Thursday, May 14, 2015

Legislation Would Move Historic Sites to DCEO

Plans could impact future of Old Slave House



While on WJPF-AM this morning talking about the new Twin Wars of the 20s tour from SI Treasure Tours, host Tom Miller asked about any updates on the Old Slave House.

There's nothing new locally that I can talk about, but at least in Springfield there's legislation that will shift the state's historic sites from the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency into a new division within the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity that will include tourism, historic sites and the state's film office.

The bill would also spin off the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum into its own separate agency and allow DCEO to create a new public-private non-profit partnership to promote the state's economic development efforts.

The legislation (House Bill 574) has the support of Gov. Bruce Rauner as well as House Speaker Michael J. Madigan and House Republican Leader Jim Durkin. It's expected to pass though it's currently in the House Rules Committee.

Some agency folks in Springfield disagree with the move and I respect their positions, but the legislation offers a lot of possibilities for future improvement.

One thing I told Tom this morning about the new move is that the state tourism director, who I also think will be the head of this combined division, already knows about the house. More importantly, he knows how historic sites and tourism can intersect for economic development (and as a Springfield alderman, he's seen this firsthand.)

About a month ago I was in the Capitol in Springfield and had a chance to speak with Cory Jobe, the state's new tourism chief. He formerly served as chief of staff for Judy Baar Topinka in the state comptroller's office.

He remembered meeting me a number of years ago when I gave him a tour of the Old Slave House back when Ron Nelson, Gary DeNeal and I were still researching the site. I knew his name was familiar and that we had crossed paths somewhere else as well.

Back home I checked my notes and discovered that in December 2009 while working for the Southern Illinois Tourism Development Office, I was called to a meeting in Springfield with my regional counterparts, two people from the state tourism office as well as Cory and Maynard Crossman of Peoples Economic Development Corporation and Peoples National Bank to discuss a new historic preservation tax credit legislation that Gov. Rod Blagojevich's administration was planning to back in the next session of the General Assembly.

Cory had come from Topinka's state treasurer office where he had worked on a tourism related program, and Crossman was the former director of IHPA for the last year or two of George Ryan's term.

I remember the meeting vividly because on the way to Springfield I turned on the radio and learned that FBI agents had been seen taking the governor out of his Chicago home in handcuffs. Talk about the elephant in the room an hour later during our meeting, or in this case, a donkey.

Needless to say the Blagojevich administration didn't push the tax credits bill very much that year so it didn't go anywhere. Over the years various versions of the legislation get re-introduced, each year a bit more watered down than the last. I sat in on a presentation last year at the Herrin Chamber of Commerce offices about the then latest version.

The current version of the legislation is House Bill 240.

One more item on the Old Slave House, for those who need a visible  reminder of the site, check out Ghosts  of Old Shawneetown's page of pictures from the house back in  the 1990s. 



Monday, May 04, 2015

Governor Names New State Fair Director

For the first time ever the DuQuoin State Fair will not have a separate fair manager.

Rather than appoint managers for Springfield and DuQuoin state fairs, Gov. Bruce Rauner's administration named Patrick Buchan, a Fulton County native, to oversee both state fairs in Springfield and DuQuoin.

Although it's a loss for Southern Illinois, considering the state's fiscal crisis, we're lucky to only lose the manager position rather than the entire fair.

The good news is that also for the first time an Illinois governor has actually appointed someone with experience in state fairs and producing major shows.
Buchen previously served as Executive Director of the Indiana State Fair, President of HSI Show Productions, and Executive Director of the Texas Longhorn Cattle Breeders Association.  He is certified in Exposition Management from the International Association of Exhibitions and Events, and the past chair for the International Association for Exhibition Management Foundation.  Buchen is a graduate of Monmouth College, where he holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics.  Buchen has a track record of boosting revenues while trimming unproductive expenditures. 

“As an event professional I have dealt with all facets of show management.  I truly believe to meet the demands of the event industry, creativity is paramount in order to present something new and fresh year after year while still delivering familiarity,” said Buchen.  “I love agriculture and the fair business, so becoming manager of the state fairs in Illinois is a dream come true.”
The above quote comes for the official news release from the Department of Agriculture.

