Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Another Winery Opens North of Route 13

View Wineries North of Routes 3/149/13 in a larger map

There's the makings of a new wine trail in the region with the opening of a fifth winery in northern Jackson County just south of Elkville.

Lyn-Nita Vineyards opened Nov. 19 at the intersection of U.S. 51 and Coal Road, according to the Southern Business Journal. Anita Eckhardt is the proprietor.

Eckhardt said the winemaking community in Southern Illinois has been helpful and welcoming to her on her new venture.

"All the wineries down here have been just wonderful," she said. "They don't view it as a competition; they actually view it as something good for the business.

"Right now nobody feels like the market is over-saturated just yet," she added. "They feel like it's good to have more wineries here."

Jackson County is better known for the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail which runs south of Carbondale and Murphysboro and has previously decided to limit themselves to south of Route 13 and west of Interstate 57.

Twelve wineries operate on that trail, the state's first. Two more wineries have opened in the last year or so in their territory and may soon qualify for membership - Lincoln Heritage in Union County and Honker Hill in Williamson County.

Monday, December 06, 2010

'Phone Ringing' With Interest in Millennium Development

View Marion STAR Bonds District in a larger map

Sunday's Southern Illinoisan brought the latest status update for the new Millennium Development project slated for Marion's north side.

Many are interested, but nobody's signed on the dotted line yet in terms of the major anchors, though the developer hopes to have one by the end of the month.

"The phone is ringing. We've been in meetings and having conversations with several potential users. Some are performing market studies, doing their own due diligence. We hope to know more before the end of December," [Developer Bruce] Holland said. "Of course, the holiday season is their busiest time of the year, but we've been talking to some on a weekly basis."

Developers need to land at least one of the two major destination users (large retailers with the capability to attract shoppers from far away) as well as the major entertainment user before they can submit a plan for city and state approval.

Holland told the Southern that they have all the land they need at the present, though should the project expand they could acquire additional acreage. Legislation allowing the STAR Bonds District allows the district to expand up to 500 acres. It's currently under 400 acres.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Watch Out Metropolis! Cape Lands A Casino

Cape Girardeau snagged a new $125 million casino today after state gaming officials selected the city as the site of Missouri's 13th casino license, approving a  plan proposed by Isle of Capri. The city beat out two other locations in the St. Louis and Kansas City areas.

The move could help the counties on both sides of the Mississippi River in Illinois and Missouri with new jobs and tourism opportunities, but it's expected to come at a cost to Southern Illinois' only existing casino at Metropolis.

Last May another Missouri casino operator touted a study that showed Cape Girardeau as the best location for the state's 13th casino, at least in terms of actually adding to Missouri's take of gambling taxes. The study by Ameristar Casinos showed the Mississippi River town with a potential to generate $87 million in gross revenue to become the state's biggest casino outside Kansas City and St. Louis.

Importantly for Missouri, but bad for Illinois, the study showed a Cape Girardeau casino wouldn't cannibalize any Missouri casino, just Harrah's casino in Metropolis.

Only a small portion -- $10 million -- of the Cape Girardeau revenue would come from another casino, and the report identifies Harrah's in Metropolis, Ill., as the loser.

Ameristar, which already operated casinos in Missouri wanted to limit the competition and not see another competitor come to the St. Louis market. A second study by the state's gaming commission that came out last week basically agreed.

"In all three scenarios, Isle of Capri-Cape Girardeau generated the highest net new casino revenue and gaming taxes, new employment, and, overall Gross Domestic Product," the study found. Casino Celebration was second in all three scenarios.

Both St. Louis and Kansas City are home to several casinos. Cape Girardeau is about 100 miles south of St. Louis. The only other casino within a close drive is in the small town of Caruthersville in the Missouri Bootheel, about 85 miles south of Cape Girardeau.

"All of the applicants have submitted proposals for medium-sized facilities but only Isle of Capri is far enough from existing Missouri casinos to minimize cannibalization," the report found.

Isle of Capri, based in suburban St. Louis, is proposing a $125 million casino along the Mississippi River in Cape Girardeau.

The casino would become one of the largest tourism sites in the Heartland with the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail and the four dozen lodging operators seeing the first benefit. It will also be just 45 miles away from the new Millennium Development project in Marion.

The casino isn't slated to open until late 2012 according to the Southeast Missourian.

The project is expected to include 1,000 slot machines, 28 table games, three restaurants, a lounge and terrace overlooking the Mississippi River and a 750-seat event center at an estimated cost of $125 million.

Isle of Capri will present a preliminary development plan to the city planning commission on Dec. 8.

Marion Lands Miss Illinois Pageant

The Marion Cultural and Civic Center as well as Drury Inn landed the 2011 Miss Illinois pageant next June 28-July 2. The winner goes to compete in the Miss America pageant.

The Miss Illinois Scholarship Association announced the selection on the website MissIllinois.org. The Marion Daily Republican has the story.

The announcement of the move was posted on the Miss Illinois website Friday. The website had formerly announced the pageant would return to the Norris Cultural Arts Center in St. Charles. But that changed after the pageant's director visited Marion earlier this month.

She apparently liked what she saw. Congratulations civic center staff for landing the event.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Hunters Harvest More than 68,000 Deer So Far

SPRINGFIELD, IL – The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) reports that hunters in Illinois harvested a preliminary total of 68,037 deer during the opening weekend of the 2010 Illinois firearm deer season, Nov. 19-21. The seven-day firearm season will conclude on Dec. 2-5.

The preliminary total for the first three days of the 2010 firearm season compares with the first weekend harvest of 66,126 deer during the 2009 deer season and 71,894 deer during the opening weekend in 2008. The top county harvest totals last weekend were reported in Pike (1,957), Adams (1,741), Fulton (1,721), Jo Daviess (1,640) and Randolph (1,520).

Hunters harvested 99,493 deer during the entire seven-day firearm deer season last year. The preliminary first-season figures reported for each county include those deer taken on special hunt areas within that county as well as on private land.

“The opening season of firearm deer hunting offered hunters a combination of enjoyable weather and virtually-complete crop harvest,” said IDNR Forest Wildlife Program Manager Paul Shelton. “Rutting activity was still evident, so it all came together for a very successful season with a number of nice bucks harvested.”

The IDNR has issued more than 370,000 firearm deer hunting permits for the 2010 season. Most hunters register their deer harvest online through the IDNR web site or by phoning 1-866-ILCHECK (1-866-452-4325) by 10 p.m. on the day of harvest. Hunters in Boone, DeKalb, Grundy, Kane, LaSalle, McHenry, Ogle, Stephenson and Winnebago Counties take their deer to county check stations (by 8 p.m. on the day of harvest) where the IDNR registers the deer and conducts sampling for chronic wasting disease (CWD).

Approximately 60 percent of the deer taken during the first weekend of firearm hunting were bucks, identical to the first weekend of the firearm season in 2009.

The Illinois firearm deer season concludes Dec. 2-5. The muzzleloader-only deer season is Dec. 10-12. The split late-winter antlerless-only firearm deer season and the special CWD deer season are Dec. 30, 2010-Jan. 2, 2011 and Jan. 14-16, 2011. The state’s 2010-2011 archery deer season continues through Jan. 16 (except closed in firearm counties during the second firearm season Dec. 2-5).

The table below provides preliminary county harvest totals for the first weekend of the firearm deer season and comparable figures for the first season in 2009.

County 2010 2009
Adams 1741 1614
Alexander 296 328
Bond 535 566
Boone 90 102
Brown 892 938
Bureau 1024 820
Calhoun 668 858
Carroll 756 698
Cass 458 494
Champaign 219 171
Christian 459 400
Clark 940 908
Clay 947 942
Clinton 588 581
Coles 560 502
Crawford 819 798
Cumberland 641 617
DeKalb 157 126
DeWitt 283 250
Douglas 131 130
Edgar 565 528
Edwards 325 366
Effingham 774 765
Fayette 1264 1336
Ford 101 74
Franklin 820 779
Fulton 1721 1725
Gallatin 402 421
Greene 986 873
Grundy 300 274
Hamilton 812 872
Hancock 1291 1215
Hardin 696 747
Henderson 449 390
Henry 545 479
Iroquois 502 387
Jackson 1502 1416
Jasper 861 837
Jefferson 1475 1606
Jersey 625 585
JoDaviess 1640 1493
Johnson 1202 1304
Kane 37 38
Kankakee 151 121
Kendall 53 59
Knox 1021 866
Lake 5 9
LaSalle 878 756
Lawrence 399 457
Lee 531 436
Livingston 454 316
Logan 285 235
Macon 200 203
Macoupin 1192 1200
Madison 651 638
Marion 1276 1374
Marshall 569 548
Mason 439 443
Massac 402 425
McDonough 738 707
McHenry 191 215
McLean 550 450
Menard 334 310
Mercer 674 551
Monroe 722 792
Montgomery 820 841
Morgan 626 732
Moultrie 232 206
Ogle 742 645
Peoria 1074 1012
Perry 823 899
Piatt 127 115
Pike 1957 2012
Pope 1294 1275
Pulaski 466 471
Putnam 355 365
Randolph 1520 1576
Richland 545 614
Rock Island 591 578
Saline 720 644
Sangamon 569 541
Schuyler 1130 1114
Scott 377 368
Shelby 1012 996
St. Clair 662 656
Stark 261 186
Stephenson 789 547
Tazewell 514 505
Union 1162 1168
Vermilion 609 472
Wabash 194 211
Warren 429 388
Washington 799 839
Wayne 1210 1247
White 662 692
Whiteside 627 501
Will 208 214
Williamson 1110 1101
Winnebago 307 269
Woodford 700 662
Total 68037 66126

Monday, October 25, 2010

New Winery Opens in Union County

The Southern Illinoisan today has the story on the new Lincoln Heritage Winery in Union County operated by Homer and Bonnie Cissell. The winery opened last week on Oct. 15.

