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

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, 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

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.