Even more amazing, the governor is not quoted at all, the agency director is.

"I am confident that Patrick Buchen can effectively manage both state fair operations.  In this day and age of shared sacrifice, we at the Illinois Department of Agriculture are tightening our belts where we can, but at the same time preserve the traditions that Illinois residents enjoy at both state fairs,” said Ag Director Philip Nelson. “Patrick has both the agriculture experience and the fair experience that will really help him to showcase Illinois, specifically the state’s rich agricultural roots.”

The quote is too long for a proper news release. It should have been split in at least two paragraphs, however it's a marked improvement in agency communications. It also has two spaces after each period suggesting that the writer isn't familiar with the AP Style Guide and hasn't worked for a newspaper before.

In my experience dealing with state news releases they've been going downhill since Jim Edgar left office. Each succeeding administration has made an increasing number of gubernatorial quotes mandatory on almost every release. Everything the state did had to look like the governor cared and acted, when in reality, the man in office didn't even know anything about the subject matter being released.

Worst case - Rod Blagojevich being quoted extensively by the Department of Natural Resources when the man never visited a state park during his entire term of office. Someone in his administration even decided that the governor's name should be top and center on every state park brochure, even above the name of the state park rather than on the back like it had been for decades.

I'm off my soapbox now. Back to the subject at hand. Overall, this has every potential of actually working out in favor of DuQuoin and the region.

According to the State Journal-Register the DuQuoin State Fair lost $630,000 in FY 2012 and $595,000 in FY 2013, significantly less than the fair losses at Springfield.

Now if DNR can find similar management, or privatize the World Shooting Complex at Sparta, Southern Illinois might see better results at both state-owned sites.



Wednesday, April 29, 2015

New Life Coming to Town and Country

The former Town and Country Cinema building as of April 29, 2015

The old Town and Country Cinema which has sit empty for around two decades will soon see some new activity. Yesterday representatives of the Brooklyn, New York-based owners could be seen talking with their local long-time Realtor, J. David Thompson of Coldwell Banker Realty in the parking lot of the shopping center. Thompson later confirmed that the owners plan on remodeling the cinema.

Although he didn't share any details, the building is in the relatively new Hub TIF district the city created which encourages redevelopment of existing structures.

The last few years have not been kind to the structure. Part of the brick fa├žade either fell down or was taken down after it separated from the block wall on the west end of the north side.

Kerasotes opened the west half of the building as the Town and Country Twin Cinema on Friday, April 11, 1975, to take the place of the old Orpheum Theatre downtown that the city restored and reopened as the Marion Cultural and Civic Center.

Bill Ivy managed the cinema at the time. On opening night patrons had their choice between the now-classic Young Frankenstein or the Four Musketeers. Tickets were just $2. Both theaters seated 240.

Two years later on March 13, 1977, Ivy, now a district supervisor for Kerasotes announced that the company would add two more theaters on the west side. At the time it would be the only four-plex Kerasotes operated. The two new theaters were planned to seat 238. The expanded complex opened later that summer.

The building suffered a small electrical fire on one of the men's restrooms in April 17, 1998, which caused theater-goers to be evacuated during the opening night of the "Babe" and "Beethoven"films.

Following the construction of the Illinois Center Mall, Kerasotes bought ground for a new theater in July 1992. The next summer in June 1993 Kerasotes started on their new 8-plex complex behind the mall with a planned opening date of Dec. 1, 1993. At the time Kerasotes planned to keep the old theater open, though that didn't last long.

The Town and Country Shopping Center first opened in stages in 1973. The May 29, 1982, tornado leveled the complex and it was rebuilt and a grand reopening was held early in 1983.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

More Developments Aiming for Marion Besides IHOP

On Monday, Feb. 9, 2015, the parcels in red shifted to pending.
Put down that maple syrup for your anticipated IHOP pancakes, Marion may be getting another two new restaurants and a strip mall on the west side according to a rumor that came from a source who heard it second hand, and who wasn't connected with the city, the real estate industry, the construction business, let alone the actual developers.

