Friday, August 22, 2014

State to Re-Open Fort Defiance at Confluence


I had to do a double-take reading today's Fort Defiance headline in the Southern Illinoisan. I read Fort Massac in place of Fort Defiance, and thought the state of Illinois was finally going to rebuild the fort which is currently condemned. Instead, they're focusing on the site of the Civil War fort at Cairo.

Technically, the site of the fort is more still inside Cairo rather than the actual confluence of Ohio and Mississippi Rivers as the confluence has moved downstream in the last century and a half. As an example of the constant changing nature of the rivers the old boat ramp sits underneath six and eight feet of silt.

Joey Thurston, site superintendent at nearby Horseshoe Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area, added Fort Defiance to his portfolio July 1 at the start of the state's new fiscal year. The incredibly impoverished, yet rich in history, city of Cairo had operated the site barely since the 1980s, not the 90s, as the article notes.

The site has some issues as Thurston outlines, but I've got to say it's been a long time since I've seen an IDNR employee sounding gun-ho at fixing issues and restoring a site to public use.

By the way, if you go visit the park, don't forget to take a ride in Cairo's subway. It's still there.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Herrin Massacre Bus Tours Offer Something New

The infamous barbed wire fence inside the Power House Woods where four dozen men were lined up and shot on June 22, 1922. Williamson County Historical Society photo.

After two successful tours in July and a long waiting list the organizer of the new Herrin Massacre Bus Tours has announced four more dates for August.

Amy Erickson of Carbondale, my former intern at the Williamson County Tourism Bureau, and later interim office manager at the Southern Illinois Tourism Development, came up with the idea earlier this year and is operating the tours out of the educational non-profit group CAPS (Connecting All Parents to School) with support from the Williamson County Historical Society.

The dates are this Friday, August 8, which still has some openings; Saturday, August 9, which is full; Friday, August 16 and Saturday, August 23. The tours are $45 per person, but there's a Family Friday discount where extra family members can join the tour for just $25. Get your tickets at HerrinMassacreTour.com or call Amy at (618) 751-2924. The price covers the bus tour, admission to the museums and lunch as well as souvenirs and giveaways.

Both tours are the same, but due to parking issues Friday tours start at the Williamson County Airport and the Saturday tours from the Williamson County Jail Museum behind the Marion Civic Center at 105 S. Van Buren St. I, Jon Musgrave, will once again be serving as the historical guide for all four tours.

The bus tour follows the events of the two-day outbreak of violence on June 21-22, 1922, from the ambush of guards and replacement workers at Fozzard Bridge, now under Crab Orchard Lake on the morning of the 21st, to the all-out battle outside the mine later that afternoon that would fatally injure three union men.

The next morning four dozen men inside the mine surrendered with the understanding that they would be marched to Herrin and put on a train. Instead, increasingly larger mobs would stop them on the way into the city, eventually leading to an order to line them up against a barb wire fence and start shooting.

Some got away only to be shot and hung in the Harrison Woods immediately southeast of the city while six others were recaptured and taken to the Herrin City Cemetery where they were repeatedly shot and cut with knives in the presence of witnesses including big city reporters who had just arrived to cover the violence from the day before.

Another 20 men would die that day or later from their wounds received on the death march.

Barring a funeral taking place the bus will stop at the cemetery where recent research and excavations have confirmed the location of 17 of the original burial sites of the victims in the city’s former Potter’s Field in what was then Block 15 in the southeast corner of the original cemetery. Twelve of the victims are believed to be still buried there.

The tour also includes a stop at the Miners Memorial in downtown Herrin with a presentation from the Herrin Area Historical Society before returning for lunch and a tour of the Williamson County Jail Museum where the defendants were held later that year.

Personally, I think it's amazing what happened that day back in 1922, but even worse was the travesty of justice that took place afterwards when two trials ended with nothing but acquittals due to outright bribery of the jurors and the purchase of alibis for the defendants.

That breakdown of the rule of law led to an easy journey setting up the stage for the Klan War and Gang War that followed which eventually left more than six dozen deaths in its wake over the next five years.

One of the July tour participants recently e-mailed Erickson with a review.

"I'm from a coal mining family, a coal miner's daughter, and so connected to coal industry through my husband, my dad and mother's family. We are all involved. A friend read the article, and I immediately called, I wouldn’t be alive without U.M.W.A. It's a continuing struggle. I was enriched by taking the trip. Someone [who] hasn't read the book (Bloody Williamson) would really benefit."

I will also have my books and posters available for sale at the end of the tour or from my website at IllinoisHistory.com/Books.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

$250,000 in Horse Trail Upgrades Set For Shawnee

Visitors to some of the most scenic parts of the Shawnee National Forest will soon have better access thanks to a $200,000 grant announced by the state this week.