In planning and designing their winery, the Cissell's said they wanted an atmosphere that reflected their personalities.

"We don't want a frenetic or party-like atmosphere," Bonnie said. "The great thing about the wine trail is every winery has its own personality."

"So if you want that party atmosphere, you've got a couple places you can go, and if that's not for you, you can come here," she added. "We wanted it to reflect what we enjoy when we go places."

Homer said it's important for each winery to have its own persona, both in its atmosphere and in its wines offered.

The winery is located at 772 Kaolin Road outside Cobden. They're open noon to 6 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, and from noon to 7 p.m. Friday through Sunday.

You can find them on Facebook and it appears that they're still working on their website, which will be at www.LincolnHeritageWinery.com when it's up and running.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Papers Add to Story About STAR Bonds District

View Marion STAR Bonds District in a larger map
Both the Marion Daily Republican and the Southern Illinoisan have their stories online from last night's Marion City Council meeting establishing the state's first STAR Bonds District.

Monday's action means the next legal step belongs to the Illinois Department of Revenue which has to approve the district's creation.

Although the developers did not identify any prospects by name, the Southern reports that Holland said the destination users could be identified within the next two months.

By law, Millennium Development must include at least one of the potential two destination users as well as the entertainment user in their master plan before the state will sign off on the plan.

The entertainment user is the non-retail attraction, possibly a theme park, that's necessary to attract enough visitors to the area to support the retail development. In turn, the sales tax generated by the retailers is what pays for the development of the entertainment user.

The legislation is designed to require both sides of the equation to be in place or the plan can't work and won't be certified by the state in the first place.

The law allows for a STAR Bonds district of 300 to 500 acres. The new district is just 366 acres, which leaves 134 acres that could be added later if necessary.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Marion Establishes STAR Bonds District

The Marion City Council voted 5-0 tonight establishing the state's first STAR (sales tax and revenue) Bonds District north of Morgan Avenue.

Developer Bruce Holland could only publicly confirm that prospective partners were showing interest, but due to non-disclosure agreements could not name them at this time.

This is typical for major commercial developments. In the case of the Illinois Centre Mall the identity of the anchor stores came later after the initial mall announcement.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Hundley House Secures Liquor License, DiMaggio Expanding

Carbondale's historic Hundley House, now a bed and breakfast secured the approval Monday of the Liquor Advisory Board in its quest for the ability to serve alcohol to their overnight guests.

For the history of the effort check out this post from earlier this summer.

The Daily Egyptian has the current story.

In other news from the "Athens of Egypt" as Carbondale was heralded a century ago, DiMaggio Pizza, a little known pizzeria tucked away among the student housing east of campus will soon move to a larger and more visible location in the former Godfather Pizza restaurant on Route 13 at 1030 W. Walnut St.

It too secured approval from the Liquor Advisory Board for a license. The new location will include an expanded Italian menu.

Meanwhile Chili's restaurant continues its construction in front of Dick's Sporting Goods in the old K-mart parking lot across from the University Mall.

STAR Bonds District Boundaries On Display

The proposed new STAR Bonds District map went on display today at City Hall in Marion (but not online as one might expect in the 21st Century).

View Marion STAR Bonds District in a larger map

The boundary is less than the 500 acres maximum and is closer to 400 acres I think. It includes the 43.52 acre-tract behind Menards, but I can't remember if it included the 3 acre outlot immediately to the east (Lot C). Marion Heights LLC is planning on keeping at least two of the outlots to sell themselves on either side of Stadium Drive between Blue Herons Drive and Morgan Avenue.

On the east side of the interstate the district includes almost all the land north of Morgan up to Longstreet, then east to about a quarter mile east of Russell Street, except it does not include the residential area north of Morgan in the trailer park, up Peabody Lane, Emery and Cash Streets.

On Russell Street the district does not begin until north of the Northernaire subdivision and the homes along Cox Street.

The map and legal description will remain on display at City Hall for at least a week before the council officially approves it, which I'm assuming will take place next Monday.

Meanwhile, the Illinois Department of Revenue has posted its proposed rules for regulating the STAR Bonds District. As expected based on their public statements, the rules are even more restrictive than the legislation itself, though for the most part they seem reasonable.

Read them yourself and offer comments at the Department of Revenue STAR Bonds website.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Millennium Developers Meet with Wineries

Representatives from the Millennium Development coming to Marion, state Reps. John Bradley and Mike Bost, and area winery owners met together to discuss how they could work together.

Today's Southern Illinoisan has the story.

If they could have only invited the regional tourism director to the meeting. Oh, we don't have one due to the state's budget crisis.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Revenue Hearing on STAR Bonds Uneventful

Around 40 community, elected officials and local business owners attended tonight's hearing/briefing by the Illinois Department of Revenue at John A. Logan College in Carterville.

Probably the biggest news was the agency's website now has a dedicated page for the Marion STAR Bonds at http://tax.illinois.gov/LegalInformation/STARBonds.htm.

So far the only information posted is the legislation and the notice for tonight's meeting. It also has an e-mail to contact the agency about the issue.

By Labor Day, the agency will post for comment and review the draft rules and regulations to implement the legislation. As additional items come up, they too will be posted at the site.

Officials present tonight included four from the state agency; Bruce Holland and his two nephews on his development team; state Sen. Gary Forby, D-Benton; state Rep. John Bradley, D-Marion; Mayor Robert Butler and most of the Marion City Council which moved tonight's regular meeting until Wednesday in order to attend. Marion's city administrator, treasurer, past and present city engineers and the Marion chamber executive were all present as well.

Carbondale Mayor Brad Cole came, but did not speak. George Sheffer, owner of Carbondale True Value and president of the Carbondale Chamber of Commerce took an active part in the questions and comments as did recently retired SIU-Carbondale Chancellor Samuel Goldman.

Mount Vernon's city manager Ron Neibert and its economic development director both attended with pointed questions coming from the former.

From Franklin County some of those in attendance included Franklin-Williamson Regional Superintendent of Schools Matt Donkin, Allan Patton from the Franklin County Regional Economic Development as well as businessman Bruce Morganstern of Pheasant Hollow Winery at Whittington.

JALC President Robert Mees welcomed everyone to the college. He too had at least one trustee present, Jake Rendleman.

(I know by this point this particular blog entry reads more like an old-fashioned social happenings article, but since I'm not writing for a newspaper, I can do this.)

Mike Clemons, manager of policy and development at the Department of Revenue outlined the goal of the project as set out by the legislation and endorsed by Gov. Quinn, the role of his agency in the development and what principles the agency would follow in carrying out its mission.

The goal he said was simple — creating jobs, new jobs he clarified later as opposed to jobs just shifted from one community to another. "Jobs for a lifetime," he quoted the governor.

Clemons explained the law requires Marion to come to the Director of Revenue for two key approvals in this project. The first is the District Plan and the second is the Project Plan.

In both cases it's the municipality's job to make the application to create the STAR bonds district, and then to select a master developer to carrying out the project.

For the District Plan, the Revenue Director must determine that the plan is in the public interest. For the Project Plan, the Director "has to find that the Project Plan is in accordance with the act and in the public interest".

Clemons flatly pointed out that the agency does not view those requirements as having the "Director of Revenue as rubber-stamping it".

As to the five principles the agency will follow in its rule-making and reviewing process, they will be as follows:

  1. Job creation

  2. Destination development — whether the plan will possess the ability to attract visitors from other states. The goal is to avoid displacement of jobs from area to the STAR Bonds district because that wouldn't be creating new jobs. "If we are going to create jobs in a retail sense we have to attract visitors from outside the area."

  3. Expertise — The project, he said, must be able to meet its job creation goals. Since the agency has no experience in economic development or STAR bonds, Clemons said they will be hiring outside consultants to help them.

  4. Accountability — assurance that taxpayer funds are properly spent.

  5. Partnership — "This must be a partnership that requires a group effort between state government and  Southern Illinois.
Clemons said the next critical steps would be in communications, regulations and the district application.

