Friday, December 29, 2006

AP Covers Year's Progress on Ballpark

Jim Suhr of the Associated Press wraps up the progress so far in the construction of the new ball stadium in Marion and unveiling of the Southern Illinois Miners

The Southern Illinoisan has the full story online and the Marion Daily has a nice aerial shot as well.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Airfares Set for Marion to Chicago Flights

Williamson County Airport's second commercial air carrier will begin operations Feb. 1 with flights daily to Chicago's Midway Airport via Quincy, Illinois.

Airline officials announced today flight schedules and fares for Mesa Airlines new Chicago service, according to the Marion Daily Republican.
Flights from Williamson County Airport to Chicago Midway will depart at 6:10 a.m., 10:45 a.m. and 3:20 p.m. daily. Return trips will be 8:30 a.m., 10 a.m., 1:05 p.m. and 8:25 p.m.

Tickets from Williamson County Airport to Chicago Midway will be $138 roundtrip if purchased 14 days in advance; $158 roundtrip, if purchased seven days in advance and $198 roundtrip for walk up service.

Tickets can be purchased through Mesa Airlines online at, by phone at 1-800-MESA-AIR, or by calling the Williamson County Airport at (618) 993-3353.

Mesa Airlines joins American Express in providing passenger air service at Williamson County Airport.

Williamson County Goes Online

Williamson County officials unveiled the county's new website this morning. It's the county's first one.

The Marion Daily Republican has the story.

The web address is simple, it's

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

State Shelves Wireless Plans at Rest Stops

The state's idea to turn the interstate rest areas into Internet wireless hot spots has apparently hit a snag according to the State Journal-Register.
Only one vendor responded to an Illinois Department of Transportation request for proposals to provide free, wireless Internet access (known as WiFi) at the state's rest stops. However, the vendor's offer was rejected because the company missed a mandatory pre-bid meeting conducted by the agency in October.

Consequently, IDOT is back to square one in its efforts to provide WiFi to the motoring public. IDOT hoped to have the service available in 2007, but that timetable is uncertain now.

"Certainly, we knew this was aggressive in that we hoped we could provide the service with no charge to the state and no charge to the consumer," IDOT spokesman Matt Vanover said. "We will re-evaluate our options after the first of the year. We'll see if changes have to be made in order to get a better response."

Maybe, it would help if the state stopped trying to manage all the rest areas under one contract. Try splitting it up. Certainly the state welcome centers would be better off if it region ran their own operations.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Sao Asian Bistro Named in Top 100

It's just a bit old news, but congratulations are still in order to Linda and Te Xieng Sao for San Asian Bistro's placement in the Top 100 Chinese Restaurants in the USA at the All Asia Food Expo in October.

The first round of competition required the restaurant to score well in restaurant reviews which qualified 8,000 to the next level.

The second round required restaurants to meet the criteria of 40 percent of their menu items as Chinese cuisine, a minimum of three years in business and recipient of a minimum of two awards of local dining excellent. That cut the number down to 500.

In the final round additional public ratings on the web and voters by diners of nominated restaurants were combined with a final review by an panel of judges composed of industry leaders and experts.

Sao Asian Bistro made the cut. That's the Top 100 out of 43,139 Chinese restaurants nationwide. Way to go!

Sao's is located on Marion's new Restaurant Row at 2800 17th Street below The Hill.

Tourism Town Meetings Set For Input

The Williamson County Tourism Bureau is calling on area residents and business owners to participate in a series of town meetings beginning next month to help develop a county-wide tourism development plan.

The meetings will start in Marion on Jan. 11, and continue with town meetings in Johnston City, Carterville and Herrin. The tourism bureau will follow-up the four community meetings with a county-wide meeting in March at the Pavilion.

"This is about creating new jobs, improving our quality of life, community development, historic preservation, whatever," explained Jon Musgrave, Williamson County’s new tourism director. "These meetings will be as broad or as focused as the people of this county want them to be."

"You see, there’s not much difference between tourism development and community development. For the first we are putting together a plan to get people to come visit our communities. For the second, we’re trying to get people to stay and settle," said Musgrave.

The Williamson County Tourism Board set a goal in November for a 50 percent increase in tourism expenditures over the next five years.

In 2005, the latest year the statistics are available, tourists spent $84 million in the county. In terms of employment tourists already support 840 jobs in Williamson County according to state estimates.