The grant provides 80 percent of the funding for four projects that will cost around $250,000 when complete. The projects include two new parking lots and trailheads near One Horse Gap in Pope County and Garden of the Gods in Gallatin County. A third trailhead will be expanded and more than five miles of trails for hikers and horseback riders rebuilt and improved.

The Governor's office and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources made the announcement.

Eighty percent of the funding comes from the federal Recreational Trails Program grant administered by DNR. The U.S. Forest Service will match the 80-20 grant with $37,500 of their own trails funding for the Shawnee National Forest and $12,500 from the Shawnee Trails Conservancy, a local equestrian trail group. Earlier this year that group had received their portion as a grant from the Illinois Equine Industry Research and Promotion Board, which distributes funds from an voluntary assessment on equine feed purchased in the state.

"Improving our infrastructure for recreation on public lands is an important step as we work to connect more people with nature and the outdoors,” IDNR Director Marc Miller said in the release. "These grants will help communities and government agencies do a better job of making public spaces available to all."

Amanda G. Patrick, public affairs officer for the Shawnee, told Southern Illinois Tourism News the forest leadership, "is excited about this successful cooperative effort between the U.S. Forest Service and the Shawnee Trail Conservancy."

The Conservancy wrote the grant application and guided it through the process, she added.

The new trailheads will be located near One Horse Gap and just outside the Garden of the Gods Wilderness Area. The one to be expanded will be the East Trigg trailhead on the River to River Trail.

"All three trailheads will be large enough to accommodate multiple horse trailers as well as passenger vehicle parking to serve all trail users," explained Patrick.

The second new trailhead between Garden of the Gods and High Knob will be located close to the rock formation long associated with the Civil War era Confederacy supporting Knights of the Golden Circle.

The grant will also fund approximately 5.4 miles of work on USFS hiker/equestrian trails, including some portions of the River to River Trail, in the One Horse Gap area.

"These trails are heavily utilized and in many cases are not well-constructed or well-located for the heavy impact," Patrick explained. "Sections of trail will be relocated on the landscape to minimize resource damage from erosion and sedimentation and to avoid sensitive features while other sections will be reconstructed in place."

While Forest Service personnel will complete the planning and layout, Trails Unlimited, a team that specializes in trail work will perform the construction.

The One Horse Gap trail work will be a continuation of a project funded by a 2010 RTP grant to reroute and reconstruct approximately 7 miles of hiker/equestrian trail in the same area. About 5.5 miles of this work is complete to date; the remainder of the work is expected to be done in fall 2014.

Patrick said planning has already begun for the trailheads and trail work associated with the new grant. Actual construction may not begin until spring 2015.

"The Forest is very appreciative of the time, energy and investment provided by STC as this project would not be possible without their continued support. [We're] also grateful for the state of Illinois's consideration and selection of this project that promotes the development of trails and the opportunities they provide for visitors to the Shawnee. This level of support is exciting as it brings capacity to all involved in addressing trail reconstruction and maintenance, needs that are critical to the long-term sustainability of local trail systems that protect unique places while also increasing the safety of our visitors," she added.

The project in the Shawnee was one of four announced this week by Gov. Pat Quinn. The three other Recreational Trails Program grants announced this week were $151,000 for a special parking area for vehicles and snowmobilers along the Pecatonica Prairie Trail in Winnebago County, $616,000 for the development of the Hanna City Trail in Peoria and Fulton Counties and $200,000 for the development of the Freeman Kame Horse and Hike Trail in the Freeman Kame - Meagher Forest Preserve in Kane County.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Marion's New Single-Point I-57 Interchange Opens Today

Single-Point Interchange on Route 13 under the I-57 overpass

The $45 million single-point interchange is scheduled to open later this afternoon.

The project to reconstruct the intersection of Interstate 57 and Illinois Route 13 started two years ago.

"The contractor is preparing to open that up to the full configuration by 3 p.m." explained Doug Helfrich, IDOT District 9 construction engineer, on Thursday. "There will be new signals at the I-57 bridge, and those temporary signals will be down."

He says there won't be a big change other than the new traffic signals will be closer to the bridge.

(Of course, he's an IDOT engineer, he probably even likes roundabouts. While I have to grant that the single-point interchanges will be more efficient, as will the roundabout Carbondale announced earlier this month, they do require a lot more thinking than motorists usually give when they're approached for the first few times.)

If you haven't noticed contractors do have the new lights up under the bridge and Helfrich promises "full pavement markings on the road" to guide motorists. Once crews get all of the approaches cleaned up in the next month it should look sharp and we'll wonder how we ever lived without it.

