses improving their facades, rather than a multi-million dollar corporation.
Both candidates were on the council when the city acquired the business incubator at the former Armory. The city will utilize a $954,000 grant to create a makers lab in the facility, with a commercial kitchen, 3-D printers and a woodshop, among other amenities.
Crouch said the incubator always will be an asset to the community and Bedei said she would like to see it promoted more, noting the city is more likely to grow its own business than attract a 1,000 job factory.
Crouch said he would like to see the city spend about $5,000 to put on a community cookout at Marilla Park with activities for families and Bedei noted at one point during the forum she wishes the city could go back in time and have a redo on some of the poorer decisions of its past.
Bedei said she’s learned “a lot” in her year as mayor, and she continues to learn and apply those lessons: “I believe in our community. We have a great history, we have great volunteers, a strong sense of community, and the people who stand up and rise to the occasion day after day is unparalleled by any place I’ve ever seen. It’s been an honor to serve you in this office.”
Crouch said he knows any elected official can’t please everyone all the time, but “the main thing is staying focused and doing the right thing for the taxpayers of the community.”