By Tony Hooker
Villa Grove Mayor Cassandra Eversole Gunter recently reached the half-way point of her first term, and it seemed like a good time to look back on what she, the council and her leadership team have accomplished, what they are working on and what they hope to achieve in the future.
What’s one thing that really surprised you about the office of Mayor, here in Villa Grove?
Lots of things! I think I expected more structure. There was a need for more structure and planning across the board in the way the city is run. I was pleasantly surprised by the knowledge that the employees have acquired over the years, and at their willingness to share that. Jackie (Athey) and Scott (Arbuckle). Chief Gire and Ross Elston. I hate to say names because I’m afraid I’ll miss someone, but I was surprised by how all the city employees were willing to help and to start planning for the future. They helped me pick up where others have left off?
Is that teamwork based on eagerness to help, or more on a willingness to be led?
This is an excellent team. They’re all team players and they appreciate the fact that their ideas and opinions are being heard and that their knowledge and experience is respected. Until you walk into a new position, you don’t know how receptive the existing parts are going to be, and everyone has really stepped up.
What’s the greatest thing that the city has accomplished during your term?
Obviously, the most pressing issue was the water treatment plant. We’re still addressing a couple of things there, but overall that’s been a good project. I think it’s the biggest thing that we’ve accomplished so far.
What are some of the other structural issues that the city has been able to address during your term?
We’ve addressed issues to ensure that everything is in good working order. We’ve painted water towers, fixed streets, paved alleys.
Is that Scott’s doing, or is that something that you, as mayor encouraged?
When Scott Arbuckle took over as the director of public works, the main thing we focused on was that he develop a plan. At this point, he is using that plan to outline what needs to be done on a weekly, monthly and yearly basis for our infrastructure and general maintenance. He has created a schedule for when tree trimming and normal things that are done routinely, like the sidewalks, are to be maintained. He has laid out a structured plan for when any type of maintenance is to be done.
What about the changes in administrative structure?
Jackie Athey took the position of City Administrator on October 1, 2018 and Scott Arbuckle became the Director of Public Works this year. Those two work together on everything from budgeting to employee matters and evaluations. They work really well together in planning what needs done.
Was that your doing, or was that in the works before you became mayor? How did that come to be?
There was a very obvious need for a chain of command in the daily operations of the city. The council and I felt that it was important for the employees to know who their supervisor, who makes the daily decisions, is. Also, it was good for the council to have that kind of definition of what the roles were. It’s also been good for the residents of Villa Grove to know who to contact.
What sort of projects is the city working on currently?
We’re working with a group to begin to set our strategic planning goals for the next five years. We are figuring out what needs to be done, what it will cost and how we can lay that out in incremental goals. Obviously, the community building is in our immediate future after we received a $2.1 million-dollar grant from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, specifically for the community center. We’ve been working with our TIF consultant to make plans for our TIF district in the main street area. In the long term, we would like to make plans for an assisted living facility, along with new housing development opportunities.
The Community Building is being looked at as a resource for people of all ages from Villa Grove and from the Region, correct?
It will have a huge impact on the entire region. We hope to cooperate on the county level to run programs that will benefit health and fitness training and education through the center. Locally of course, the walking area and the ability to host tournaments will provide opportunities and complete the park. It will have a kitchen, concessions and restrooms. It will be the completion that Richman Park has always needed. It will have a big impact on Villa Grove of course, but it will impact the entire region to be sure.
Let’s look to the future. In an ideal Cassandra Eversole Gunter future, what does Villa Grove look like in twenty years?
<laughs> We’ve been very focused on five years from now, which seems a little overwhelming at times, so twenty years looks way out there, even though I know it will come very quickly. I would like to see improvement in the infrastructure. We’ve addressed the water lines, we’ve addressed our drainage issues, we’ve perfected our water plant. Of course, we’re preparing to replace the bridge on route 130, so I hope that it is still structurally sound. <smiles> We always want to be a strong supporter of our school district. It’s growing. They’re getting ready to build additional classrooms and a new gymnasium. Twenty years from now, we’ve hopefully continued to make great strides with our infrastructure. We’ve seen great improvement over the past two or three years and we want that to continue. Of course, we want to keep every business on Main Street, and add to that. Twenty years from now, we’ll continue to be a great place to live.
<Journal> No indoor/outdoor pools?
You never know! It depends on what kind of money we can gather! I definitely would love to see the senior living facility and that we’ve constantly continued to improve our parks. We have a group of volunteers here in town that we’re greatly appreciative of. The BVG group has not only painted and cleaned up parks and put planters on main street, but they’ve done it all with fund-raised money. They do the fundraising, they come with the ideas, they plan and do the work themselves. They have raised a big sense of community for Villa Grove. They are dedicated to making things look nice again.
Speaking of a sense of community, there are some new community events that have come about. What can you tell me about those?
Having activities in your community, having something to look forward to, and to be out getting to know your neighbors and spend time together is important. It definitely develops a sense of community. In the fall, we had the fall festival where the city provided the movie and the chamber provided food and financial support. That was very well received by the families. The Celebrating Freedom Festival in July is growing and turning more and more into an event every year. We have the fishing tournament that the chamber does every year at John Leon Park. The Christmas Tree Lighting Festival has been very well received and it continues to grow every year. This year proved to be the most challenging, with the wind and the rain, but it will continue to improve. We have our Cinco De Mayo celebration every year on May 5.
Is there anything that you would like to add, mayor?
Villa Grove is an outstanding community. It really is a nice place to live, and we’re doing everything possible to make this a place that people want to raise their families, to enjoy the school, to have activities that are fun and interesting. We want people to be proud of where they live, and to feel good about saying that they live in Villa Grove and that it’s a fantastic place to be.
You can’t do that without having a great team from the ground up, right?
Exactly. We have a solid council that is dedicated. We spend a lot of time sharing ideas and planning. Our department heads are very receptive to new ideas that we bring to them and to the direction that we plan to go. Everyone that works for the city is dedicated to making things better. Our public works department has worked hard to catch up on old projects and they show a lot of pride in their work. We’ve always had that solid twenty-four coverage in our police department, our emergency services. We’re very fortunate to have those services here in a small town. The volunteer base is growing. We have an amazing group of people who like to spend time making things better. Our school, our service groups, the Rotary, the Chamber, the Lions. Our VFW, our churches, all want to help.