"There’s a number of new developments taking place in the region and educating everyone about those will be the first part of the community meetings," said Musgrave. "Next we'll break into small groups and brainstorm, both to identify existing problems hampering or preventing tourism development, as well as generate ideas for new proposals."

"We won't be looking at feasibility or costs in the first round. At this point we're just looking for ideas, and that’s something in which everybody can participate," Musgrave added.

While the tourism bureau will be especially working to attract representatives of the area’s tourist service providers – lodging operators, restaurants, tour guides, artists, etc. – to the meetings, Musgrave stressed members of the general public should feel welcome to attend.

"We need that. We need input from everyone," said Musgrave. "The bike trail we might propose for tourism is also the bike trail that would be used and enjoyed by local residents every day."

Meeting dates and locations are as follows:
  • Jan. 11 – Marion, at the Williamson County Pavilion.
  • Jan. 25 – Johnston City at the Johnston City Community Building.
  • Feb. 1 – Carterville at the Carterville Community Center in Cannon Park.
  • Feb. 15 – Herrin at the Herrin Civic Center.
  • March 1 – County-wide meeting in Marion at the Williamson County Pavilion.

Doors will open at 6:30 p.m. with the meetings to start at 7 p.m. Everyone is welcome.

Following the first county-wide meeting a committee will be formed to help pull the proposals together for the overall tourism development plan. Once that is finished a second county-wide meeting will be held to unveil the proposals.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Historians Pleased With Trail of Tears Designation

The Southern Illinoisan's Dixie Terry follows up on the recent state designation of the Trail of Tears through Illinois with an interview with Gary Hacker, president of the Johnson County Genealogical and Historical Society.
Leaders in Pope, Union and Johnson counties joined together in the past year to write letters of endorsement to legislators encouraging passage of the bill. "This shows what can be done - it gives us an opportunity to preserve our history," Hacker said. "Future generations will be made more aware of the Trail of Tears, following the legislation."

Hacker and others anticipate an increase in tourism in the area, thanks to the recently passed legislation. "The story needs to be told," he added.

Check out the full story at website.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Motel Revenues Jump in October

Williamson County motel revenue rose sharply in October spiking $231,000 higher to nearly $1.3 million. That represents a 10.1 percent increase from the month before, 9 percent over last year's revenues for October.

This may be a record high for the local lodging industry, and is definitely the best month in the last 24.

Lodging owners collected and paid $64,793.96 for the county's 5 percent bed tax. Three-fifths go to Williamson County Events Commission for the debt and upkeep on the Williamson County Pavilion and two-fifths of the tax fund the Williamson County Tourism Bureau.

As October bed taxes are paid to the county in November and received by the tourism bureau in December that brings us halfway through our fiscal year which runs from July 1 to June 30.

So far the bureau's receipts for the first six months of FY07 are up 5.8 percent over the same period last year, or just under $9,000.

Marion's Newest Restaurant Opens

Marion's Restaurant Row adds a new tenant.

Burgers-n-Cream, Marion's newest restaurant apparently open yesterday. It definitely it open today according to the sign and I found a menu on my desk this morning.

As the name implies, their specialties are hamburgers and ice cream, and particularly frozen custard.

The restaurant is besides the new McAlister's Deli in the same building at 2407 17th Street.

The developers hope to make the Marion store a prototype for a new franchise.

Monday, December 18, 2006

MDR Converses With Miners Manager Pinto

Justin Walker takes the reins today in the Marion Daily's weekly conversation with somebody interesting. This week focuses on the Miner's new coach, Mike Pinto.
Justin: How will our location be a factor in drawing players?

Mike: It's a positive one. There are a lot of really good Midwest players and we're within driving distance of how many really good college programs? One of the questions I get asked a lot is "What kind of player are you looking for?" I'll tell you, I'm looking for the best player at a school. Not the No. 8 hitter or a guy who didn't get in the game very much, I'm looking for the guy who is a prospect. Guys who set records at their school. I'm not looking for the average, run-of-the-mill player. I'm looking for a guy who was exceptional at what he did and now let's see if he can move up a level and maintain that.

Justin: What about the local guy with a dream. You've said there will be a local tryout.

Mike: We'll have a tryout in the latter part of April. We'll try to get a location as to not disturb the stadium prior to us getting started, but we'll run a full major league tryout. I'll get some scouts to help me evaluate and we'll have a lot of guys come out. There will be some roster spots available and if a guy is qualified and possesses that kind of talent — maybe he got missed in the draft and every year there are high quality players that were either with the wrong school at the wrong time and got missed. Much of the Frontier League is based on giving guys their first chance.