For communications he mentioned the state website at tax.illinois.gov, which had added the new page specifically for the STAR Bonds project. For regulations, he reiterated the agency's pledge made earlier to the area lawmakers that it the draft rules would be posted by Labor Day and would be open for comments for a couple of weeks.

The next big step would be the district application filed by Marion which could be done as soon as they had the regulations in place to give the city "a clean idea of what's needed".

Butler started off the questions with a request for clarification on fifth principal of partnership. Clemons answered with the promise that the agency would work with all concerned. The agency didn't want to be a "roadblock, but a way to partner with you".

"We we give you. If you have an issue, we'll get you an answer. If you have a question, we will address it," he added, basically a pledge that their door would always be open and if someone didn't want to drive to Springfield, then just drop them a line by e-mail.

Goldman asked about the discussion of creating jobs versus creating new jobs. Clemons made clear that based on the language of the law, they were talking about creating new jobs.

The questions and comments continued from Carbondale and Mount Vernon folks wanting assurances that the project would be designed to benefit the entire region. At one point Clemons responded with the comment that "I think it would be a shame if it didn't benefit all of Southern Illinois".

More than once either Clemons or another one his agency's STAR bonds team confessed that they were "not sure how we ended up with this. We don't do economic development".

Again, after questioning from Mount Vernon, Clemons and his team stressed that the agency would be hiring outside consultants to help them determine if the project application met the requirements of the law and particularly how it impacted surrounding areas.

A key component will be to determine how much retail trade will be drawn in from surrounding states. As far as the department is concerned at the state level it makes them no difference if it's in Rockford or Carbondale where the state taxes are collected. It's only a benefit to the state if new money comes to the table from out-of-state residents spending new money in Illinois due to the development.

Goldman added later that it wasn't just out-of-state shoppers, it would also be local shoppers spending money in the area that now goes outside the state at St. Louis, Cape Girardeau, Paducah and Evansville.

More reactions from the crowd will be in tomorrow's newspapers and tonight on Channel 3.

UPDATE 8/24: The Southern now has Becky Malkovich's story online about last night's event — IDOR Talks STAR bonds. I've also corrected the spelling on Mr. Sheffer's name and added Mr. Neibert's.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Hearing/Briefing on STAR Bond District Set for Monday

This week should see some of the first official steps taken to create the new STAR bond district for the destination development targeting Marion.

The Illinois Department of Revenue will meet with local officials and community leaders at 7 p.m. tomorrow at John A. Logan Community College in O'Neal Auditorium.

The notice explains the purpose:
Department staff will outline its role in the project, discuss what we have done to date, talk generally about where we are headed, and seek input from local leaders.

Basically, it's a technical briefing and not any grand announcement from the developers.

Mike Clemons, a communications and policy guru with the agency explained Friday that the agency is on goal to promulgate the rules by Labor Day. The agency and local officials have already been meeting and will continue to work together on this project.

"We're trying not to be the impediment," he added explaining the law makes the agency responsible for reviewing and authorizing the Marion district.

The biggest problems so far is that the law is complex, occasionally confusing, and since it's the first one of its kind in Illinois, the agency has had to start from almost scratch in terms of writing the rules needed to implement the law.

Still, the Labor Day deadline matches previous comments by developer Bruce Holland earlier this month to the Southern Illinoisan that plans would get underway in September. Mayor Robert Butler also gave September as the start date in an interview this past week for an upcoming story in Marion Living.

Meanwhile, tomorrow's hearing will preempt the normal Marion city council meeting which is being moved to Wednesday. According to City Administrator Gail West the council is expected to take the first steps toward implementing the plan by annexing some of the land to be involved that's not already within the city limits.

One of the next steps will be for the council to officially find that the land in question meets the qualifications for a STAR bonds district. This step is but a technicality since the legislation was specifically written with the Marion tract in mind.

As far as details as to what may come, the public may get its best idea yet at the upcoming Community Leaders Breakfast sponsored by the Southern Illinoisan at 7 a.m., Wednesday, Sept. 8, with Holland himself as one of the keynote speakers. Tickets are $15 and be purchased at www.sbj.biz.

New Fujiyama steakhouse to Open Monday in Marion

The new Marion branch of Fujiyama steakhouse is set to open tomorrow in Marion at the Illinois Centre Mall in what was originally Ruby Tuesday and a for a short time the Great American Chop House.

At least that's what the sign on the door said Friday night and their Facebook posting from seven hours ago. Check them out, search for Marion Fujiyama.

I've not tried out the Carbondale restaurant, but am looking forward to trying them.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Forby Endorses Oasis Plan for West Frankfort

State Sen. Gary Forby, D-Benton, endorsed the Little Egypt Oasis proposal yesterday in West Frankfort, according to the Daily American.

"It's our time" he's quoted as saying in the online headline.

The proposal by local businessman Scott Williams would develop the Little Egypt Oasis on the the Burlington-Northern railroad bridge over Interstate 57, immediately south of Route 149.

The bridge is privately-owned and offers development potential. The project also calls for a new road to be built connecting Routes 37 and 149 along the old railroad right-of-way which would create a southwest bypass for area residents.

Currently the presence of the railroad bridge abutments blocks visibility for the northbound exit ramp off of the interstate which has long been blamed for a series of traffic wrecks at the site — "blood on the pavement" as highway planners would note.

With the planned expansion of I-57 to six lanes between I-64 and I-24, the problem becomes even more severe. The Illinois Department of Transportation can either remove the bridge which is no longer needed for the railroad or move the ramps.

Initially they planned to remove the bridge until they discovered the state didn't own it. Buying it would immediately raise the price of the project by millions as it cost $1 million 50 years ago when the interstate was under construction. Today's price would be significantly higher.

Now, IDOT officials are open to Plan B suggested by Williams. Basically, this would split the existing diamond-shaped interchange at Exit 65 and move the two ramps on the south side, farther south to North Road, the next road south of the bridge about a 1.5 miles from Rt. 149. Then, one-way access roads would link the two sets of ramps.

It would be similar to the ramps and access roads in Paducah where you get off at one exit, and then go down the access road until you get to the road for the hospital or Whitehaven, the historic site that houses the visitors center.

I admit even before I heard the details of Williams' plan I was in favor. I love the idea of taking a long unused asset like the bridge and making it into something that generates economic development. We've got a lot of unused assets in Southern Illinois that just need some creative thinking applied.

I'll talk about the details in another post as it's got great potential to not only create a new tourist site in the region, but also help promote all the others.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Mount Vernon Raceway Continues Its Draw

The Register-News has a nice story online about the Mount Vernon Raceway there on the west side of I-57.

Owner Rick Heck has been associated with the track since he purchased it in 1999. Attendance is down these past few years with the recession, but he notes there's still 100 cars each weekend at the track for the Saturday night races.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Two New Wineries Starting to Advertise

I picked up a copy of Carbondale Times last week for the actual purpose of checking out the ads. As a journalist I'm shocked that I did so. People are only supposed to pick up the paper for the news (or comics), not the ads.

One of the reasons I do is to check out what's new in some of the smaller tourism attractions and amenities in the region. They (and their sister publication Nightlife) seem to get to unveil the first ads for many of these establishments in Jackson and Union counties.

Last week I noticed ads for two new wineries that actually opened last year, but are now just getting into the swing of things.

The Bluffs Vineyard and Winery hosts live music on the weekends at their location just off Illinois Route 3 at 140 Buttermilk Hill Rd, outside Ava on the west side of Kinkaid Lake.

The second is Lucas Bros.' HonkerHill Winery southwest of Crab Orchard Lake at 4861 Spillway Rd, less than a mile north of the intersection of Grassy Rd., outside Carbondale.

Another site advertising is somewhat of a surprise, at least compared to past years. The new concessionaires at Little Grassy Lake Campground and Marina are advertising as well with specials for camping and boat rentals. It's been more than a decade since I rented a boat there, but they now offer canoe and kayak rentals as well. Something else is new as well, you can now buy my books there too.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Regional Tourism Office Closes

The Associated Press by way of the Southern Illinoisan is reporting that the Southern Illinois Tourism Development Office has laid off its executive director Russell Ward due to financial problems caused by the state's deteriorating fiscal condition.

Unlike local tourism and convention bureaus funded primarily through a local bed taxes, the regional tourism development offices are funding almost entirely through a state grant. Late payments over the last few years has caused the office to repeatedly borrow funds from local banks to make payroll at the start of the each fiscal year.

That in itself has become a problem because the state has ruled the tourism offices can't use state funds to make interest payments to the bank. Without a source of revenue to make such payments, the amount has simply been recycled through the bank accounts year after year.

The regional tourism office represents 22 counties in Southern Illinois. It's mission is unknown, or at least, disputed, depending on the source, especially in its relationship with the local bureaus and counties that don't have bureaus.