Now normally, I wouldn't run with something this thin, except that last Monday the land in question went from active to pending in the Egyptian Board of Realtors' multiple listing service used by local Realtors such as myself. (I'm associated with Paul Wilson Realty, LLC here in Marion.)

That means it's under contract and likely to close.

I've put a few calls around today and apparently something is coming separate from the IHOP deal announced last month. Today's calls also indicated a fourth restaurant may be in the works though no one in the know is talking about actual names.

I've heard a few names over the last few weeks, but never anything concrete, or supposedly connected with this proposed development.

The land in question is 6.06 acres of Wolohan property on the east side of Halfway Road and south of Morgan Avenue The Hill Drive. It's listed for just under $3.96 million, or $15/sq. ft. which has been the going rate for that stretch of Halfway Road. Whether that stays true will be interesting. Gander Mountain's recent acquisition only came to $7/sq. ft., although that appears to have been a discount in order to get new attention to the area behind Menards.

In comparison, the original developers of the Fairfield Inn have recently listed their vacant land to the north of that hotel and to the west of Rent One Park. They're asking just under $1.6 million for the 3.66-acre tract which comes to $10/sq. ft.

The reputed new developers apparently are not interested in Wolohan's remaining 1.7 acre outlot across the new Volunteer Drive access road to the east. That listing is still active, rather than pending. Also not known is whether the developers have approached the owners of Marion Chevrolet-Cadillac about their vacant 2.2 acres immediately north of their dealership and immediately east of the concrete pad where the old Wolohan's Lumber building used to stand. It's acquisition isn't necessary, but it would square up the property lines to a point and bring the total land in play to just over 8 acres.

The land now pending would have access to Halfway Road on the west, The Hill Drive (formerly Morgan Avenue) to the north and Volunteer Drive, the new access road built last year to the east.

A few years ago Denny's had optioned the corner of Morgan and Halfway, but never closed on the deal.

Meanwhile as we wait on these developments we do know of one new restaurant that's definitely coming to Marion. It's a new Chinese eatery at the corner of Court and Boulevard across the street from Taco John's. It will be the seventh restaurant on Court.

Wei Chen LLC purchased the 14,000 sq. ft. tract at the corner on May 21, 2014, for $120,000, or $8.57/sq. ft. At just 0.32 acres, it was too small for most chain restaurants, even fast food establishments. Court Street had a traffic count of 11,500 vehicles a day on the stretch in front of the future restaurant. Boulevard had 5,300 vehicles.

Construction has been ongoing for the last few months and the parking lot is almost completely paved. No word yet on an opening date.

Down the street, A 'Lill' Taste of Cuba has switched up its menu and is now known as Ray's Cafe specializing in breakfast and lunch. According to their Facebook page, owner Loray Lill changed the name in January because of an upcoming move. Her brother is the new owner, hence the new name. They're still offering "the same authentic Cuban cuisine, gyros, Philly's, pastas, salads, sandwiches," but have added breakfasts. The new hours are 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday with breakfast served all day.

Back on the west side of town Sonic took out a building permit late last month for a $400,000 expansion and renovation to its existing location on Walton Way.

On the negative side of the economic development equation the Illinois Centre Mall continues to shed stores under the current slate of owners. Locally owned The Country Porch/Country Gourmet is closing its door at the end of the month with Sisters Three next door planning to follow. In addition the corporate chain of Deb Shops are closing all their stores, including the one in the Marion mall.

Vigiano's II Fitness Center also closed in January on the east side of the interstate. However that appears to be under contract with a new owner. Last Monday the Marion city council approved a recommendation from the city's revolving loan committee for a $175,000 loan to Gabe Parker and his father James Parker, to purchase the gym and reopen it under the name Raw Fitness Center. The loan is part of a financial package being prepared by Farmers State Bank.

The move comes at the same time the city's new Hub Recreation Center hit its goal of 2,000 memberships. Apparently, it's time for Marion to get in shape up in the most literal sense possible.

