Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Johnston City TIF Attracting Growth

It's not mentioned at all in today's story online at the, but it's the city-wide TIF (tax increment financing) district that's behind the flurry of new business ventures targeting Johnston City.

And behind the TIF is a mayor and city council with their backs up against the wall. It's grow or die time. Although the city finances don't show it, the city's been on a roll for the last year or so with the passage of Home Rule, followed by the creation of a TIF district that pretty much encompasses the whole city.

2011 has been a tough year, but 2012 should be much better thanks to the businesses coming with their sales tax revenues.

Projects already announced include the Village Green Homes which is relocating from Marion to the former Roland Meadows Golf Course on the west side of the interstate, and Osprey Village, a new 16-unit assisted living facility.

In addition Mayor Jim Mitchell announced two new projects yesterday. First up is a couple who wants to transform the former Catholic grade school (and more recently, an alternative school) into an antique mall. The second is a proposed new Johnston City-based taxi service.

"We're getting calls. People see we're trying to get things moving," explained Mitchell.

None of these projects are strictly tourism, but they should all strenghten the community's ability to grow. The move by Village Green represents a loss to Marion only on the surface. It also opens up six acres on the northwest side of Exit 54 in Marion to new development, particularly for restaurants and/or hotels.

For inquiries about Marion or Johnston City land available for commercial development, contact Jon Musgrave at Paul Wilson Realty in Marion at

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Chester Gives New Motel OK For TIF

The proposed Microtel motel project in Chester will move forward with the city's help following a 5-4 vote last night by the city council.

The Southern Illinoisan has the story.

Mayor Joe Eggemeyer cast the deciding vote after the council split 4-4. The vote was just to start negotiations with the developers over the use of TIF funds. If an agreement is reached the council will hold another vote.
Project partners James Best of Chester, John Bergfeld of Sparta and John Pawloski of Godfrey are proposing to build a $6.5 million, 60- to 85-room hotel development at the site of the old Hi-3 motel, which has been closed for about 20 years.

Chester currently has one hotel, Reid's Best Western Inn, owned by Brad Reid, also the owner of Reid's Harvest House.

If an agreement is reached, the paper noted that the developers are eligible to be reimbursed for up to 75 percent of the new property taxes generated from their improvements.

Illinois law doesn't allow TIF funds to be used for new construction, but costs associated with the property acquisition, demolition of the old motel, site preparations and dirt work would be eligible expenses.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Pilot Travel Center Opens in Marion

Pilot #595, the new Pilot Travel Center that took the place of the old Marion truck stop, opened this morning with a bit of a price war, selling regular unleaded for just $3.09. That's 20 cents a gallon below the Illinois average of $3.29, according to AAA's Daily Fuel Gauge Report.

The new pilot includes 5 showers, 43 parking spaces, 7 diesel lanes, and for truckers DEF at the pump, TransFlo Scanning and certified CAT scales.

As previously noted, the old Refuge Restaurant and buffet has been replaced with the city's fourth Subway.

Pilot purchased the truck stop Sept. 21, closed it and entirely gutted the building. Only a small portion of the old restaurant wall built following the 1982 tornado remains as it did before the remodeling.

The only downside — other than the Subway — is the requirement to prepay at the pump or use a card.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Ryan Companies Working on Boulder Creek Site Plan

When Marion Mayor Bob Butler told the Southern Illinoisan last week that we are finally seeing movement — "I think the project is going to be getting off the ground very shortly." He wasn't kidding.

Brad Holland revealed the selection of Ryan Companies as a partner of some sort last week. Now Ryan Companies is working on a new site plan for the STAR Bonds District.

Interestingly, it's going to cover at least some of the adjoining lands not included currently in the district. Part of that may just deal with roads and other infrastructure issues, but still, it should offer some clues when it's finished shortly.

This plan will replace the fuzzy temporary plan shown in Millennium Development's brochure on the Holland Construction website.

Separate from the Boulder Creek development, but greatly influenced by its potential, I was told this morning about what may be the first property sale near the new Morgan Avenue interchange. There's no word yet on what will be built on the tract. Meanwhile there's solid movement on two other still-unannounced developments on the west side of the interstate.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Engineering Firm Hired for Boulder Creek

There's movement in the direction of Boulder Creek on The Hill, the STAR bonds development on Marion's northwest side.

The Southern Illinoisan editorialized yesterday calling for readers to continue supporting the destination development.

The editorial didn't provide any new details, not surprising since no reporter has actually talked with the developers on the record for any of the stories over the past week. All have simply reworded the news releases sent to them.

I agree with the overall tone for the editorial. There's too much at stake to start getting hypercritical. Patience people, patience, should have been the headline.