For the last few years the office's chief success has been maintaining the regional tourism website at www.adventureillinois.com (and previously also at IllinoisAdventure.com), and the annual regional tourism guide. When I was there we also assisted local tourism developers on their projects.

In its decade or so existence, the office has had five permanent and at least three or four interim executive directors, mostly due to the funding issue and the lack of clear mission - whether it should truly serve all 22 counties, or just those without certified tourism bureaus.

I only met my successor at SITDO once in person and a few other times by phone or e-mail. I wish him well in his future endeavors.

SITDO took the place of the former membership-based Southern Illinois Tourism Council which in turn grew out of the old Region 9 Tourism Council that existed back in the 1960s.

The move to lay off its staff comes after layoffs in the state's tourism information centers along the interstates.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Millennium Development Owners Eye September Launch

Bruce Holland, owner of Millennium Development LLC, has told the Southern Illinoisan that he expects to launch the process creating the state's first STAR (sales tax and revenue) Bond District in September.

Meanwhile, the city is working with Millennium Development LLC, the company behind the destination development, and the state on the establishment of the STAR Bond district, developer Bruce Holland said.

"It's part of the process," Holland said. "We're working with the city and the Department of Revenue to determine the actual boundaries and demographics of what goes in the district. Once that is done, we'll be closer to being able to say who (what businesses) we are working with for the actual development."

Mayor Butler told the paper that developers have already optioned nearly 400 acres and are still working on two or three other land owners. Based on what I'm hearing in the real estate industry, it looks like the district will stretch from the edge of Rent One Park east across the interstate almost to, if not right on, Route 37 north of the cemeteries.

Butler also hinted at two or three other businesses not related to Holland's development who had put their plans on hold due to the recession are back showing renewed interest in the city.

He provided no hints, but past businesses interested included two new hotels (one a new Holiday Inn Express for the lot next to MidCountry Bank) and a major chain restaurant, which was all but named as a certain Italian eatery which has danced around with the city since the Illinois Centre Mall underwent construction 20 years ago.

I don't know for sure what Butler was referencing, it could be these, or it could be some of the other larger businesses and industries looking at the city prior to the economic downturn. Either way it's a winner for the region.

In order to establish the district for which public hearings will be held, the developers have to come up with a master plan that includes at least one destination user (a large specialty retailer) and one entertainment user (theme park or other entertainment complex).

Once the city approves the district, it then goes to the Illinois Department of Revenue for approval.

The Southern's article is already online and should be in tomorrow's print edition.

State Closes Tourism Information Centers Along Interstates

It's being called a cost-saving move, but visitors wanting tourism information can no longer get it at state rest areas.

All personnel have been laid off due to the state's growing budget problem.

The Chicago Tribune is the latest with the story.

The move to cut tourism spending will likely only hurt the state. Past studies show for every dollar spent by the state for tourism generates more than $8 back for the general revenue fund itself, not to mention the jobs it creates.

The move for the current fiscal year doesn't come as a surprise. As of late June, the end of the last fiscal year the state owed around $1.5 million to the non-profit operator of the welcome centers. Layoffs were going to happen one way or another.

Carbondale considers new liquor license class for B & Bs

A spew is brewing in Carbondale after the new owner of the Hundley House bed and breakfast asked the city for permission to sell alcohol to his guests.

Don Jones opened the inn in May. Now he wants to add a liquor license to his amenities. Currently the city code allows for licenses to be issued to hotels and motels if they have 25 rooms or more. Bed and breakfast inns max out at just five rooms under Illinois law.

By definition bed and breakfast inns provide breakfast where the issue of liquor doesn't usually come up. However, some offer dinner or an evening cocktail. Those that do either require guests to bring their own bottle of wine for dinner, or provide the drinks for free.

According to the Southern Illinoisan the city council members didn't have a problem with proposal in general. Instead, they tabled it until a future meeting for issues with the language to be worked out.

The fight is coming a competitor, Paul Lewers, of the Train Inn Bed & Breakfast, (and not the Trail Inn as referenced in the article).

"It's kind of like the Wal-Martization of America where everyone has to come up with a way to do everything," said Paul Lewers, owner of Trail-Inn Bed and Breakfast. "It smacks of some kind of need to wrangle every last dollar out of your customer. It's something I would never want."

Lewers along with fellow operator Linda Goforth of the long-running Barton House B & B are fine in their decision not to offer alcohol if such an ordinance passes, whether it be on moral or business grounds, but Lewers is on much shakier ground when he takes a stand to oppose a license for a competitor who does want that option.

Many of the guests in the various inns and cabins in the area come for the wineries. The idea of being able to sell a bottle of local wine, or that matter a bottle of the local brew from the Big Muddy Brewing Co. over in Murphysboro, is an amenity many guests will want.

The council discussed the issue in June. The proposed ordinance
would set a $100 fee for the new license, down from the $2,250 for a hotel.

It would also limit the sale of alcohol to guests only. The only problem I see is that it would require the sale and use of alcohol to guests rooms only, as opposed to common areas or the dining room. That requirement should be removed.

In other bed and breakfast inn news, the Marion Daily Republican has a nice feature on the Olde Squat Inn in Williamson County. The inn is northeast of Marion, as opposed to northwest as stated in the article.

Monday, July 05, 2010

The Sign Says It All

A few weeks ago someone placed the above hand-painted sign at the intersection of North Carbon Street and Morgan Avenue in Marion where the new Millennium Development is set to expand The Hill into a major retail and tourist destination center.

The sign surfaced just after the first round of heavy news coverage of Mount Vernon's opposition to SB 2093 that would create a STAR Bonds district in Marion.

I thought at the time Mount Vernon officials were going above and beyond making their point and were to the point of digging their own grave, shooting themselves in the foot, etc., (insert your own favorite cliche here).

The last thing the King City needs is to stir up a boycott - something I've heard mentioned more than once or twice. Such a move would only hurt Southern Illinois.

New Steak House Targets Illinois Centre Mall

They haven't made an official announcement yet and the sign above the door still reads the Great American Chop House, but Carbondale's Fujiyama Japanese Steak House is going to be the latest in a line of Carbondale eateries expanding into Marion.

The bar is out and the table grills have been installed in the former Ruby Tuesday restaurant at the east end of the Illinois Centre Mall in Marion. Fujiyama will take the place of the short-lived Great American Chop House.

A new sign on the front side of the mall has already been installed.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Mount Vernon Tourism Numbers Up from 2009

Despite all the hoopla between Mount Vernon and Marion over the new STAR Bonds law, it's the King City who's had a better start to 2010 in terms of tourism than Williamson County.

Bed tax collections are up 3 percent for the first four months of 2010 in Mount Vernon compared to the same period in 2009. Marion and Williamson County has seen a 15 percent drop during the same time period.

Mount Vernon saw collections rise from around $176,000 to $182,000 while Williamson County suffered a drop from more than $235,600 down to just over $200,400. (However, one operator, Motel 6 has not paid January, March and April payments which should be at least $6,000 based on past years).

Mount Vernon Tourism Director Bonnie Jerdon told the Register-News that when compared to the same time in 2008 before the recession hit the tax receipts are down only $1,200.

Going back two years show receipts in Williamson County down just over $13,500 or about 6 percent compared with the first four months of 2008, though if the delinquent hotelier pays, then that amount would be cut by more than half.

The City of Mount Vernon charges a 5 percent bed tax which is split 60/40 with the tourism department and the city. The city also uses its home rule power to impose another $2 a night surcharge on room rentals.

(I believe that the 2 percent the city keeps is used for operate the city's west side municipal building near Holiday Inn where the tourism bureau and chamber of commerce have their offices.) By state law all of the 5 percent is supposed to go to tourism efforts. Historically, Mount Vernon has barely skirted around such requirements and occasionally has completely ignored them.

In Williamson County, the 5 percent bed tax is split 40/60 between the Williamson County Tourism Bureau and the Williamson County Events Commission, with the latter's share going to pay off the bonds used to finance the construction of the Williamson County Pavilion.

Marion hotel operators contribute the 2010 drop to the national economy, the colder-than-normal temperatures in Florida that discouraged some of the snow birds to travel south, or at least delay their travel; and a surge of business during the winters of 2008 and 2009 when ice storms caused major power outages in southernmost Illinois and western Kentucky and sent hundreds of residents north searching for places to stay with electricity and heat. This year's winter proved to be much milder.

Hotel and motel operators within the city limits of Marion earn about 85 percent of the bed tax revenue generated in the county.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Marion Daily Rips Mount Vernon in Online Headline

As a journalist working in the newsroom of small daily paper I would often be called to suggest a headline for my story. Usually, the closer the deadline the more likely the first suggestion would be one not fit for print, or at least too edgy for a community newspaper. After we got the zinger out of the way, we could then focus on the "real" headline.

I'm thinking that might have been the case today at the Marion Daily Republican, except that they went with the zinger for the online edition, republishing a Mount Vernon Register-News article on the King City's reaction to today's bill signing in Marion.

