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Independence looking beyond pandemic obstacles

By Mike Genet mike.genet@examiner.net

Much like the Apollo 13 mission 50 years earlier, in which an unforeseen crisis turned a mission without relatively much fanfare into a matter of survival, Independence like many other cities had to suddenly chart a new course in 2020.

Zach Walker

City Manager Zach Walker says Independence’s resolve got tested in 2020, but the city proved resilient, and while plans had to be adapted, planning wasn’t futile. In his state of the city address scheduled for Wednesday’s Chamber of Commerce gathering, Walker plans to highlight several achievements amid the pandemic, along with challenges still to face.

Among those accomplishments, Walker says:

• Disbursing more than $9 million in federal aid to help with assistance for rent, utilities, food and small businesses, COVID-19 tests and maintaining existing public transit.

• Avoiding furloughs and mass layoffs despite a drastic drop in sales tax revenue – and not borrowing from a $25 million emergency loan from city utilities.

• With guidance from the citizen-led Diversity and Inclusion Task Force, updating organizational practices. The city now has folded that task force work into the Human Relations Commission “to ensure this meaningful conversation continues.”

• Improved timelines for code enforcement case inspections and dangerous building demolitions.

• Extended the management agreement with Spectra for Cable Dahmer Arena, keeping that partnership in place through 2034.

• The voter-approved use tax for online sales hit its waterfall mark in the first year – fully funding the allocations for the animal shelter and additional police officers (more than $3 million) and adding to other sales tax funds.

• Continued bits of investment for businesses and improvements along Noland Road.

Walker also credits the Chamber of Commerce for its help in some items that are part of the city’s strategic plan, including possibly reviving the Land Clearance Redevelopment Authority to target abandoned and blighted residential properties, a community broadband feasibility study to be shared soon and contributions toward remodeling the Englewood Arts Center building.

The city manager said Independence continues to battle economic and community issues that COVID-19 didn’t create but exacerbated.

“Issues of crime and disorder, issues of neighborhood stabilization, issues of blight and public health all have at that their core the need to address inequalities that remain all too pervasive in our community,” Walker says, pointing to the “K-shaped” recovery that has taken place with the pandemic. For upper classes, economic recovery from the pandemic recession already is mostly complete, but for lower-income workers that recovery hasn’t happened.

“Sadly, some of the hardest hit employment sectors are those that directly impact far too many of our citizens,” Walker says.

Given that, the city manager said he hopes the chamber can continue to support diversity and inclusion, with the area’s growing immigrant population; mental health resources; housing – both in redevelopment and addressing instability; fighting homelessness; and downtown development.

Promoting civic renewal, community resilience and individual well-being are complex issues, Walker acknowledged, “that almost certainly will not be solved today or tomorrow or maybe even in our lifetimes.” But they have to be confronted to keep the city strong, he said.