Incentives to keep and attract business work for Antioch, but clear guidelines are needed to avoid the appearance of favoritism, say village board candidates.
The observations were made regarding Trustee Jerry Johnson's involvement in a $2.1 million Rivalry Alehouse project downtown that received a $200,000 village grant.
The candidates supported the project and did not infer any wrongdoing on Johnson's part. But they thought clearer rules governing these types of programs were in order.
Businesses need to know there is "an even field for everybody" regarding village incentives, said Brent Bluthardt, one of five candidates running for trustee. "We need to remove that taint that something is going on," he added.
Johnson said two other proposals for the vacant former Flo's Family Hair Care on the southern gateway to downtown fell through before he and investment partners got involved.
"We turned a $250,000 vacant building into a $2.1 million destination site," he said.
"This will only enhance everybody else around us," he added.
Three 4-year village board seats are up for election. Candidates are: Bluthardt, a logistics and trade compliance manager and former Antioch District 34 school board member; plumbing company owner Petrina Burman; Johnson, a real estate manager who was elected in 2013 and is seeking a third term; Scott Pierce, a field service engineer, who was elected in 2001 and is seeking a sixth term; and, Mary Priller, a marketing and sales professional.
Candidates were asked during a Daily Herald interview via Zoom whether the village has made good use of incentives and should continue to offer them.
"I think they've done a pretty good job," Burman said. "I think there needs to be maybe a little bit more discretion when making decisions and kind of step back a little bit and look at it from all angles to avoid issues that could possibly arise."
Priller said the Rivalry project "will bring so much" to downtown and create excitement in the community.
"I feel strongly we have to put ourselves behind it and like he (Johnson) said, they could have very easily went down the street and over the border," she said.
Priller said she supports incentives when they make sense. "Incentives I think are good for residents but they have to be looked at and looked at carefully," she added.
Pierce said incentives support businesses that draw people to Antioch and increase sales taxes and property values. Pierce said he voted for the Rivalry incentive "despite all the innuendos that were out there about it because I had to look at it on a case-by-case basis, which I do with every incentive.
"I supported transforming that old, decrepit building that used to be a landmark in the village, but no longer was, into what it's going to be -- a vibrant restaurant," he said.
He said he would not own a business in town and take an incentive, but that's a decision for individual trustees.
"I think the incentives are important, but we need to be fair about them," Pierce said. "The rules need to be clear, and everybody needs to feel that they're getting a fair shake, it's not just sweetheart deals."
Bluthardt said he didn't have an issue with Johnson or the project but didn't think it was "ethically proper."
"That being said, until the village cleans up that process, puts strict rules in place and makes it extremely transparent to the point where everyone know what's going on, I think that's the only way that the residents will trust what dollars we're giving and that the businesses that are looking to come to Antioch will trust the process also."
Johnson said the partners were offered incentives elsewhere and he would have been criticized if he took the project to another community.
He said he recused himself from all discussions during an eight-month approval process.
"As far as I'm concerned if anybody, I don't care who it is, wants to put $1.9 million of their own money into Antioch, why would I say no because they have some kind of connection to Antioch when the ultimate goal is to better us?" he added. "And as long as there are checks and balances and we follow the process, I don't have a problem with it."