One intriguing bit: "Holland also announced the development will be named Boulder Creek at The Hill, a name so specific it must be linked to an investor's requirement."

I don't know if that is the case or just speculation. The Hill part of the name obviously goes along with the earlier development by that name. The STAR Bonds district is mostly the land that was formally part of The Hill.

In last week's news release Brad Holland tied the name "Boulder Creek" to the region's many outdoor attractions, but let's face it, it's a perfect home for a Cabela's or Bass Pro Shop, not to mention a Great Wolf Lodge, all of which have been mentioned as potential major anchors for the development. The first two would make up one of the "destination users" required for the the district (there's no way of expecting both of those to locate in the same development). The third would more than meet the requirements for the "destination hotel" requirement.

This afternoon the Southern posted details from the latest news release from the developers at Millennium Development LLC. They've hired SCI Engineering, out of O'Fallon, Ill., to do "due diligence research" on the property in the STAR Bonds district.

SCI Engineering started out Soil Consulting, Inc., back in 1978. It has three offices in the St. Louis region, plus a fourth in Rolla, Mo., and employs 150.

The firm will have their work cut out for them. The area set aside for the STAR Bonds District is riddled with former coal mines, both underground and strip mines. Not even the state has definite knowledge of what mines existed, particularly in the northern part of the district closer to Longstreet Road.

Here's a bit more from the company website:
From its beginning, the company has provided geotechnical and construction services to architect and engineering design professionals. Over the past 33 years, capabilities have been added in environmental, natural resources, and cultural resources to provide a full suite of consulting services, to better meet the needs of our clients.

The staff prides itself on the ability to provide consulting services with quality, professionalism, and responsiveness to clients during the development, design, and construction phases of projects. The company’s success is attributed to our team of highly skilled and experienced staff that includes geotechnical engineers, geologists, archaeologists, earth scientists, construction experts, and engineering technicians. The ability to develop innovative and cost-effective design solutions is not only a result of the diversity and experience of our staff, but also the commitment between different service groups to work as a team to provide our clients with quality consulting services.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Butler Optimistic About STAR Bonds Project

Marion Mayor Robert Butler likes the new name — Boulder Creek at The Hill — announced yesterday for the STAR bonds district.

In an interview yesterday with Stephen Rickerl of the Southern Illinoisan he expressed optimism at the project. Previously both he and state Rep. John Bradley, D-Marion, had mildly, but publicly, grumbled at the delays.

"I think that finally we see movement taking place," he told the Southern. "I think the project is going to be getting off the ground very shortly."

Despite the understandable slowness in developing the project due to the overall economic conditions, both the city and the state have continued to move forward on road construction projects. In the state's case they've actually accelerated some projects in Marion along Route 13 and the interchanges at Interstate 57.

The massive new widening of Carbon Street north of Route 13 has begun and drivers can already get a glimpse of what it will be like to pull up to the future development on Morgan Avenue.

Meanwhile the city and state are moving forward on plans to add another overpass on Morgan to give motorists four lanes over the interstate and five lanes on Morgan back east to Carbon.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

STAR Bonds Project Developers Reveal New Name

The STAR Bonds development for Marion has a new name — Boulder Creek at The Hill.

Brad Holland released a statement earlier today that's been posted on the City of Marion's website.

"When people hear the name Boulder Creek at The Hill, we hope they will consider, not just the shopping, but the many outdoor activities Southern Illinois has to offer. In Colorado, Boulder Creek is a popular recreational spot for many outdoor activities. It is surrounded by thousands of acres of open space, nature preserves, world class hiking trails and bike trails. In Southern Illinois, we hope that Boulder Creek at the Hill will become a destination location where families embrace the many activities that will surround this retail and recreational complex."

Chad Holland is one of the two nephews of Bruce Holland, CEO of Holland Construction that's the lead developer in the project. It was he, and not his uncle, that announced Monday the selection of Ryan Companies as a partner in the developement.

Don't know if it matters, but the uncle's name is not to be found on the web pages for the project on the Holland website. The younger Hollands have been involved in both the Marion project as well its earlier Glen Carbon incarnation, University Town Center.

"One of our objectives is to promote tourism throughout the region. Southern Illinois has an existing and established tourism base," Brad Holland explained Wednesday, "It is our desire to expand upon and draw attention to what's already here."

My first reaction to the Colorado reference wasn't overwhemlingly positive, but I just remembered that our Garden of the Gods was named after the Colorado landmark as well. We've managed to make that our own and will have Camel Rock on a quarter come 2016.