In the same vein of thought as Marion Mayor Bob Butler's comment last month that Mount Vernon should "stop whining", someone at the paper came up with this New York Post-style headline — King City cranky over STAR Bond signing.

Marion, Ill. — Gov. Pat Quinn would sign STAR bond legislation in Marion didn't sit well in Mt. Vernon. King City leaders had lobbied to be included in the bill, but it appeared the city would be left out.

Mayor Mary Jane Chesley sent a letter to Gov. Quinn earlier this month asking him to impose an amendatory veto on the STAR Bonds bill to include Mt. Vernon. That he did not is disappointing, she said.

“It defies logic,” Chesley said of the city’s exclusion in the bill. “But what it does not defy is politics.”

In other news, the Census Bureau reported Tuesday that the latest population estimates show Mount Vernon losing another 62 residents between 2008 and 2009 with a current estimated population of 16,269, as of July 1, 2009.
Gov. Pat Quinn has just signed SB 2093.
Quinn has made it.
A children's choir just finished singing - I'll never come down again from Cinderella. The governor's on his way now. The crowd is even bigger today.

'Life-Changing Exciting,' Unions Back Jobs Bill

The Marion Daily Republican nabbed the best quote yesterday explaining union support for the STAR Bonds bill.

Rick Hilliard, business manager for International Union of Operating Engineers Local 318, anticipated thousands of construction jobs awaiting the region.

"This is life-changing exciting. I can't wait to get machinery in the dirt," he said. "For business looking for a place to prosper, city officials helped them figure ways to prosper. This will be an explosion of that."

WSIL-TV backed up the sentiment the stats from the Laborers.

At Local 773, the Marion-based chapter of the Laborers International Union of North America, man hours dropped from around 1.1 million in 2001 to around 412,000 in 2007.

As the recession continued that number shrank to around 380,000 in 2009.

New Census Estimates Show Williamson Growing

Williamson County's incorporated communities gained 424 residents from 2008 to 2009 according to the latest census population estimates released Tuesday.

The Census Bureau estimates Herrin grew the most with a net gain of 154 new residents, followed by Carterville with 110 new residents. Marion, which is up 1,425 residents for the decade grew by just 71.

For the decade, population estimates for Herrin are up 1,152 residents, and for Carterville by 902.

  • Bush - up 1 (263)
  • Cambria - up 8 (1,354)
  • Carterville - up 110 (5,518)
  • Colp - up 2 (231)
  • Crainville - up 35 (1,362)
  • Creal Springs - up 5 (721)
  • Energy - up 11 (1,195)
  • Freeman Spur - up 1 (280, includes Franklin Co. portion)
  • Herrin - up 154 (12,450)
  • Hurst - up 5 (792)
  • Johnston City - up 19 (3,491)
  • Marion - up 71 (17,460)
  • Spillertown - up 2 (225)
  • Stonefort - up 1 (292, includes Saline Co. portion)
  • Whiteash - up 2 (277)

Overall, the Census Bureau pegs Williamson County's population as of July 1, 2009, at 65,169, or an increase of 3,935 people since the 200 census. It was the only county in the region that recorded population increases in 2009 in all its communities.

Throughout the region, most communities continued to see population declines. Only a handful proved otherwise.

Carbondale was up 194 in 2009 to an estimated population of 26,094. Others with slight growth in 2009 included Benton, up 6; Brookport, 8; Cypress, 1; Goreville, 5; Marissa, 9; New Burnside, 1; Olney, 38; Red Bud, 6; Sesser, 1; Thompsonville, 1; Valier, 4; Vienna, 6; and Zeigler, 1.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Everyone But Quinn Turns Out for Bill Signing

Officials from Cairo up to Mount Vernon (okay, maybe not Mount Vernon, but at least Franklin County) turned out in Marion this morning to witness Gov. Pat Quinn sign Senate Bill 2093, the STAR Bonds incentives legislation that would stimulate the development of thousands of jobs in Southern Illinois.

The Carterville marching band entertained the crowd, veterans manned a color guard and a children's choir sung the Star Spangled Banner at the Operating Engineers Local 318's union hall on Marion's west side.

The governor's staff and state Rep. John Bradley, D-Marion, had the legislation laying out on the head table with plenty of pens available for the governor to use. All that was missing was the governor himself.

Wicked weather forced the cancellation of 375 flights out of Chicago O'Hare this morning and delayed hundreds of others at both O'Hare and Midway, including the state plane scheduled to fly Quinn to today's event.

Bradley first announced a delay of one hour following the Pledge of Allegiance and the invocation. The governor had canceled the rest of his schedule this afternoon and would arrive eventually. Minutes later Bradley provided another update inviting the crowd of around 200 to come back tomorrow after flight officials told the governor he was looking a delay of 5 or 6 hours before being able to take off.

Wags in the crowd were quick to point out two things. First, if the governor resided in Springfield he could have made it as it was nothing but blue skies over the Executive Mansion this morning. Second, since he's such a big advocate of Amtrak he could have come by train (and still made it quicker).

In the end it won't matter though. He'll be quickly forgiven. Barring wind and wild weather he should make it to Marion and sign the bill in 12 hours or so and the wait will be over.

Now that we know he's going to sign it, the next question is how much developer Bruce Holland will be able to say tomorrow on what's actually coming. Word is dirt should start flying almost immediately on at least some aspects of the project.
Signing delayed one day due to the weather in Chicago. Quinn coming at 11 tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Quinn Expected to Sign STAR Bonds Bill Tomorrow

The wait is almost over. Gov. Pat Quinn is set to visit Marion tomorrow to sign SB 2093, the STAR Bonds development bill that could lead to thousands of new jobs created in Southern Illinois.

Quinn's set to be at the Operating Engineers Local 318 meeting hall at 11 a.m. Wednesday morning.

Quinn vetoed a similar bill last year sending it back to the legislature with a change in the language to limit state incentives to 50 percent of the eligible costs. This time the bill includes the language Quinn wanted.

The bill would use the state's portion of the new sales tax revenue generated by the project to fund bonds to pay for the development.

In testimony last month Bruce Holland, the lead developer behind the proposal, admitted that no companies had signed on yet, but were waiting for the bill to be passed. No word yet if Holland will make any announcements along those lines.

Already he has met the first June 1 deadline in the bill to secure control at least 50 percent of the land in the proposed development. The district will include 45 to 50 acres west of Interstate 57 next to Rent One Park and behind Menards, as well as least 350 acres east of the interstate and north of Morgan Avenue.

In order to secure a STAR Bonds district the developers must show they have at least one large retailer (a destination user as defined by the bill), and one entertainment user (an entertainment center or theme park). What and when they announce those two developments will go a long way in indicating just how big this development will be.

Tourism Development Meeting Set for Harrisburg Wednesday

Saline County Tourism, the Southern Illinois Tourism Development Office and the Southeast Illinois Regional Planning Commission will host a tourism development meeting Wednesday, June 23, at 6 p.m. The meeting will be held in the faculty dining room off the cafeteria at Southeastern Illinois College.

O’Dell will give an overview of tourism development. Executive Director Russell Ward of the Southern Illinois Tourism Development Office and Julie Patera of Southeastern Illinois Regional Planning will given an outline of grants available from the state to launch new businesses related to tourism such as lodging, restaurants and cafes.

“What we’re hoping to do is bring people together. We know how many things Southern Illinois has to offer,” Patera said.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Quinn to sign SB 2091 on Wednesday at Operating Engineers Local 318 in Marion.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Illinois Centre Mall Latest Landmark to Change Hands

Kokopelli wasn't the only Marion landmark to change hands this week. Less than 24 hours after the Green Grass Group LLC closed the deal on the region's premiere golf course, a new owner took over the Illinois Centre Mall next door.

Although the new owner(s) are still not publicly identified, the old management team in the mall office is already out. Two meetings are set for next Wednesday, one between the new owner(s) and remaining staff, and a second with the mall tenants.

The challenge for new owners will be how to turn around the struggling mall that's now in its 19th year of operation with major new competition on the way.

Officials with the Edward J. DeBartolo Corp., and Antonia Investments, Inc., announced the development of the Illinois Centre Mall in 1989. Construction started the next spring with steel work underway by the fall of 1990. The mall opened the following year in early October 1991.

The mall was to the 750,000 square-foot centerpiece of a 260-acre development. However, a fifth anchor store planned for the front of the mall at what's now the center entrance never materialized.

For the last two decades the Illinois Centre Mall has both competed with, and mutually complimented the older University Mall down the highway in Carbondale.

The University Mall began with a stand-alone JCPenney store in 1971 with the first phase of the mall built three years later to the west with a new Sears store anchoring the other end. Later a second wing to the south led to a third anchor store, Meis (later Elder-Beerman).