IHOP Expanding at Least Twice in Southern Illinois

Pancake Holdings, LLC, of Chino Hills, Cal., an IHOP franchisee hasn't announced their expansion plans yet in the region, but we now know where two of their new restaurants will be locating.

Marion Mayor Robert L. Butler announced the Marion location last Jan. 17 at the Marion Chamber of Commerce annual dinner, which he later confirmed to WSIL-TV. Developers of The Hill, Marion Heights LLC, also confirmed the Marion location as the empty lot on The Hill immediately east of Holiday Inn Express.

The lot's bounded by Blue Heron Drive on the north (from which it will have access), Morgan Avenue, now The Hill Way, on the south, the existing Miners Drive on the east (going towards Menards) and a new access road on the west connecting The Hill Way with Blue Heron Drive that's now under construction.

The site's been connected with rumored restaurants for the last few years, including Olive Gardens at one point, but this is the first time a restaurant has been publicly announced. It follows the announcement late last year of a new Gander Mountain opening behind Menards.

Molly Parker of the this morning's Southern Illinoisan has the story on the new Carbondale location IHOP is eying.

Both Gary Williams, Carbondale's assistant city manager for economic development, and Hiren Patel whose MK Lodging LLC owns the UniCity Inn, confirmed that the troubled motel property will be torn down and replaced not only with an IHOP, but a second "3,000 square feet of space for another 'fast-casual' themed restaurant and 10,000 square feet of retail." Patel said he finalized the deal Thursday.

Patel's company bought the former America's Best Inn next to Steak 'n Shake last February after it had been closed by the city for code violations. Although he invested thousands into it to reopen and re-brand it, he said after a month of contemplating, the best business decision was to sell rather than pour thousands more into it.

Although deals have supposedly been reached for both parcels no deeds have been filed as of yet. If Patel just signed the purchase agreement Thursday, it would still take a few more weeks for deeds to be prepared, signed and filed. Even with signed deeds it still takes time. When Gander Mountain bought its property last Nov. 13, they didn't file the deeds and other documents for three weeks until Dec. 5.

Up until last fall the nearest IHOP restaurants were in the St. Louis area and Paducah, Ky. A new franchisee, Apple Investor Group, opened an IHOP in Cape Girardeau last October in the former Pasta House restaurant that closed last May.

The new Carbondale, and most likely Marion IHOPs will be new construction and will be among the first to feature the chain's new restaurant design.

Butler told Parker that as far as he’s aware, “there’s not been any change” in the Marion plans. “They told me they were looking at several locations in Southern Illinois.”

Patel's MK Lodging also owns the Comfort Suites in Marion.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Gander Mountain and the STAR Bonds Project

It's been a few weeks since Gander Mountain announced plans for a new Marion store, and we're now getting more details about the deal.

At the time, they announced it would be a 52,000 sq. ft. store employing up to 100 associates, of whom about a quarter would be full-time employees. The building will be built behind Menard's on a 4.824-acre lot carved out of the southeast corner of the vacant land located there owned by Marion Heights, LLC, the original developers of The Hill.

Officials declined to say at the time how much they paid for the land. However they finally filed the deed and other paperwork with the county last Friday. They paid $1,470,896 for the 210,128 sq. ft. of property, which if those numbers seem hard to fathom that's okay. The price was $7/sq. ft., less than half the $15/sq. ft., the price property has been selling on Halfway Road.

Realty Income Properties 4, LLC, a Delaware corporation based in Escondido, California, took possession of the property on Nov. 13, which they will apparently lease to Gander Mountain.

Comparatively speaking the price seems low, but in real estate development, that's the benefit of getting in on the ground floor so to speak. Gander Mountain sets the stage for the first new major commercial development in Marion since the recession, not only do they get a cheaper price, they also get to set the rules for further development.

Like most major retailers they requested, and received, deed restrictions on other future development on The Hill. While there are a variety of rules, the key one prohibits any key competitors:

... no portion of the Restricted Property may be used by Academy Sports and Outdoors, Cabela's, Bass Pro Shops, Dick's Sporting Goods (including Field and Stream), Scheels, Sportsman's Warehouse and any owned or controlled affiliate of the foregoing companies (collected the "Specific Competitors").

