The City of Bloomington recently lost eight-year mayor Judy Markowitz to retirement, but it didn’t lose her as an arts advocate. Though she intends to carve out more personal time, Markowitz also plans to continue her work as Bloomington-Normal’s biggest arts cheerleader. "I’ll resume doing my trips to musical theatre weekend matinees in Chicago for my Judy Tours business, which I started in 1992. I also will continue doing my annual three-night Judy Tour to New York City each November for musical theatre," she said.
Bloomington’s first female mayor said the arts have always captured her attention. "Since childhood, I’ve been interested in the arts. My parents gave me all sorts of lessons: violin, piano, singing, dance, and elocution. I was often up on stage narrating assemblies and acting in school plays. When I matriculated to Northwestern in fall 1956, I first thought I wanted to go into their Drama School and be an actress. I even spent one summer in the summer stock program at Illinois Wesleyan University. But on graduation from NU in 1960, I became a first grade teacher."
Markowitz, whose family owned a retail furniture business on Bloomington’s Main Street for eight decades, credits her mother for influencing her in both public service and the arts. "My mother, Gertrude Stern, was an active leader of the Brokaw Hospital Service League and the League of Women Voters and a member of the local Art Association," she said.
The Bloomington-Normal area has a long history of active involvement in the arts and maintains a large roster of activities today. "We have a large and very talented arts community; some are associated with and through Illinois State University and Illinois Wesleyan University and others are independent theatre groups-Heartland Theatre and Community Players, for example."
Other local companies and organizations include the Heartland Jazz Orchestra, Community Symphony, B-N Concert Band, Dixieland Jazz Band, Sweet Adelines, Singing Y’ers, Sound of Illinois Chorus, and the Illinois Symphony Orchestra, which Markowitz said will begin performing at B-N’s Performing Arts Center in fall 2006. "Even our City Parks Department puts on plays in Miller Park in the summer with community talent, as well as a series of concerts both in our Miller Park and in our downtown. In the visual arts, we have the McLean County Arts Center, which has long maintained its own building in a historic church across from the Performing Arts Center. Both ISU and IWU have art galleries and theatre performances. ISU sponsors a group named ’Friends of the Arts’ with regular special programs and trips. In the summer at Ewing Manor is B-N’s nationally renowned Illinois Shakespeare Festival. Our McLean County History Museum in our former county courthouse on the downtown square mounts exhibits of historical interest on a regular basis. We also have many ballet/dance groups. I would say this is an extremely active arts community."
Markowitz said while she was mayor, her focus was to bring people back downtown with dining, events, and the development and renewal of the historic downtown. This endeavor has taken many forms, but area residents will see the most visible proof of this when two structures open in 2006. "The city council and I committed the city to development and funding for two major downtown projects: in the south end of our downtown, the Arena, with two same-size sheets of ice under one roof and seating for 7,500 for concerts and events; and at the north end of the downtown, the city purchased what was formerly known as the Consistory, owned by the Scottish Rite. That building closed March 1 for 18 months of remodeling and is expected to reopen in fall 2006."
When the former Scottish Rite Temple reopens, it will do so as the Bloomington Center for Performing Arts. The Arena, meanwhile, will host a variety of crowd-pleasing events. "One of the ice sheets, Pepsi Ice, will be managed by our Parks and Rec for youth hockey, figure skating, family skating, etc. The second sheet, which is surrounded by 6,500 fixed seats-with seating for another 1,000 on the covered ice floor-will be home for an ice hockey team and an arena football team, as well as staging for concerts and other special events, conventions, and meetings," she said.
Markowitz sees the arts as the vehicle to bring people back into the downtown. "Those of us who’ve been working on these projects are very excited about the changes that will come about once the arena and Performing Arts Center are opened in 2006. We want Bloomington to be a destination, and what better way to bring people to our community and to our downtown than providing entertainment and enrichment by exposure to the arts? We’re going to bring people into town, and those who live on the periphery will come back downtown for entertainment, dining, and all types of cultural events at these two venues. Residents will be able to choose whether to go to other towns for their entertainment-or stay right here in Bloomington."
One of the key ingredients to this plan, Markowitz said, is that property taxes aren’t being raised to cover either project. "We’re dedicating a portion of our sales tax revenue through 2021 to the Performing Arts Center in the Cultural District. The arena is being financed by bonds, which were issued last summer, and the interest will be repaid by sponsorships and income on events held there."
Ironically, complacency has been one of the most difficult elements to overcome. "It’s been most challenging to move past the public’s desire to be satisfied with the status quo-to not take any risk even though we’ve spent five years researching how to build and finance both projects-and to move past and the mantra, ’we like it the way it is, don’t change it, we don’t need it,’" she said.
She’s confident that time will change any reluctant minds. "Two to three years from now, when both projects are up and running successfully-and when both the arena and the cultural district in our historic, redeveloped downtown are bringing the community together for family fun and education-I’m certain our citizens will be very pleased we’re providing them with a great variety of activities so they don’t have to go out of town for enjoyment, arts, sports, and entertainment."
Though Markowitz has no regrets about opting out of official public life, she also has no regrets about the part she’s played in redeveloping Bloomington and its art community. "It’s been a marvelous, thrilling, and fulfilling life experience for me the past eight years, advocating and helping bring these projects to life in the historic center of my hometown-downtown Bloomington." AA!