During the development of the Illinois Centre Mall, developers added another wing to the east of JCPenney with an 91,000 square foot Famous-Barr and an 80,000 square-foot Venture store. Overall, the $35 million project added 266,000 square feet of retail increasing the total size of the mall to 690,162 square feet.

But what's on the way could more than double the combined size of both malls. The new Millennium Development proposed for Marion would greatly expand "The Hill" with one or two major "destination users", or retailers of least 150,000 square feet each.

The Cabela's store near Kansas City, Kansas, is part of a development cited by the Marion developers as an example of what they want. That store offers 180,000 square feet of shopping. The chain's largest store is 250,000 square feet. That said, the company is now generally planning 80,000 to 125,000 square-foot stores according to their corporate website.

Another possible anchor mentioned for Glen Carbon was a Nebraska Furniture Mart. The Southern Illinoisan described the company as building a 1 million square feet store in the Kansas City STAR bonds development. Actually, the store is just (yeah, just) 420,000 square feet. The remaining 600,000+ square feet is a distribution center.

In addition to the two destination user anchors the legislation allows up to another 900,000 square feet of additional retail to be built within the STAR Bonds district. At least half of that will be needed to entice a Cabela's, as they want to anchor growing retail developments (discounters and franchise stores don't count).

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Mount Vernon Urges Quinn to Amend Destination Bill

King City officials are asking Gov. Pat Quinn to amend SB 2991, the STAR Bonds bill to add Mount Vernon to the mix. The Southern Illinoisan's Caleb Hale reports Mayor Mary Jane Chesney sent a letter to the governor last Friday.

In a frank give and take discussion with me this afternoon City Manager Ron Neibert stressed his city's position wasn't as much in opposition to the incentives for Marion, but in favor of granting the same economic development tools to his city.

"We are not opposed to Marion," noting that as written, the bill would place Mount Vernon "at a competitive disadvantage... Why shouldn't we have an equal opportunity?"

Quoting both the legislation and area sales tax statistics Neibert also clarified a point Chesney had partially made during the Senate committee hearing last month.

Section 5 of the bill outlines the legislation's purpose as "to promote, stimulate, and develop the general and economic welfare of the State of Illinois," etc., etc. It's this part that makes it a "jobs bill" as the bill specifically uses the phrase "creating new jobs" in terms of its purpose.

In subparagraphs (J) and (K), the bill refers to the "stagnation of local tax bases" and the "loss of job opportunities" that exist currently (J), and that could get worse (K), if the bill doesn't pass.

Chesney noted the following sales tax stats in her committee testimony and Neibert drove the point home today.

According to the May edition of the Southern Business Journal (p. 12), sales tax receipts from 2005 to 2009 have grown 23.8 percent in Marion, versus just 0.3 percent in Mount Vernon for the same time period. Carbondale suffered a 2.4 percent drop.

Neibert wonders how a nearly 24 percent growth in sales shows a stagnation of a local tax base. Mount Vernon's barely positive 0.3 percent growth better defines stagnant.

Although a new Kohl's store is under construction, Neibert feels the STAR bonds incentives would preclude Mount Vernon from ever landing a Cabela's or other major retailer of that size.

Personally I agree with him on that, though based on demographics and location, I think Marion would always have the competitive advantage, everything else being equal.

He did point out that Mount Vernon had a higher traffic count at Exit 95 in Mount Vernon than Marion did at Exit 54 in Marion. IDOT's Getting Around Illinois shows an average annual daily traffic count 35,700 vehicles south of the Mount Vernon interchange and 37,700 north of it. In Marion the figures are 33,700 north of Route 13 and 22,100 vehicles daily south of it.

Neibert notes the similarity between the STAR bonds and early versions of Illinois' tax increment financing districts that allowed cities to use the state's portion of the sales tax increment, something that is now longer allowed.

As a former city manager in Vandalia he saw how a city could be at a disadvantage when a neighbor up the interstate, in his case Effingham, had the tools in place and the funds generated to land new developments thanks to the sales tax increment that flowed to the city.

It's not just the potential for lost retail opportunities that concern city leaders, Neibert says the legislation has already cost, or at least delayed, a new hotel in the works. If it's not built in Mount Vernon, the developers may bring it to Marion.

[If it is who I think it is, he's right, they've had their eye on Marion for a while.]

I still think Mount Vernon leaders made, and continue to make a strategic mistake in trying to delay the bill, as an amendatory veto would keep the bill in limbo until the fall veto session set for November after the election.

With polls indicating a good chance of a different party in the governor's mansion next year, Neibert feels Mount Vernon's chances are best this year as there might not be an opportunity next year.

However I agree with Rich Miller of Capitol Fax and other statehouse watchers who think SB 2093 will only be the tip of the iceberg. If not next year, then the year after, Miller expects (actually worries about) more legislation for STAR bonds. Miller doesn't like the bill and keeps referring to it as the "worst bill ever".

I think what's missed is the fact that the developers behind the Millennium Development have continually pushed the "destination" aspect of the bill. It's for both tourism and retail, and that it's only justified due to the tourism component, something Mount Vernon in particular isn't going after. Chesney said so in her committee testimony and Neibert echoed that today.

Most residents of the region wouldn't support giving state tax breaks for retailers. I would have a hard time supporting that, simply because like Miller fears, it becomes almost impossible to draw the line.

But it's a different story when you're talking tax breaks for a theme park. The equation changes, at least for me. The retail is "needed" or at least justified, as it's the sales tax that will help pay for the park. It's this entertainment/theme park complex that would make Marion, and in turn, Southern Illinois, a destination far greater than we are now.

Quite frankly, Neibert doubts a $25 million theme park would do that much for the region, but that's just the minimum investment required. The developers were going after a much larger park in the MetroEast, something well over the $100 million investment as required in the Glen Carbon legislation from last year.

The developers are still aiming high and I hope they get their prize, but even a Plan B would be a major boost. Keep in mind Branson got started with the Shepherd of the Hills outdoor play and a Silver Dollar City theme park. Everything else came later.

There hasn't been a whole lot of jobs bills come out of Springfield in the last decade, not since the EDGE program early in the century, something Neibert describes as just helping Illinois catch up with Indiana and Kentucky.

Politically, Quinn almost has to sign the bill. He needs it to carry Southern Illinois and he needs state Rep. John Bradley, D-Marion, on board, to keep his chances alive. He doesn't stand much of a chance in the region come November without the bill, but with it and a few big announcements from the developers the game changes completely.

The 59th Legislative District is the last rural district the Democrats control. That should be reason enough for Quinn.

As for Mount Vernon, now that Republicans represent Jefferson County in both the House and Senate things might change in 2011 if state Sen. Bill Brady wins as governor, and Williamson County's legislators may then be on the outs.

Personally I want to think Neibert for taking the time to talk with me today. This was our first time speaking. When I described our conversation as frank, I was not exaggerating. It was nothing like a typical interview like I've done in the past as a journalist.

I'm a former Mount Vernon resident and high school alumnus. Two of my classmates sit on the city council and the mayor is a good friend from her days as the high school's art teacher. I want to see Mount Vernon succeed, I just think this isn't the best way.

For Southern Illinois to be strong, all of it has to be strong, Marion and Mount Vernon, and Carbondale and every other county seat and trade center.

Meanwhile as the debate continues, we all wait word on what Quinn will do.

Local Teachers' Unions Come Out In Favor of STAR Bill

Unions representing 4,200 educational employees in Southern Illinois have joined the chorus in calling on Gov. Quinn to sign into law Senate Bill 2093 passed last month by lawmakers.

The bill would allow the creation of sales tax and revenue bonds (STAR bonds) to help pay for development of a destination attraction of tourism and retail on Marion's north side.

Regions 1 and 2 of the Illinois Education Association are backing the bill.

"The STAR bond legislation could be the best economic development tool that state government has ever passed for our regions. We enthusiastically support the Star bond legislation and we urge Gov. Quinn to sign it," said Region 2 chair Mary Bess Williams.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Quinn Says Good Things About Destination Bill

Gov. Pat. Quinn called the Marion destination legislation that passed the General Assembly last month "very important" when asked by reporters last night in Charleston, Illinois.

He also described it as a jobs bill but still needs time to study it before signing.

Quinn, who was speaking at Eastern Illinois University, told reporters the legislation "is a jobs proposal" and that jobs are the "No. 1 issue."

The bill, SB 2093, would create the state's first STAR Bonds district, in order to land a major tourism destination and retail development on Marion's north side.

As it's an election year and he needs the support of Southern Illinois voters, so it's expected that he will sign it.

However opposition is growing from the state public employees union, AFSMCE, proving once again that what's good for public sector unions are usually bad for everyone else.

Opponents have argued the state's financial problems make it a questionable time to divert public funds for a private development.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union is urging Quinn to kill the measure, saying the state cannot absorb the loss of tax dollars.

"This is the worst possible time for a tax giveaway to a private corporate developer," said AFSCME spokesman Anders Lindall. "Its terrible timing and the governor should veto this bill."

