Paul Palazzolo and Jim Langfelder get down to business

By Scott Faingold

On April 7, Springfield voters will have a choice between Democratic city treasurer Jim Langfelder and Republican Sangamon County auditor Paul Palazzolo in a mayoral race which found the two leaving longtime Mayor Mike Houston in the dust of the primary.

We sat down with each of the candidates to get their perspectives on the climate of business in Springfield and what their plans are for helping Springfield to grow and thrive.

The recent election of Bruce Rauner as governor potentially casts a long shadow over the capital city’s economic possibilities, but this is not a concern for Paul Palazzolo. “One of my favorite sayings is, ‘Like Elvis, state government has left the building,’” he says. “Springfield’s economic development muscles may have atrophied over the last 100 years, because we’ve always had state government to be our backup, our safety net – now we need to start developing our economic muscles and flexing those muscles and strengthening those muscles.” Palazzolo goes on to say that he sees part of his role as mayor as being the “Salesman in Chief,” tasked with bringing new opportunities to town which would allow Springfield to become a peer of communities such as Austin or Madison, “great cities that just also happen to be the state capital.”

Langfelder has similar goals, beginning with working to develop the inner core of the city. “If you look at Springfield, you can almost draw a circle around it where the outside is really thriving,” he says, “but inside, the heart of the city, is not.” His suggestion to  rebuild the heart of Springfield would involve renewing properties, “not taking an expensive piece of property and raising it a little bit, but taking low-hanging fruit and building it exponentially,” an approach he says will help with the city’s tax base which could then be used for infrastructure improvements.

The heart of many a community is in its downtown area and downtown Springfield continues to struggle. Both candidates have thoughts about how to approach this perpetual challenge.

“The future of our downtown community is in a residential feel,” Palazzolo says, stressing the need for green space. “I’m in full favor of helping downtown become a residential hub along with an operational hub of offices and opportunity,” he continues, suggesting that proposals to rehab the old YWCA building could have great potential for residential space, educational activities and business use. Palazzolo also sees a need for staple businesses such as grocery  and drug stores allowing potential downtown residents to easily access the things that they need for daily living – as well as some shops. “You’ve got to have the shops downtown for people who visit Springfield,” he says.

Langfelder has spent time studying communities with downtown areas similar to Springfield’s and has drawn some conclusions. “What I would do is what has been done in other historic downtowns like ours,” he explains. “Right now you have older structures and it’s cost-prohibitive to remodel those because you can build new at a lower level. So what I would do is introduce an adaptive reuse ordinance which makes it more cost-effective to rehabilitate those while still meeting your health and safety standards.” This approach, he claims, would reduce bureaucracy and some of the red tape that drive up building costs. He also has plans to incentivize home ownership downtown through a live-work ownership program, which would use federal block grants to build townhouses or condominiums. “That way they have a vested interest in downtown, they’re buying a piece of property – and it also gives the developer their funds back quicker so they can recycle those dollars into a new project.” Langfelder says this approach would not be limited to downtown but also help build up other neglected areas of Springfield.

“We need to aggressively market the city,” says Palazzolo. “We need to trumpet our strengths and match those strengths to what potential businesses and industries might be looking for,” a process he compares to the way a recent university graduate will tailor him or herself to the needs of a potential employer. He says this is essential in order to keep young people from abandoning the town for greener pastures. “We have to have additional opportunities in the city of Springfield so that our city’s children and grandchildren will live 10 minutes away and not 10 hours away.”

“Everyone talks about economic development,” Langfelder says, “but did you know the city does not have an economic development committee? All these commissions,” he says with wonder, “and nothing for economic development.  They leave it up to the chamber.” Langfelder proposes what he calls a “community development finance commission” which would work with an office of economic development to be made up of realtors, developers and bankers to help make pragmatic plans for things like uses for TIF funds. “Right now the mayor is able to steer those projects,” he says, “but I’d like to see a more bottom-up approach where the community can have input.” As for marketing the city, Langfelder believes that Springfield professionals who travel to other communities regularly to attend conferences, conventions and other functions – people like bankers, doctors, teachers – are the city’s best potential salespeople. “I would put a program in place to work with Local First and the chamber and Visitors Bureau to get these experts from the community to help promote Springfield,” he says.

Another issue facing the city which has a huge effect on business is the future of CWLP. Palazzolo goes as far as to say that “the main mission for mayor of the city of Springfield is to ensure that CWLP rates are kept as low as possible.” As mayor, he says he would effect this by installing an entrepreneurial  general manager with a volunteer advisory board “to provide input for the council and the utilities leadership, in the same way that any corporation has a board of directors.” He also says there is a need to investigate ways to gradually wean ourselves off of the Payment in Lieu of Taxes program

[wherein  money goes into the city’s general fund from CWLP]. “Thousands of cities around the country operate without an annual windfall of funds from a municipally owned utility, and without jeopardizing city services. We need to learn to do the same,” he says, emphasizing that such a shift might not happen overnight but is attainable.

Langfelder offers a three-point plan for reforming things at CWLP. “Step one is restoring trust and accountability, which would be done via a city council utilities committee. We need to provide as much information as possible to the city council members so they can make those informed decisions for the betterment of Springfield.” He also proposes accrual reporting on the utility, which would show “what’s expected and what bills we have to pay, to get a true financial picture of the utility.”

Langfelder’s second step would be to insure CWLP’s financial stability, which would happen through the auditing of contracts, particularly with regard to wind energy. “We need to make sure the contracts are fair and equitable to the rate-payers and the utility, and if they’re not we need to try to renegotiate those or cancel them if we can.

“The third aspect of my CWLP plan is looking forward to the future,” Langfelder says. “In 2025 the state has a mandate where utility companies would have 25 percent of their energy be renewable. Right now we’re at 20 percent with the wind energy and so we need to plan for the future.” He proposes closing the gap with increased focus on solar energy, which he points out operates during peak daytime usage levels, compared to wind, which he describes as more of an inverted curve, gathering much of its energy at night.

“I believe that I bring the right talents and skills to the role of mayor,” says Palazzolo, pointing out that serving the public is a large part of the job but certainly not the whole story. “It involves inspiring the public to help Springfield be a great city. Being mayor requires two hats. One hat is to efficiently and effectively manage city government; the other hat is to dynamically lead the city of Springfield by casting a vision and coaching people to move toward that vision. I believe I bring that.”

“I want to install a new culture for city government,” says Langfelder. “As treasurer, I’ve always operated within budget so that’s the type of budget I would bring to the office of the mayor. But my approach to the office is, I’m not big on who gets the credit, I’m about getting the job done. Working together as a community is what it’s all about. Who can best bring the community together and get things done and do what’s best for Springfield? That’s what I plan to do as mayor.”