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Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019 12:07 am

Ward 8 up for grabs

Three vie to replace term-limited incumbent

Stretching from MacArthur Boulevard to areas near Koke Mill Road, Ward 8 straddles a mix of Springfield neighborhoods.

Two candidates for Ward 8 alderman, Erin Conley and Dean Graven, live west of Veterans Parkway, where issues aren’t necessarily the same as in neighborhoods to the east, where such challenges as the vacant Bally Vaughn apartment complex near Sacred Heart-Griffin High School crumble, an in-your-face sign of neighborhood decay with revitalization plans stalled for want of onsite parking. A third candidate, Debra Kunkel, lives not far from Washington Park – a dark-horse candidate, she says that progressive ideals, including better wages and public ownership of housing, are the solution to myriad issues. “When people have the resources they need, things happen in a natural way,” she says.

The incumbent, Kris Theilen, has served three terms and can’t run again due to term limits. All three candidates say they can represent the ward and the city as a whole. Their visions of Springfield, and Ward 8, vary. Kunkel, a retired pharmacy technician, is a political newcomer. Aside from running last year as a write-in candidate for Democratic precinct committeeman, she’s never before sought public office. Graven and Conley each have experience in government circles. Both have been members of school boards, Conley in Springfield, Graven in Bloomington. Graven is a developer who sits on the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission. Conley is a longtime state employee who now is a rule coordinator for the Department of Public Health and previously helped make rules at the state Pollution Control Board. She’s also worked for the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

Graven is blunt: The city’s biggest issue is population decline, and so more residential and commercial development is needed. Developers, he points out, pay for streets and sewers when vacant land on the western edge of the city is converted to subdivisions. Conley is less aggressive when it comes to growth. The city, she observes, maintains infrastructure in new subdivisions and also provides services. “My campaign is focused on existing neighborhoods that we have,” Conley says. “I don’t see why we need more strip malls. When we look at this westward expansion, this urban sprawl going west, developers put in the sewers and streets, but the city is responsible for police and fire (protection).”

Graven says the city last year issued 72 permits for houses and duplexes, a far cry from 1996, when the city issued more than 650 permits (city records show 74 permits for houses and 19 permits for duplexes were issued last year). “I don’t see Springfield having sprawl,” he says. “We are dying.”

Conley and Graven both say they have reservations about Hunter Lake, a proposed reservoir that the city council endorsed in 2015 at the behest of Mayor Jim Langfelder. Kunkel says she hasn’t studied the issue enough to have an opinion. The other two candidates note that water use has been decreasing, in part because Chatham no longer buys water from the city. “Right now, I don’t see that we have a need for Hunter Lake,” Conley says. Graven says it isn’t on his priority list. “I would have to take a serious look,” he says.

Kunkel says the city should build apartments on the downtown block once occupied by the YWCA and rent them to young people and seniors. Graven and Conley want to see universities – state Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, is pushing for a $50 million Southern Illinois University campus, perhaps for a law school, and University of Illinois Springfield reportedly has been seeking new space for its downtown incubator. “I don’t want to rule anybody out,” Conley says. While he’d like to see a campus, Graven also said he believes there should be private sector space on the site that could generate tax revenue. “It’s big enough that you could have mixed use,” Graven says. “That would help the core of the city.”  

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com

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