Partner Perspectives are written by members of the Community Consulting Board through the Center for Civic Engagement. These articles provide examples of partnerships, best practices, and other insights from the viewpoint of Illinois State University’s community partners.
By Raymond Lai, executive director, McLean County Regional Planning Commission
Over the years, McLean County Regional Planning Commission (MCRPC) and Illinois State University (ISU) have fostered a strong working relationship and partnership for mutual benefits as well as those of our community, via student internship and fellowship opportunities, special projects and programs, and ongoing dialogues and engagement. It reminds me of the Town-Gown relationship I had developed and treasured with several local universities and colleges while working as an urban/regional planner for local governments in the St. Louis metropolitan area and Southern/Central Illinois.
MCRPC celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2018. In 1968, the McLean County Board formed MCRPC, also designated as a Metropolitan Planning Commission (MPO), as the Bloomington-Normal combined population exceeded 50,000. MCRPC’s vision is to be the leader for planning tomorrow’s McLean County. Our mission is to bring expert planning, deep local knowledge, and vibrant public participation as we shape our future to promote opportunity, livability, and sustainability. Planning our community happens at many levels, from neighborhoods to all of McLean County as a whole.
A MPO is a transportation policy-making body composed of representatives from local government and transportation implementers. We do comprehensive, cooperative, and continuing (3C) transportation planning, including inclusive outreach for public input. Our planning work qualifies our communities to obtain federal transportation funding. In addition, we engage in an array of planning efforts and studies related to comprehensive and regional planning, regional housing initiatives, greenways planning, and implementation, data and research, human services, smart city and technology, and special initiatives such as 2020 Census for McLean County.
Since 2019, MCRPC has been privileged to be the host agency for two graduate students from the interdisciplinary Applied Community and Economic Development (ACED) Fellows Program through the Stevenson Center at ISU. After completing most of their academic credits during their first year of graduate studies, they engaged in an 11-month paid professional practice internship with us. The two Fellows not only gained experience with and exposure to the public sector, but also participated in impactful assignments: e. g. compilation of a rural development planning resources guide, survey development for an upcoming Long Range Transportation Planning project, and research on autonomous vehicles. Separately, a former undergraduate student who worked as a Geographic Information System (GIS) intern at MCRPC was subsequently offered a full-time position.
The Center for Civic Engagement (CCE) was an instrumental partner in our 2020 Census outreach effort, given ISU’s student population, on and off campus, as well as the number of faculty and staff members who should be reached and counted. A major challenge was to engage these individuals during the unprecedented pandemic in this decennial population count that would have lasting impact. Working closely with Harriett Steinbach, CCE’s assistant director, we took flexible and creative approaches to reach out to the student body while the University turned to online learning and most of the students were not in town when the stay-in-place order was issued by the government.
Further, an ISU representative served on the Project Steering Committee (PSC) for a recent transportation safety planning project (Go: Safe McLean County Action Plan) led by MCRPC. Involving community representatives from various sectors on the PSC and a subject matter expert panel, the planning process was kicked off in June 2020, and with public engagement, the plan was adopted in April 2021. The goal of the adopted plan is to reduce the number of fatalities or life-changing injuries by 2030 in our community. It will take an area-wide effort, including the University community, to have the plan implemented in the immediate future.
To facilitate communication on and understanding of ongoing and planned transportation and planning/development projects and initiatives in the region, an intergovernmental group consisting of engineering/public works/planning staff of the three local governmental entities (McLean County, City of Bloomington, and Town of Normal) have been meeting weekly if there are items of mutual interest. Also invited are representatives from ISU, the urban area transit agency Connect Transit, and Bloomington-Normal Water Reclamation District.
We look forward to continuing a strong collaborative and cooperative relationship between ISU and MCRPC in the years to come. Above are just some of the examples. In the meantime, we await a new Stevenson Fellow joining our team in mid-August to work on meaningful planning projects. The current executive director and his predecessor will remain on the Community Consulting Board of CCE of ISU. Via different channels, the partnership goes on.