There's nothing sinister about this, as those stores, particularly the larger ones, would require the same restrictions if they were the first to locate here. As to department stores such as Walmart, they would be allowed but only if they kept their hunting/fishing/camping sections to less than 10,000 sq. ft.

The interesting part, particularly as it relates to the future of the STAR Bonds project, is that these restrictions aren't just for the adjoining property behind Menard's, but for all of Marion Heights' land on either side of Interstate 57.

Cabela's and Bass Pro Shops are two of a very small number of retailers that would qualify as a destination retailer for the STAR Bonds. There needs to be at least one of those involved before the STAR Bonds incentives could even be activated.

Does this signal the end of the effort to use the STAR Bonds legislation, or do the developers have something else up their sleeve? The development west of Kansas City, on which the legislation is based, utilizes another big retailer, Nebraska Furniture Mart. Although the former developers of the STAR Bonds district were trying to secure them, it's not clear if they had any interest as they only have two locations in the entire country.

The 38 or so acres left north of Menards remains in the STAR Bonds District awaiting the arrival of additional retailers or other developments. But back to Gander Mountain, the chain has been aggressively opening new, larger stores around the country. Marion appears to fit in that trend.

As part of the deal, we'll see more roadwork take place on The Hill. The day before they signed the deed, Marion Heights LLC dedicated Home Run Drive will be a new street that runs behind Menard's. It will connect Blue Heron Drive which runs along the interstate on the east, to Miners Drive which runs between Rent One Stadium and Menards. Down the road we'll also see the development of Stadium View Drive on the north side of the development and Miners Drive be extended north as well.

According to the sign out on the property, Gander Mountain expects to open sometime in April 2015.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Updates in Marion Development

Today's post is a hodgepodge of updates from the last month.

Casey's General Store at 2314 W. Main St. in Marion, will open for business Friday. It's the first new development on the east side of Exit 53 in years and takes the place of the old 1940s-era Marion Bowl.

The store helps cleanup the corner of Main and Seventh Streets which had been the site of two gas stations in addition to the bowling alley. Both stations have been demolished as well.

Farmers State Bank's new building in front of Walmart is well underway. It will be the bank's second location in Marion. It appears they will get a new neighbor as well.

Dennis and Lisa McDonald of Kevil, Ky., purchased the adjoining 1.06 acre tract from Walmart for $260,000 on Aug. 5, but the deed wasn't filed until 10 days ago. There's no word what they plan to build, but Dennis operates The Mattress Guys store in Cape Girardeau.

The purchase price comes to $5.63/sq. ft., a bit cheaper than the $15/sq. ft. which is the going rate for property nearby on Halfway Road. Deed restrictions require that any building be no more than 7,000 sq. ft. and must be used for an office, restaurant or retail.

In residential development the city approved the plat for Phase X of Morningside Subdivision on the northeast side of down. This 10-acre addition will extend Dew Drop Drive south from where it ends south to the first curve on Broeking Road.

Barnett bought the tract in June from Morningside developer Dave Thompson for $150,000. The city council annexed the acreage (along with a number of other parcels in that area) and approved the plat in August. The new addition will add 26 residential lots a little more than a quarter, and less than a third of an acre.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

STAR Bonds Updates Includes New Retailer

There's signs of life in Marion's dormant STAR Bonds project, or at least in the city's search for new development.

The city council is expected to name Doug Bradley, lead partner in Marion Heights LLC, as the STAR Bonds District's new master developer. He would take the place of Bruce Holland of Holland Construction who backed out a while ago. Saturday's Southern Illinoisan has part of the story.

The council will make the selection Monday night at a special meeting set for 5 p.m. at Marion City Hall. The Marion city clerk made the announcement of the special meeting at the close of business Thursday.

Bradley's group has been responsible for The Hill development on the northwest side of the Interstate 57 and Morgan Avenue, and had started focusing on the northeast side after the city and state extended Morgan Avenue across the interstate and made a limited interchange at the crossing.