Check out the rest of the interview in the Marion Daily.

The Bed Tax: Who Pays?

What's a hotel?

Seems like a simple question, doesn't it?

It's not though, particularly when you're talking about the bed tax and who's actually responsible for paying it.

Properly known as the Hotel Occupation Retailer's Tax at the state level, the bed tax is charged against lodging operators as a percentage of the lodging bill. The state levies a 6 percent rate. Counties and municipalities can levy a rate up to 5 percent. Most, if not all, lodging operators tack this tax onto the lodging bill rather than pay it out of pocket.

In Williamson County there's a two percent bed tax that funds the Williamson County Tourism Bureau and a three percent bed tax that pays off the financing of the Williamson County Pavilion.

For motels and hotels there's no question that they are covered and are supposed to pay. The only exception is for guest stays over 30 days.

For bed and breakfast inns it's more tricky. Generally they do pay the tax on the total amount, though if the breakfast is billed separately, they don't have to pay the bed tax on that. However, then they would have to collect the sales tax on the food.

Campgrounds and cabins are the next tricky stage. Campgrounds are exempt, but cabins on a campground are not.

According to the Illinois Department of Revenue, if it's a permanent structure rented as lodging, it's covered. If it's not permanent, such as a camper hauled to a campground and rented to various people over the summer, it's exempt. Likewise, RVs rented out for vacations are not covered.

The last two categories of lodging are usually the most surprising for the operators who long thought they were exempt. Hunt clubs that offer overnight accommodations are covered, even if it's just a bunkhouse and not a private room.

Tax-exempt organizations are also covered even though they are normally exempt from paying or collecting taxes in other situations. That's one of the reasons why SIU's Touch of Nature pays the bed tax on its cabin rental when they do corporate retreats. Even though they are a public university, they are still covered.

Even churches that run campgrounds and retreats are covered under Illinois law. I'm not certain if the three-sided cabins at Camp Ondessonk would be covered, but the motel-like rooms of the St. Noel Conference Center there would be. Likewise the cabins at San Damiano Shrine in Pope County should be paying bed tax.

There are times when the operators of smaller sites or otherwise tax-exempt sites argue that they shouldn't be covered, and that's their right. However the law is the law, and until it's changed they are obligated to pay.

It's also in their best interest to pay. Most of the problems occur in the smaller counties that struggle for every dollar they can get to promote tourism and create jobs. That's in everybody's best interest.

For more on the state bed tax check the Illinois Department of Revenue's website.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Trail of Tears Updates

The Cherokee Trail of Tears is a part of Southern Illinois' history that it not well-marked or widely known. That's due in part to the fact that we are the only state along the trail that does not have an interpretive center along the route to educate tourists to the history.

While there is an effort underway to rectify that situation, two recent developments should help in the future.

The first comes from SIU. Geophysicist Harvey Henson just received a $30,000 grant to search for unmarked Cherokee graves presumably near Campground Church in eastern Union County near Anna.
The National Park Service and the University are roughly splitting the cost for the study, which researchers hope will identify the graves of Cherokee who died in Southern Illinois during the 1838-39 Trail of Tears forced relocation.

Stories passed down through generations said German settlers allowed the Cherokee to bury their dead in the cemetery during the harsh winter that trapped them in the area. Some records indicate about 400 Cherokee died here, but other reports claim the dead numbered up to 4,000.

Last year, Henson began searching the two-acre cemetery with instruments that allow researchers to peer beneath the seemingly undisturbed ground for indications of gravesites. Using magnetic, electric conductivity and ground-penetrating radar instruments, the team confirmed the existence of up to three unmarked graves in a relatively small part of it.

For more information check out the entire news release.

The second event also took place over the fall veto session of the Illinois legislature when they made Route 148 the official state historic route of the Cherokee Trail of Tears. The Southern has the story.

The National Park Service designated this this official auto route of the national historic trail back in the 1990s, but the state had never followed suit. This will help with future grant applications.

Monday, December 11, 2006

I Converse With The MDR

First off I want to swear I was not making a grand pronouncement when this photo was taken.

Really. I mean it.


Tom Kane took this photo on my first day on the job. Cherri Flinn and I participated in the conversation last week.

