Newcomer Stratton Challenges Prussing in Urbana Primary
By Jeff Bossert
As she seeks a third term, Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing touts her efforts to boost economic development. But opponent and political newcomer Les Stratton criticizes Prussing's plans as a misuse of taxpayer dollars.
Stratton, a former Urbana Public Works employee, said he first thought of running for mayor just prior to his 2010 retirement. He said he felt too much was being spent on projects he deems less critical.
“I’m not against art, but we were putting off things in the public works department that probably should have been addressed at that time," he said. "And when you don’t address issues, then they get worse.”
For example, Stratton said the addition of bike lanes on a number of streets meant maintaining them on top of the road service markings, and walking paths that public works was already in charge of fixing.
Even before he turned in his nominating petitions, Stratton had come out last fall criticizing the redevelopment of the Urbana Landmark Hotel.
Stratton contends developer Xiao Jin Yuan missed a deadline to have the downtown hotel’s 128 rooms reopened. Forty-five room are open currently. He contends Yuan should have been declared in default of the city’s $1.45 million loan, since the city won’t earn the $200,000 back that was expected.
“But because he’s skewed the projections by not being ready with an entire hotel, and no bar, no restaurant, nothing to produce food and beverage tax, very little hotel-motel tax," he said. "It looks to me like the city’s going to lose about $600,000.”
But Mayor Laurel Prussing defends Yuan’s work, saying the contract was modified and extended when renovations called for more work.
The mayor said Yuan always intended to complete the project in phases.
“You say you want to bring business to Urbana, why would you treat an investor that way, and constantly harp on him?" she said.
Prussing said she also believes Stratton’s criticism of the hotel project is motivated, in part, by support he is receiving from former mayor Tod Satterthwaite, who she defeated in 2005.
Prussing contends some of her opponent’s plans are identical to what the former mayor wanted, and she believes Sattherhwaite is angling to become an city administrator.
Stratton, however, denied the contention that he is serving as a ‘puppet’ while the former mayor calls the shots.
“Todd did not come to me, saying that he wanted to help me run a campaign," he said. "I went to Todd, saying that I was considering running, and I don’t think that I can run without someone who has political expertise.”
Prussing dismissed former Chief Administrative Officer, Bruce Walden, five years ago. She is now handling many of Walden's duties on her own. She hired Mike Monson as chief of staff in 2009.
Stratton said agreements, like that of the Landmark Hotel, need a second set of eyes, and he said if elected, he would name someone to the CAO post. Prussing insists she can do a better job handling some of those same duties on her own.
“I can just walk down the hall, and talk to the police chief, you know," she said. "I don’t need a liaison. It’s ridiculous. So we’re spending less money, and we’re getting better results."
Stratton has also been critical of plans to extend Olympian Drive to Lincoln Avenue, a $15 million project in an industrial area north of the city. He said the focus should be developing businesses downtown.
“If you drive up to where Olympian Road would end today, assuming it was done today, you’d have cornfields, you’d have farms," he said. "Strictly agriculture – on almost all sides. And on the other hand, we have crumbling Florida Avenue. We have a Green Street that looks like patchwork between Race and Lincoln.”
Stratton said Olympian is simply a pipeline to Champaign, but Prussing believes it has been a boon to Urbana’s neighboring city in terms of development. She said finishing the road in her city will do the same.
Prussing said the time she’s put into the project goes back to her days on the Illinois House transportation committee, and Champaign County Board.
“If you have spent years getting the funding lined up, and getting the landowners lined up and everything, you don’t just drop it and say let’s wait until later because someone wants to wait until later," she said. "You have to act when you have the opportunity.”
Prussing also refutes Stratton’s claims that local funds were used for the road extension. She said the project relies solely on state and federal dollars.
The Les Stratton proposal for economic development suggests using existing funds for private investment. He said that is opposite of what the mayor has started with the $5 million Boneyard Creek Improvement project.
Stratton said there’s no guaranteed success with that.
“If we were to encourage building in the empty spaces downtown, we would have at least at the minimum, a brand new building, more real estate, real estate taxes, sales taxes," Stratton said. "Those are the kind of things we need in Urbana.”
If he loses Feb. 26, Stratton said this will be his only run for public office. Even if he loses, he said he believes he helped expose some important issues.
Whether Prussing is re-nominated, or Stratton gets the nod from local Democrats in next week’s primary may come down to voter turnout. Mayor Prussing admitted she is concerned about voter ambivalence during this off-year Primary Election.
“I got into politics when I ran for the (Champaign) county board.," she said. "And I won a Democratic primary by one vote. So you if ask me ‘is it important? It’s critically important for people to show up for a primary because essentially this is the general election. Because I’ve run against Mr. (Rex) Bradfield and he didn’t seem to do that well.”
The winner of Tuesday’s primary will face the Republican Bradfield in the municipal election in April. Four years ago, Bradfield came in second to Prussing in a four-way race, with 32 percent of the vote.