The two candidates for mayor of Danville answered questions Monday night at forum held at Danville Area Community College.
Mayor Rickey Williams Jr. and Vermilion Housing Authority executive director Jackie Vinson answered questions for 90 minutes at the college’s Bremer Conference Center theater, as well as an audience listening to Neuhoff Media-owned WDAN Radio and viewing online. (The forum is also archived on YouTube).
Questions (fielded from suggestions sent in by the public) ranged from how to reduce gun violence to the future of Danville’s Village Mall.
Several questions focused on efforts to revive the community, including one about Danville’s declining population. The city’s population peaked at 42,570 in the 1970 census, and fell to 29,204 in the 2020 census.
Mayor Williams said maintaining infrastructure was part of the answer. He defended what he called an unpopular hike in the Danville sewer fee. Williams said the increase, passed by the city council in 2020, enabled the city to fix problems before they got worse.
“Whenever we can do preventative maintenance, it costs us one-tenth the cost of having to replace it,” said Williams. “And it costs us one-twentieth the cost of having to replace it in an emergency situation.”
But Vinson said infrastructure costs are part of what drives people out of Danville – a city she says has too much infrastructure for its current population of 29, 200.
“We will not tax our way out of population decline, out of blight,” said Vinson. “We must make a plan, which is developed with the people, to shrink the infrastructure we are charged to maintain.”
After the forum, Vinson explained that could mean removing sewer lines and other infrastructure from some parts of the city where it made sense to do so.
The candidates also fielded a question about OSF Healthcare’s decision last October to temporarily close the birthing center at its Danville hospital, Sacred Heart Medical Center, due to a staffing shortage. Five months later, the birthing center in Danville remains closed.
Vinson said the problem goes beyond the closing of the birthing center, noting that the Danville is served by only one pediatrician. She tied medical care to Danville’s economic revival, saying it was essential to have sufficient healthcare for new and expectant mothers in order to attract young families to Danville.
“Having to drive 35 minutes to deliver your child safely is unacceptable,” said Vinson. “It’s going to take one fatality on the side of I-74 before we as a community are crying out that this is a crisis.”
Vinson said as mayor, she would ask Danville’s major healthcare providers, OSF, Carle and Christie Clinic, to work together on a plan to bring maternity care back to Danville.
Mayor Williams said he has already brought together leaders from healthcare and other sectors for strategy sessions, exploring ways to attract the maternity and childcare professionals that Danville needs.
“(Vermilion County Board) Chairman Larry Baughn and I have talked privately about considering if we could offer any kind of housing incentive or forgiveness to recruit physicians to the community,” said Williams. “We also talked about, if we’re not able to do that, what are some other things we could do? For example, providing tax breaks for folks who would commit to living in this community for a certain time. Maybe we could decrease the taxes of those who would be willing to come and do labor and delivery for us.”
In the meantime, Williams says Danville could also support alternatives, such as the services of doulas and others who assist mothers in childbirth at home.
The two candidates were civil throughout the forum, which was co-produced by the Danville Commercial-News, with support from Danville Area Community College. The event was moderated by Bill Pickens, WDAN’s longtime news director until his retirement in 2020. Commercial-News editor Max Jones and Neuhoff Media Danville news director Steve Brandy asked the questions, along with Pickett.