The project is part of the $100 million Illinois is spending on the interchange, expanding Route 13 to six lanes from Route 37 to John A. Logan College, adding new frontage roads, and building an overpass over the Burlington-Northern Railroad just west of the Illinois Star Centre mall.

Work on the interchange project should be completed by July 1. Sometime in mid to late July Helfrich said traffic on Route 13 will be diverted to the new eastbound railroad overpass so work can start prepping the ground for the westbound overpass.

The bad news about the overpass project is the continued restricted access on Garden Way, the new frontage road on the south side of the highway from Sam's Club to Skyline Drive. That will likely delay any development, particularly new restaurants who would normally be anxious to snatch the prime new lots out next to the highway. The big chains like to be on the side of the road that has the heaviest evening rush hour traffic. For Route 13, that's the south side as most of the traffic is heading east on Route 13 in order to get on the interstate, or continue onto and through Marion on the state highway.

That road can't open until the railroad allows the new at-grade crossing on Garden Way to be open. That won't happen until the current Route 13 at-grade crossing is history and both overpasses are operational.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Closed With Plans to Reopen Even Better Friday

Both O'Charley's and the southbound ramp from Route 13 to Interstate 57 are closed this week for reconstruction.

O'Charley's plans an upgrade of their restaurant. The remodeling inside will cost a bit of seating space, but should make the dining experience less crowded. Based on the drawings posted inside, the entrance will be transformed into a more visible white tower with the green stripe at the top to see of the name better.

Meanwhile work on the highway progresses to a point that it's becoming clearer how the diamond interchange will work underneath the overpass. There will probably be a wreck or two as drivers get used to the switch from the temporary two intersections and stoplights to the single set of lights.

The reconstruction of the I-57 interchange at Exit 54 began two years ago and should quickly draw to a completion if the weather will cooperate.

The biggest downside is the still incomplete Morgan Avenue interchange. The intersection rebuild only includes the ramps up to the immediate area of the overpass. The project to add another two-lane overpass and connect the other two ramps to the new road has been taking its time as the state has to overcome roadblocks in acquiring right-of-way on Morgan between the highway and Carbon St.

When finished Morgan Avenue will consist of four lanes between the interstate and Carbon with two additional left turn lanes from Morgan into the STAR Bonds area at Stanford and Carbon Streets.

One good thing about all of the construction, it's helped at least one hotel in town. Between road crews and contractors in town for the power plant work at Lake of Egypt the owner told me he's had the best two months' occupancy he's ever experienced with monthly rates over 90 percent.

As to the restaurant (which has some of the best rib-eye stakes around) O'Charley's has changed tacks in the last couple of years with a focus on spiffing up its existing restaurants. A story last year in the Florida Times-Union posted on the company website quoted company president Mickey Mills as saying, "It was just dated."

The chain of 213 restuarants (down 20 since 2008), has been modifying its menu, adding Free Pie Wednesdays with a purchase of a meal, and developed a new modernized logo, the first change in 40 years.

The chain planned updating 40 to 50 locations last year at a cost of $200,000 to $300,000 each. Marion's store is presumably in the same price range.

Both the restaurant and the southbound ramp will remain closed through Friday and are scheduled to be reopened Saturday in time for Memorial Day weekend.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Has Marion's Garden Been Pruned?

While I'm not usually one for the tabloid headline, this one was too good to pass up.

For years now going on a quarter century Darden Restaurants, parent company of Red Lobster, Olive Gardens and LongHorn Steakhouse, has been looking at Marion for the site of a new Olive Gardens. They've never confirmed it, but city officials have, as have managers of some of the other chain restaurants in town who have taken note whenever reps of their future competition appear in town

A few years ago Marion Mayor Robert L. Butler hinted their renewed interest without mentioning them by name.

As a Realtor with Paul Wilson Realty LLC working on commercial prospects I've come across references of even which lots have even been under consideration at different times - the outlot next to the Holiday Inn Express up on The Hill, the empty lot on the corner of Halfway Road across from MidCountry Bank, the current location of what's left of America's Best Inn back when Panera's was being built.

The latest rumors had them locating on the new access road on the south side of Route 13 west of Sam's Club. When the city council last year named that new stretch as Garden Way, I viewed it as all but confirmation and even predicted if a new crossroad was built the city might consider Olive Alley for the new name.

However close though that deal came, it's apparently now fallen through. The mayor indicated last week that a decision had been made to curb the chain's expansion plans, a decision that had nothing to do with Marion in particular, but larger issues affecting the company.