Apparently a terrible recession with high unemployment is a bad time to try to create jobs in this state, jobs, which when taxed, provide the funds to pay the wages of said public sector unions.

AFSCME on the other hand would rather the state raise income taxes 50 percent, or more.

As to diverting public revenues, there's almost no way it will divert a dime of public revenues in the next fiscal year, as Marion will be lucky to see a groundbreaking that soon, let alone see the development up and running by that time.

Secondly, you can't divert what isn't there, which would be the sales tax increment generated from this development.

Back in 1966, the State of Florida bent over backwards to provide incentives to the Walt Disney Company in the form of the Reedy Creek Improvement District.

How did that work out? I think we all know.

Although newspapers keep repeating Cabela's and Great Wolf Lodge as possible tenants, they're forgetting the important aspect of the "entertainment user", or theme park, that's a requirement to get the STAR Bonds district created in the first place.

This thing is bigger than most people realize. If successful, it's bigger than the Southern Illinois Miners and the mall development. It's bigger than the '82 Tornado. It's all those things and the coming of the interstates combined. Mayor Butler knows it (hence the tears in his eyes when it passed). John Bradley knows it, and so do a few others. The potential for Southern Illinois is off the scale.

Kokopelli Deal Closed This Morning

The Green Grass Group LLC closed on its long-suffering effort today to secure the Kokopelli golf course in Marion, one of the top-rated courses in the state.

Dutch Doelitzsch gave a Marion Chamber of Commerce a brief update at today's luncheon, telling the group the new ownership signed all the paperwork closing the deal this morning at 11:20 a.m. Yesterday they had met with club members and Kokopelli residents about their plans.

Kokopelli Golf Pro Jesse Barge outlined the new owners' plans for the course this afternoon. Changes will be made to the club house, grounds and some upcoming events.

  • The restaurant will re-open later this month under the name Koko's. After additional renovations are complete, the restaurant will be able to seat 300 for a wedding reception or other large gatherings.
  • The pro shop will move to the lower level just inside the current lobby area. This will allow all of the golfing operations on one level while creating more space for the restaurant above. In order to do this the grand staircase will be removed and a new ceiling/floor installed to create more dining area above.
  • The former pro shop area will become the new Koko's Sports Grill. The current bar which sits in the main dining space will be removed to the new sports grill.
  • A new parking lot will be built on the north side of the club house at the same level as the restaurant.

Course and Grounds
  • The remaining debris from last year's storms will be removed. Barge said last year they removed enough debris to make the course playable, but more needs to be done in order to help define the course in terms of margins and out-of-bounds.
  • Champions Drive which now ends in the current club house parking lot will be extended south to Halfway Road which now ends at the north edge of Rent One Park. This will allow direct access to the clubhouse from area hotels and the interstate.
  • A new 48-lot upscale housing development will be platted along the new extension which will also be calls Champions. These will be single-family homes and not condominiums. [Although he didn't mention it, many of these lots may face the lake that's on the north side of Rent One Park.]

In addition, Kokopelli will host the 2012 Men's Illinois State Amateur Championship in August of that year. Barge said it's the first time since 1995 that Southern Illinois has hosted the tournament when it was played at the Rend Lake Golf Course.

According to the Southern Illinoisan's early online coverage of this morning's news conference, roadwork will begin this fall.

...and will necessitate the shortening of Hole 15 by 78 to 150 yards and reducing par by a single stroke that will increase the course rating's difficulty.

For more on Barge, the Marion Daily did a nice profile on him in March.

State Parks to Accept Online Reservations, Maybe

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources is finally entering the 21st Century with an online reservation system for campsites and picnic shelters, at least according to the Associated Press. I guess it's so long phone and snail mail.
Instead, the department says that starting July 7 reservations for 2010 can be made online for most campsites and other facilities, including 67 Illinois state parks and other state sites. Online reservations for shelters can be made online for 51 sites.

Too bad no one told the agency's webmaster.
Campsite Reservations are made at the site level. Each site maintains it's [sic] own campsite availability as well. Please contact the site you are interested in directly for mail-in and telephone reservations. E-mail reservations are not accepted.

Nothing like confusion to help bring tourists to Illinois.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Southern Calls on Quinn to Sign Development Bill

Today's Southern Illinoisan calls for Gov. Pat Quinn to sign Senate Bill 2093, the STAR Bonds bill needed to kick off a new destination development deal for Marion's northwest side.
This region not only needs private-sector investment and the traffic that comes with it, but it is well prepared. Forgive the cliché, but the iron is hot; it's time to strike.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Kokopelli Details to be Unveiled Tuesday

Now that Kokopelli has new local owners, area residents await details of their plans which will be announced Tuesday at a news conference in Marion.

The premier golf club has suffered from non-local ownership over the last few years and a year-long process to sell the course and restaurant held up by the federal government.

David Hays and Michael Koller, principal owners of Green Grass Group LLC, will let everyone know more in three days.

Already previous hints indicate more residential development. Other ideas over the years have included condos and some short-term tourism rentals on the golf course.

In April the owners let some of the details slip to the Southern.

Green Grass has big plans for the club's future, which include the development of a planned community, "The Club at Kokopelli," Green Grass Vice President Mike Koller said.

The community is planned for the area around what will be a new entrance to the club on Halfway Road. The road will tie the club from its current parking lot to Halfway Road near Rent One Park.

"This is going to be a long-term project. Our goal is to have up to 90 units," said Koller, who will be heading up the company's development plans.

The extension of Halfway Road north of Rent One Park up to the clubhouse. That was part of the original Hill development plan.

From a tourism standpoint, it would make the clubhouse and course much more accessible to travelers wanting to golf or sample the fine dining.

Hays also owns Mary's Restaurant and Bed and Breakfast in Herrin.

Green Grass Group LLC purchasd the course from Kokopelli Master Partners, a Florida consortium based in Gainesville. They had acquired it from Dutch native and Zimbabwe-national John Bredenkamp. The Times of Johannesburg, South Africa, has more on him.

Marion Destination Bill Sent to Governor

The Illinois Senate sent SB 2093 to the governor's office yesterday. Now it's up to Gov. Pat Quinn to sign or veto the bill designed to create a STAR Bonds district in Marion.

Thursday's action starts the clock for Quinn who now has 60 days to make a decision. His staff though has given no public indication of what he'll do.
"We'll be reviewing it," said [Quinn spokeswoman] Annie Thompson.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Developers Meet First Deadline, Quinn Waits for Bill

Today's Southern Illinoisan notes that developers of the proposed STAR Bonds district in Marion have met their first deadline, as reported yesterday in this blog.

Meanwhile, Gov. Pat Quinn's office is still awaiting delivery of SB 2093 from the Senate before they can take action. The Senate has 30 days to deliver the bill and the governor 60 days after delivery to act.

The proposed district will be between 250 and 500 acres located mostly east of Interstate 57 and north of Morgan Avenue, and will likely include another 45 to 50 acres undeveloped as part of The Hill adjacent to Menard's.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Two Loft Rentals Under Construction in Alto Pass

A northern Illinois teacher is investing time and capital on a new lodging opportunity along the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail.

Brian Stone is converting the old Alto Pass General Store into two two-bedroom loft rentals for tourists. He told the Southern Illinoisan he hopes to be ready for tourists late this summer.
"It's just been my dream to have a business like this on the wine trail. I just always believed in Southern Illinois," said Stone, a teacher in northern Illinois. "People have always been doing cabins down there. I thought to do something out of the box and com-pletely different to give an alternative."

The Alto Wine Trail Loft will be located at 5 Elm Street in downtown Alto Pass.

Stone joins about 50 other independent lodging operators in the western Shawnee Hills.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Mount Vernon Defines Regionalism

There's another interesting tidbit from the Mount Vernon version of the STAR Bonds legislation — SB 2881 that shows a bit of how the King City defines regionalism.

In Marion, as part of the concerted effort to build support from surrounding communities, the developers tweaked the original legislation and created a School Improvement Fund that would take 15 percent of the property tax increment generated by the multi-million dollar investment and distribute it to area schools.

According to the legislation Franklin-Williamson Regional Superintendent Matt Donkin could a) distribute the funds proportionally to the schools in Franklin and Williamson Counties based on fall enrollment figures, or b) toss out that formula and come up with something else.

Based on statements by superintendents in support of the project outside Franklin and Williamson Counties, they seem to be under the impression that Donkin would do "B". A fair proposal would be to proportionally distribute the funds say to every school district within a 25 or so mile radius of Marion based on student enrollment.

Either way he hadn't decided as of last Thursday, and in any case, he has a couple of years before the investments will generate any increment to distribute.

What's interesting about the bill amended by state Sen. John O. Jones, R-Mount Vernon, is that only schools in Jefferson County would have benefited from a STAR Bonds District.