I'm serious about this job, but just ask the folks who work here at the tourism bureau. They know I don't normally wave my arms.

Seriously though, the Marion Daily Republican printed today their weekly conversation with someone. This week it was me.

At one point during the interview Cherri asked how many destinations or attractions we have in Williamson County. It's a good question and one I'm ashamed to say we can't answer.

We haven't done a very good job of engaging with the local public over the last few years and keeping track of what's been developing here in our own backyard. Instead, the bureau has focused the vast majority of its attention toward the operations of the Williamson County Pavilion.

We let too many basic tourism bureau functions slip to a secondary position as the staff stretched to keep up with the day-to-day operations of the Pavilion, but things are changing.

This summer the Williamson County Tourism Board created the position of a full-time Events Coordinator which despite a broader job description generally focuses on the day-to-day operations of the Pavilion.

Stacey Pearce, who previously worked part-time doing just that, now handles the full-time position; and from what I've seen these last few weeks she does it well. She's the person to contact if you're interested in renting a small conference, a ballroom or the Expo Hall.

In the next few days I'll be announcing our next step as we reach out to the residents and local businesses here in Williamson County as we ask them to become active with us to develop tourism here.

In a conversation today with the folks from the Arthur Agency in Carbondale, I outlined my goals and made clear my position.

I am not satisfied with the job we've done with tourism in Southern Illinois. I'm not satisfied with the job we've accomplished in this office.

I write these words now not to be harsh, but to be honest.

If we can't see the truth, if we can't speak it. We can't get the job done.

Southern Illinois has seen a number of accomplishments in tourism over the decades. It's my desire to build on top of those even greater accomplishments for us as residents of this region.

We deserve better.

But if we want to get it done, it's time to roll up our sleeves and start.

Herrin Civic Center Lands Marvin Hamlisch

The Herrin Civic Center has landed award-winning composer Marvin Hamlisch to headline an Independence Day holiday concert next July 3.

The concert also features the Chicago Chamber Orchestra.

The Independent's Geoffrey Ritter broke the story last week.
While tickets are not yet on sale, Carl Ortale, executive director of the Civic Center, said they likely will cost between $155 and $175 each and that the admission price also will include a catered dinner. He said people interested in getting seats can begin contacting the Civic Center immediately.

Ortale and the Civic Center staff have been working for months to arrange the performance... He was excited at the sort of crowd the concert might pull in.

"He's just one of those huge mainstays," Orale said of Hamlish. "The guy's a genius and he's a nice guy."

For more info call the Herrin Civic Center at 618-942-6115 or e-mail the staff at

Old Restaurants Upgrade, New Ones Build

It's nice to see the owners of Arby's and Wendy's begin renovations on their eateries in Marion. That's how you stay competitive.

On the west side, Burgers 'n' Cream is hiring new staff and should open soon next to McAlister's Deli just below The Hill.

Wine Trail Updates

Since the designation last week of the Shawnee Hills American Viticultural Area I've been learning a lot about the local wine industry in Williamson County.

According to one report we have eight vineyards in the county, though I have not actually been able to identify all eight.

As for the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail, it will be extending into the county in 2007. Plans are to take a spur north up Rocky Comfort Road from Blue Sky Winery to Grassy Road and from there east to Route 148.

Travelers coming up the interstate may have noticed that Blue Sky Winery is advertising at I-57 interchange with Route 148 at Exit 45 (Lake of Egypt). Look for Owl Creek Winery to do the same.

Also last week a local developer called me looking for partners for winery project in the Marion area. He has the property and location. Interested parties should call me here at the office at 618-997-3690.

Southern Covers West End's Growth

There once was a time when Marion's west end was the creek that flows around what's now the intersection of West Main and Court Streets. Now it's the area of The Hill and points west of Interstate 57.

The Southern Illinoisan highlighted the recent growth in this corridor in a John D. Homan article in yesterday's paper.

Marion's Mayor Bob Butler remains astonished at the development of The Hill.
"I never dreamed there would be any growth there at all," said Butler, who likened the area to a devastated wilderness for decades. "It was strip pits and spoil banks. The area looked like it had been bombed. Now look at it. Practically every day, retail-type establishments are contacting us and asking us about building there."

Butler said the credit rests squarely on the shoulders of land developers Doug Bradley, Lynn Holmes and G.A. White, who invested their money and effort into that location.