When Bruce Holland approached the city with the STAR Bonds District proposal back in 2010 much of Marion Heights LLC's tracts on both sides of the interstate were swept up in the larger project. Now, Bradley has a retailer with plans for a 50,000 sq. ft. store looking to build behind Menards on the west side, but first, he needs the property to be taken out of the STAR Bonds District so the developers can benefit from the earlier tax increment financing (TIF) district first created for The Hill.

Under state law, developers can use either STAR Bonds or TIF, but not both.

Prior to the establishment of that TIF district the area on the northwest consisted of abandoned mine lands and strip pits, some dating back to the 1930s. The first elements of The Hill opened in 2003 and includes Fairfield Inn, South Pointe Bank (now MidCountry Bank), Rent One Park, Holiday Inn Express and Menards up on top, and additional restaurants and offices down below on 17th Street.

The STAR Bonds District can't be activated by the state until a master developer lands at minimum a major destination retailer and a major entertainment user such as a theme park to anchor the development. They have to then submit a master plan showing at least $100 million in investments that would generate at least $100 million in annual sales taxes as well as the creation of a minimum of 500 jobs.

With Holland out and no one stepping up, Marion Heights LLC wants to move forward at least on some of the smaller projects that have been circling their land. Since at least 2007 they have had plans for a strip center with retail stores behind Menards that would face the interstate to the east. Now, according to City Hall, at least an anchor store, or a standalone store, wants to call the Hub of the Universe home.

One of the delays in the STAR Bonds development according to statements made by both Marion Mayor Robert L. Butler and state Rep. John Bradley, D-Marion, over the last few years has been the ongoing road construction projects totaling more than $100 million.

Both have said a major tenant interested in coming to Marion had wanted to wait until the construction was over. Although the Exit 54 rebuild is now finished, work continues on the Route 13 bypass over the Burlington-Northern and the widening of Route 13 to six lanes between Rt. 148 and Crab Orchard Lake. However, much closer to the STAR Bonds District, the work has finally begun on the widening of Morgan Avenue to four lanes, the addition of a second overpass and the expansion of the exit to a full interchange with access to the south.

Monday's agenda calls on the council to first name a new master developer, then get the master developer's approval for amending the boundaries of the STAR Bonds District, and finally adopting the amendment changing the boundaries.

While these moves would smooth the way for the new retailer, and possibly a whole strip mall it doesn't address the larger issue of what will happen to the STAR Bonds District that's gone without any progress for at least two years now.

Here's a few questions that hopefully will be answered Monday, but probably won't.

1. While the naming of a new master developer is necessary in order to the smaller project to proceed, does Marion Heights LLC have plans to develop the entire STAR Bonds District, or a larger partner in the background that can move the project forward? In other words, is this just a temporary move to get the smaller project off the ground? (Not that there is anything wrong with that!)

2. While we're shifting boundaries of the STAR Bonds District will there be any movement to expand the district, particularly south of Morgan Avenue, on the east side of the interstate?

Over the last few years The Hill developers have been aggressively adding to their property portfolio, going as far as buying from the bank the mortgage of one mobile home operator. With the operator behind in payments they filed for foreclosure and finally received full title to the 15 lots this past Tuesday on Sept. 9.

The area between Morgan Avenue and Route 13 consists of the old Morgan Heights development platted a century ago that's two blocks deep and consisting mostly of tiny lots just 50' x 150' with only some of the streets actually paved and some never built out at all. The developers have been targeting the area between Morgan and Princeton Avenue, the only east-west street between Route 13 and Morgan. It's an area that desperately needs to be re-platted and designed for modern developments.


The orange lots show what they've had for a few years and the pink color what they just completely acquired this past week. The red lands to the north represents their original purchase on the east side of the interstate. There's still about 13 or 14 property owners that represent the remaining tracts between Princeton and Morgan, Carbon and the interstate.

Only two or three of the tracts are publicly available for sale at the present time, it would be difficult to see this area redeveloping up to its potential without further consolidation.

UPDATE 1 - The council did took action as expected. However, only 5 acres out of the 43-acre tract behind Menards was removed. No public discussion was made as to the name of the store.