The regional superintendent in Mount Vernon would not even have, or apparently be able to distribute funds to schools in Hamilton County which is part of his regional office's boundary, let alone in surrounding communities like Centralia whose mayor provided the second and only other vote in support of Mount Vernon Mayor Mary Jane Chesney's motion at the last Southern Illinois Mayors' Association on a resolution opposing the Marion STAR Bonds legislation.

Today's First Deadline for Big Marion Development

Developers are still waiting for Gov. Pat Quinn's signature on Senate Bill 2093, but their first deadline is in less than 8 hours.

Before midnight tonight, Bruce Holland and his development team must "own or have control of, through purchase agreements, option contracts, or other means, not less than 50% of the acreage within the STAR bond district," according to the legislation.

Most of the land being targeted is already owned by Marion Heights LLC, developers of The Hill. In past statements Holland has described his project as 300 to 350 acres, but the bill allows room for expansion, allowing from 250 to 500 acres to be included.

Ironically, this clause is also found in State Sen. John O. Jones' last minute amendment to SB 2881, his version of the STAR Bonds bill which would have allowed for the creation of a second STAR bonds district in Jefferson County at Mount Vernon's new Exit 94 on Interstate 57.

Neither Jones nor King City Mayor Mary Jane Chesney ever identified a developer interested in the parcel, which makes it unlikely the city could have found a way around this requirement.

During the hearing at the Senate's Labor Committee last Thursday, Chesney specifically stated her city was not interested in the tourism component of the bill. Despite her statement the legislation stipulates tourism as one of the key purposes for creating such districts.
It is further found and declared to be the policy of the State, in the interest of promoting the health, safety, morals, and general welfare of all the people of the State, to provide incentives to create new job opportunities and to promote major tourism, entertainment, retail, and related destination projects within the State.

There would have been another hiccup for Mount Vernon as well. In order to apply for the creation of a STAR Bonds district the master developer has to show a plan to secure not only a destination user, but an entertainment user as well.

The "destination user" is a major retailer with a building of at least 150,000 square feet, no other store within 70 miles and attract at least 30 percent of customers from more than 75 miles away, or at least out of state.

The "entertainment user" is more interesting. The short definition is theme park, but here's the long version as well:

"Entertainment user" means an owner, operator, licensee, a co-developer, subdeveloper, or tenant that operates a business within a STAR bond district that has a primary use of providing a venue for entertainment attractions, rides, or other activities oriented toward the entertainment and amusement of its patrons, occupies at least 20 acres of land in the STAR bond district, and makes an initial capital investment, including project costs and other direct and indirect costs, of not less than $25,000,000 for that venue.

The biggest hurdle for a Mount Vernon STAR Bonds district would have been the area itself. In order to qualify for a STAR Bonds, it has to be blighted. As Marion found out a quarter century ago in the Mall Wars, just because a parcel of land is undeveloped it does not mean it's blighted, especially when it's at a new interstate interchange.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Sports Fan Wants Great Wolf Lodge

A Southern Illinois sports enthusiast by the handle of 618Football wants a Great Wolf Lodge in Marion so bad, he's started an online petition.
Here is a petition to let Great Wolf Lodge know that we want them to come to Southern Illinois. We went last year to Kansas City and had a blast. The kids ask every week to go back.

So Just How Big a Deal is It?

Bob Butler cried tears of joy tonight as the Illinois Senate gave him what will likely be the crowning achievement in his nearly five decades as mayor.

That's just how big a deal this evening's vote in favor of Senate Bill 2093 was.

Never could Marion's fiesty mayor of 47 years be described as speechless, but when the Senate Labor Committee approved the bill this afternoon, all he could do was grin as he left the room afterwards.

Tonight, he cried, when the Illinois Senate passed the STAR Bonds bill on a 2-to-1 margin with 34 ayes, 17 nays and 3 voting present.

Never one to shy away from emotion in a city council meeting or an interview with reporters, Butler's usually known for his quick wit or sharp retort like his "stop whining" comment to Mount Vernon at a recent Southern Illinois Mayors Association meeting.

City Hall followers have seen him mad, angry, exasperated, enthralled, engaged, and in any number of emotions, but tears of joy may have been a first.

The STAR Bonds bill, otherwise known as the Innovative Development and Economy Act, represents more than just another economic development tool for the city. As critics repeatedly pointed out today, it could be as much as $400 million in rebates to developers over the next few decades if all goes as planned.

All being more than 6,000 construction jobs and nearly 5,000 permanent positions.

To put those incentives in perspective that's 100 times the amount the state kicked in for the Southern Illinois Miners stadium at Rent One Park five years ago.

That's around 10 times more than the state-funded improvements on Route 13 and the new upcoming I-57 interchange in Marion that's now just starting.

Potentially it's a bigger impact than the coming of the mall and the first use of tax increment financing districts 20 years ago. In a word, it's huge.

Historically, it's like getting the interstate finished and open with two interchanges at the edge of your city — something that happened to Marion during Butler's first term.

And it almost didn't happen.

The Senate's Committee on Assignments sent the bill to the State Government and Veterans Committee for a 10 a.m. scheduled hearing this morning. But opponent and Mount Vernon state Sen. John O. Jones sits on that committee. Apparently, the votes weren't there, or at least represented too much of a risk.

So back to the Assignments state Sen. Gary Forby carried the bill. It could be sent to the Executive Committee some thought which didn't meet until much later. In the end, it went to Labor, a committee normally chaired by Forby himself, for mid-afternoon.

He opened the committee for business then turned over the gavel to another so he could testify on his bill's behalf. Supporters, opponents, lobbyists and media packed Room 212, the ornate hearing room on the second floor of the Capitol that once housed the Illinois Supreme Court.

Dozens signed slips stating their support or opposition. Forby and developer Bruce Holland testified in favor. Mount Vernon Mayor Mary Jane Chesney spoke in opposition to SB 2093, but in favor of another bill that would add Mount Vernon to the mix.

Forby's two state Reps, John Bradley and Brandon Phelps, started the session with last minute lobbying of the committee members themselves. For 15 minutes Forby delayed the start as the crowd continued to draw its way inside.

During the testimony, Bradley repeatedly left his seat crouching at Forby's side with an answer or suggestion to an opponent's remark. An expectant father in a maternity ward couldn't have been more anxious. This was their baby. It was time to deliver.

The committee voted 8-2 in favor and sent it to the Senate. Another committee took over the room. Forby needed a breather and headed back to his office. They'd passed the first challenge. Now he had just an hour to prepare for the next.

When the Senate opened for its final session Forby took to the floor and argued his case. Opponents of the bill split between those who thought it went too far, and those who argued not far enough. Include Mount Vernon at the very least, they pleaded, if not the entire state.

After 40 minutes the acting Senate President called for the roll. Backers had hoped for 36 votes, the super majority needed to override any vetoes, but settled for the 34.

Still afterwards,the developers felt satisfied. If needed there might be some ayes in those who voted present, not to mention the vote of the Senate leader himself, John Cullerton, who was not present and didn't vote. The moves today through the committees, not to mention the almost last minute vote on the bill itself wouldn't have happened without his blessing.

As the supporters and opponents left for their long drives home, the question for the developers and lawmakers became what to do next.

With President Obama arriving in Chicago today, Gov. Pat Quinn had left for the Windy City prior to the vote. He wasn't in town, but his staff remained, and Bradley and others immediately reached out.

Then there were calls to others who had helped, letting them know the joyous news. For the younger Hollands, the developer's son and nephew, they told the same message but to a different audience — the companies that had been interested for months in the plan.

While it's true as Forby and Holland often had to admit today, that no one had signed on to the project as yet, it didn't mean no one was interested. The calls went out; the bill has passed. Let's get together and talk.

They'd been to this point before the previous year when lawmakers passed the bill for Glen Carbon, before Quinn's amendatory veto. They made some changes and addressed his concerns in the new bill that passed today. And now they wait.

And so do we all.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Bill passes 34-17.
Senate now debating the bill. Opposition vocal, but outlook good.
Bill passes committee 8-2 in favor.
Committee hearing begins.

It's Official, Labor's the Committee, 2:30 p.m. is the Time

The Senate has just posted that the Labor Committee will meet at 2:30 p.m. this afternoon in Room 212 of the Capitol. The only bill is SB 2093, the Innovative Development and Economy Act, otherwise known as the Millennium Development bill.

Still Waiting, But Here's More on the Labor Committee

Still waiting for a time to be set on a hearing for the Millennium Development bill for Marion. With it being yanked out of the committee that state Sen. John O. Jones, R-Mount Vernon, sits on, it's now supposedly set to go to Labor.

The first committee had a 5-4 split between Republicans and Democrats. The Labor Committee, which is chaired by the bill sponsor, Sen. Gary Forby, D-Benton, has a partisan split of 7-4. We can only assume it will pass in that committee.

Meanwhile, the Senate has stalled on the pension borrowing bill and the House on the cigarette tax hike. The more delays on the big items, but more time for SB 2093 to make it out of committee and onto the Senate floor for a final vote.