Smile Politely

Champaign’s residents should be the priority for American Rescue Plan funds

Earlier this year, the American Rescue Plan Act was signed into law. The American Rescue Plan (ARP) provides funding to municipalities to stabilize communities and economies, and to support people whose lives were greatly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The City of Champaign will receive approximately $25 million in funding; it needs to be spent or promised by December 31, 2024. You can learn more about what the City of Champaign hopes to do with the funding on this website, where there is also a short video presentation available to view.  

The City has held a few listening sessions to receive feedback from the community about how that money should be allocated. There are, of course, stipulations about where and how the money can be spent. You can read the full federal guidelines here. In short, the money must be spent on getting the spread of the virus under control and supporting the people, infrastructure, and local economies impacted by the pandemic. The wording allows for some flexibility in terms of which communities and neighborhoods and projects can be served (and prioritized), which is to say that the entire $25 million does not need to go explicitly to medical or coronavirus-related programs.

We have some suggestions for how and where the city can invest. In some ways, this article is a greatest hits from the Editorial Board: Nothing we say here will be surprising if you’re familiar with topics we’ve covered in the past. Nevertheless, we believe it’s important to remind our elected officials that Champaign is a community of people who have businesses and are capable of building and maintaining an economy. We hope the City holds the most vulnerable of Champaign’s residents in mind as they earmark these funds and develop future budgets. 

This is neither an exhaustive list of all possibilities nor a blueprint for a successful plan. Instead, using the guiding principles for the use of these funds laid out by the City, we have pointed to the communities and causes we believe are in the most need.

Invest in sectors of our local economy that were hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The most obvious sector of our local economy hit is those who are (or were) only employed part time. Even though the service industry — particularly food and drink — is struggling to hire, we know that many people have had to leave these jobs in order to care for children and family. Perhaps that will change once schools are back in session, in person, but we all know that should schools go virtual again, many parents and guardians will be in difficult positions. 

Anecdotally, it seems like there are many former restaurant and bar workers who will not return to that industry because of low pay and heaps of abuse from customers. Perhaps some of this funding could go into a fund for struggling businesses — especially those owned by historically marginalized people — to offer sign-on bonuses and higher wages to potential employees. 

Businesses that rely on physical contact, like massage therapists, hair salons, acupuncturists, and nail salons, should also be able to apply for funding to improve and maintain ventilation systems. Perhaps funding can be an incentive for those sorts of businesses to require vaccinations for their employees. 

Finally, we’d like to see some serious financial support dedicated to developing arts and culture in Champaign. Downtown has been gutted and replaced almost exclusively by bars, which are neither arts nor culture. Whether it’s providing sustained, meaningful support to 40 North, or creating a City Arts and Culture program like Urbana’s, Champaign needs to develop its own arts and culture; it cannot continue to rely on the afterglow from Urbana and the University of Illinois. 

Ensure that our historically underserved residents, neighborhoods, and commercial areas of the City are prioritized for support and reinvestment.

Champaign’s historically underserved residents, neighborhoods, and commercial areas are C-U’s Black and Brown ones. As we’ve recently written, Garden Hills’ flooding problem is a prime example of racism manifested in red lining and municipal negligence. These are areas that need access to affordable fresh food, high speed internet, and safer, well-lit bus stops. For instance, i3 Broadband seems to have stalled in Champaign; the company needs 45% of a neighborhood to begin construction, but all remaining neighborhoods are at 10% and under. This fiber optic internet will never be available in Champaign without some sort of partnership with the City. This type of project and collaboration are exactly what ARP funds were intended for.

Black entrepreneurs with good ideas but little money to invest must be supported; they have much to offer Champaign. Commercial areas in and adjacent to historically Black and Brown neighborhoods are the ones that are underdeveloped and neglected; we need thriving businesses there, too. 

Underserved residents in Champaign also include our unhoused populations and victims of domestic abuse, who have few — if any — options for safety and shelter.  Emergency shelters are accessible only at the generosity and availability of struggling nonprofits and religious organizations.* We argue that a portion of this ARP funding be dedicated to maintaining services and safe housing for these populations that need it most. As for maintaining it long-term? The City needs to adjust its budget to accommodate this change.

Maximize the impact of the available funding by:

  • Providing significant financial resources to address unmet needs across Champaign.
  • Making investments that improve our residents’ quality of life.
  • Supporting and advancing economic opportunities across our community.

Sadly, there are a lot of “unmet needs across Champaign,” but one that is requiring  “significant financial resources” is the effects of gun violence. What we do not want to see is an increase in budget for the Champaign Police, unless that budget line is funding social workers and other community health interventionists. 

The shootings and the deaths are too much to bear. Families have been devastated. What we do not want to see is an increase in budget for the Champaign Police Department, unless that budget line is funding social workers and other community health interventionists. Instead, the City of Champaign needs to fund programs that are doing the actual work to affect change. These include youth education and enrichment programs as well as job opportunities and training for young people. 

Critically, it also includes healthcare: the pandemic has exacerbated disparities in access, and many of Champaign’s Black residents suffer the consequences. We need to address trauma and mental health needs in the communities greatly affected by gun violence. This sort of intervention must be done carefully and consistently, with people who are trusted in these neighborhoods and communities as leaders. We hope that the City will dedicate funding to long-term intervention and care. We don’t need to lose any more of our friends, family, and neighbors to gun violence.  

According to the City’s website, it plans to “develop a comprehensive sustainability plan for continued funding of recurring costs that would extend beyond December 31, 2024.” As we’ve argued many times, the City’s budget is about priorities. At the end of the day, a community is made up of people. If we do not care for the people who live and work and raise their kids here, what are we doing?

The Editorial Board is Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, and Patrick Singer.

*Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article noted that CU at Home was the only organization trying to address the issue of homelessness in the community. While they are the only emergency shelter, there are numerous organizations in the community that offer a continuum of services to those facing homelessness.

Top image by Anna Longworth.

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