A check this morning of the company's 2013 Annual Report backs that up. Because of weak sales at their three major chains in 2012 and early 2013 the company began to restructure both its marketing efforts as well as core menu items. Sales began to turn around by the end of the year, but that's still impacting their plans for expansion.

... we are significantly reducing new restaurant expansion at Olive Garden, going from the 35 to 40 net new openings we have had each year for the past few years to approximately 15. With this change, we believe the brand can better focus on regaining same-restaurant traffic momentum and on making the guest experience changes required for sustained success.

So what does that mean? At one point city officials understood Marion to not only be part of the next 30 restaurants set for construction, but one of the next five locations to be sited. Then, Darden decided to stop all expansions, so Marion was out. Now, the annual report suggests that 15 will be built. So is Marion back in?

Right now Darden operates 828 Olive Garden restaurants which sold $3.7 billion worth of pasta and assorted delicious calories last year. That's $4.6 million in sales for each restaurant. Assuming Marion would be average, that's $161,000 a year in local sales taxes to the city, county and schools funds, hence one of the key reasons why officials have been keen to land one of these.

For comparison purposes, the average Red Lobster has sales of $3.7 million and an average LongHorn Steakhouse, $3 million.

Groundbreaking for Airport Terminal Set for Fall

Williamson County Airport Manager Doug Kimmel told the Southern Illinoisan that the board will review bids for a new terminal later this summer with a groundbreaking set for this summer.

Although the airport has been working on this for years, it's only been in the last two years that they've exceeded 10,000 passengers a year, the threshold to qualify for federal construction funds. (Technically, this is the first time since the recession.)

Kimmel says the project will take 18 months. State funds (or at least the federal monies flowing through IDOT) were announced earlier this month as part of IDOT's new five year plan.

Wyoming-based Great Lakes Airlines serves the airport with daily flights to St. Louis.

For a history of the terminal efforts, check out the last few paragraphs of the previous post about the state's transportation upcoming projects.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Gov's Road Map Won't Finish 6-Lane Projects

The five-year road map for transportation spending unveiled this week by Gov. Pat Quinn fails to include any funding to finish both the Route 13 widening between John A. Logan College and Carbondale, or the Interstate 57 widening between Interstates 24 and 64.

The spending plan includes both the upcoming FY 2015 and the next five fiscal years ending on June 30, 2020. Quinn outlined details of the plan Wednesday. Only the $71 million I-64 replacement bridge over the Wabash River made the highlight reel.

Under the last five-year plan the state poured millions in to new construction projects, starting the Route 13 widening between Marion and the college as well as the rebuild of the Route 13/I-57 interchange and development of the new Morgan Avenue exchange on the north side of Marion.

Overall, the plan includes few new construction projects for Southern Illinois focusing, as almost always, on resurfacing and basic maintenance. That means few economic game-changers so when the existing construction now underway on Route 13 and the I-57 interchange ends, that's it for now.

As to the widening of I-57 in Williamson, Franklin and Jefferson Counties, the only project on the list that appears connected at all is replacement of the I-57 bridges over Atchinson Creek two miles north of the Ina interchange.

Over the last few years IDOT has been replacing the bridges on I-57 between Interstates 24 and 64 with 6-lane structures in preparation for widening this stretch of the interstate. Besides the bridges they also will have to rebuild some of the overpasses used by smaller roads such as Westminster Drive on the south side of Marion.

The largest project on the list for the region - the Wabash River bridge on the state line - will be led by IDOT, but paid in part by Indiana.

Although the higher profile projects are not included in the governor's plan, hope remains. Lawmakers have been talking about a new capital spending plan for sometime. High profile projects usually get saved for those in order to get lawmakers to support the higher fees and/or taxes to pay for them.

The most interesting brick and mortar projects included actually aren't road projects at all, but mass transit and air transportation.

Rides Mass Transit District which serves much of southeastern Illinois should get three new buildings out of the deal - a $1 million administration building to replace their existing one, $1.5 million for a new maintenance and dispatch facility, both to be located in Harrisburg, as well as $1.8 million for a new District Transfer Center to be located in Marion.

This is in addition to $2.45 million to replace four 35-foot, three super medium duty, and eight medium duty diesel buses as well as one minivan.

After years of delay in part caused by the recession, the Williamson County Airport will be getting a new $10 million terminal building. This Phase I and Phase II work is slated for funding in FY 2015, which is the budget year beginning this July 1.

It's been at least seven or eight years since the airport authority started serious discussions on a new terminal. Before the recession in 2007, the airport had two airlines offering scheduled service, one to St. Louis and the other to Chicago, and a third airline planning flights to Las Vegas and Orlando. The latter deal fell apart before any planes got off the ground, but not until after the airport had made changes to the terminal to handle the larger flights.