By Tony Hooker
With 2020 coming to a close, we decided that it was time for a “state of the city” discussion with Villa Grove Mayor Cassandra Eversole Gunter. The mayor recently took time from her crazy schedule to give us a review of the challenges of 2020, along with a preview of things to come in 2021 and beyond.
As mayor, what was your biggest accomplishment in 2020?
2020 was the year of cancelled meetings and constant delays. We were not alone in trying to adapt to an environment that went from 100 mph to zero in a blink. Just before the shutdown, we had a meeting with the engineering firm summarizing the scope of the sewer plant project. We are still in the process of analyzing that information. We did manage to complete the strategic plan for Villa Grove that we started with Northern Illinois University.
Is there anyone in particular that you would like to thank for helping you achieve those goals?
The strategic planning sessions required input from multiple groups within our community. The council, department heads and city employees. There were sessions with the business community, the chamber, a selected group of community members and a session that was open to anyone who wanted to participate. The responses from those sessions were summarized and compiled into a set of priorities and for putting timelines to those goals. I would have quite a list of people to thank for helping us complete that process.
How about your personal and professional life? Any milestones that you would like to talk about? How did these milestones change your life?
Personally, anyone that knows me at all has heard about my grandson. He was born March 10, 2020. He was named after my dad, Leland Grey Gunter. To say that he has changed our lives would be an understatement. Being Grandma is my favorite title. My career as a real estate broker has always been another one of my loves. I am very fortunate to enjoy my work.
What are some of the hidden challenges you faced during the pandemic? How did you overcome them?
The pandemic has created the obvious financial concerns. I think everyone understands that part. It has also stirred very strong emotional responses. It has been politicized and has caused division. For the most part people have been very understanding and helpful, offering words of encouragement and prayer as we work through a very difficult time. There is always a tiny number of people who add to the load of our responsibilities. I guess you could say that there are always the cynics when we need champions!
Did you discover any hidden strengths for yourself and for the city as a whole during the process of your COVID-19 response?
The pandemic has forced everyone to draw from every ounce of strength possible. Douglas County developed a COVID Task Force that meets bi-weekly and shares updates and ideas though zoom meetings. It has been a great resource and a reminder that we are truly working together through an unprecedented time. I have learned to keep my focus on the issue at hand and network with the people that are interested in giving their best effort to the people that they serve.
How does the city keep the positive momentum that the city-wide planning project began?
After the initial shock of the closure , we began to regroup and get focused on the things that we could continue to prepare and plan for. It has definitely caused a considerable delay but we are moving forward and will continue to do that. We entered into an agreement with the state prior to COVID to build a community center and we are moving forward with that. The grant that we received will pay for a large portion of the project and we have been receiving support from both private and corporate donors for the remainder. There will be an opportunity for people to permanently commemorate loved ones in the building as a very special part of our building and fundraising plan.
What are your immediate goals as you begin the last year of your current term and look toward the future?
The highest priority at this time is to finalize the summary of the information that we have received regarding the condition of our wastewater treatment plant and the utility as a whole. We will be holding public forums to share this information with the community. We are working to determine the best solution to the overwhelming needs of an aging infrastructure. We want to provide these services at the best rate available. We are carefully studying our options to provide stability as we look to the future of Villa Grove.
Is there any way that that city government can work with area towns to make the region in general more attractive?
Douglas County is a very cohesive team. That is one thing that I have taken away from the COVID-19 pandemic. We are not just a small town, we are a part of a very impressive team in Douglas County. Although our residents are our primary concern, as a council we understand the impact that our decisions have on the surrounding area. It is our hope that the community building will have a positive impact on the entire area. It will offer many opportunities for health and wellness.
What sort of non-city related personal goals have you set? Is there something that we don’t know about you that we should?
I am constantly working on my reaction to the people that are hard to be around. lol. I know that there is a lot of truth in the statement that the most difficult people to love are the ones who need it the most.
Is there anything you would like to add?
I do want to say thank you to all of the city employees that have made the pandemic at least tolerable. Our fire department has gone above and beyond to offer support to our families. They were out driving the Easter Bunny and Santa for the children to see. They were out delivering individual birthday wishes. They always come through whether it be in a time of emergency or just keeping our spirits up. They are amazing and I want them to know that they are appreciated.