Therefore, I don't see any problems with Boulder Creek, even if our boulders were those excavated by the site's long history of coal mining. That just ties in with the Southern Illinois Miners across the road.

View Marion STAR Bonds District in a larger map

The company website includes a brochure for the project which was presumably prepared last May and has not been updated with the new name.

The brochure does include a site plan, but it's unclear if it is a real plan, or just preliminary drawings. It looks like the retail will be pushed westward to run from Morgan to Longstreet on the north and from the interstate east to Carbon Street extended north to Longstreet. Another major store or single building is planned for the area north of Menards on the west side of the interstate.

Not shown is an entertainment user, one of the necessary factors to get the STAR Bonds organized. It would presumably sit on land between Carbon and Russell, as well as the part of the development east of Russell.

There are pictures of the original Illinois Centre Mall project in City Hall and the mall office. The whole mall got turned around by the time it was built, so these plans will likely change as well.

One of the interesting tidbits in the brochure for the development — the Marion Menards is in the top 10 percent of all the Menards stores nationwide.

The Southern online has their version of the news release.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Mount Vernon Considers Expo Center for Tourism

Consultants looking into the possibility of a new convention and trade center for Mount Vernon told the city council last night the project was feasible and more planning should be conducted.

The study’s bottom line assessment stated an active, well-run exhibition center would improve tourism numbers, add tax revenue, revitalize peripheral spending and attract visitors, who may later return to the city or even relocate to Mt. Vernon.

An exhibition center as a destination facility, according to the study, will typically host three types of events: Flat floor trade shows, consumer events and civic events. For these purposes, the study recommended a 60,000-square-foot facility with additional space for storage, offices, restrooms and a catering kitchen. Study organizers estimated local construction costs at an estimated $7.2 to $8.2 million, not including land, infrastructure and parking.

The issue is a perennial one for Mount Vernon. The Vernois Activity Center from the late 1970s or early '80s, called for a multi-purpose center built on the block behind Mount Vernon Township High School. The idea then was to build something the school could use on a daily basis, but also provide large convention space for other activities.

Former state Rep. Larry Hicks, pushed for a state-financed civic center project in the 80s.

The new plan is calling for something closer to the Pavilion in Marion. With that in mind Mount Vernon officials should take a much closer look and at least learn the lessons from the Pavilion in Marion.

The study's call for a 60,000 square foot building would probably be a 300' x 200' building, which at one time was the plans for the Pavilion. That building started out as 400' x 200', then shrank to 300' x 200' at the time the tourism bureau took bids. Once contractors returned their bids, it shrank some more to 300' x 172', a size that turned out to be one compromise too many for the building to be really effective.

Another part of the study that should be remembered is the catering kitchen. Without it the building's usefulness becomes seriously questioned. It's one of the amenities left out of the Pavilion.

A key line in the study is an "active, well-run exhibition center." That won't happen if you build and just turn it over to the tourism bureau to run. The tourism director Bonnie Jerdon doesn't have the staff to do all that's needed in tourism. Williamson County Tourism had the same issue when the Pavilion opened.

Any convention center needs its own staff. Paying for that staff becomes the issue. The Vernois Activity Center idea probably wouldn't have done that much for overnight stays and tourism, but at least the high school would have been able to cover the administrative cost and operations.

One key item not mentioned is the simple fact that convention centers don't do diddly for overnight hotel stays unless they can host conventions. Most of the business at the Pavilion doesn't generate overnight stays. When I was there we estimated only about 8 percent of the attendance ended up in hotels, generating about 1200 hotels stays. In other words, the Pavilion did the equivalent of filling up all of the hotel rooms in the county for one night out of the year.

If you want conventions, attach the building to a hotel, or better yet, a cluster of hotels. The people who plan conventions want to be able to walk from their rooms to the meeting rooms.

Another item not mentioned in the Register-News' article deals with the competition such a center would mean for the existing Holiday Inn, as well as the Rend Lake Resort and their convention space.

If the financials make sense to pursue a center, the city should look at attaching it to the Holiday Inn on the north side. Although it has the largest meeting space in the city, it's too small and doesn't have enough breakout rooms for even the small conventions that use Rend Lake.

New Irish Restaurant Opens on Strip in Carbondale

There's a new restaurant opening on the Strip in Carbondale according to the Southern.

Kelly's Irish Boxty House will hold a grand opening 11 a.m. Saturday at their new Irish-themed restaurant at 702 S. Illinois Avenue.

Kelly's specializes in the Irish boxty, which is a thin potato pancake first created in Ireland in the 17th century. Many different styles of boxty will be available at the restaurant, which is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Wednesday and 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Thursday through Sunday.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Hollands Hire Ryan Companies for STAR Bonds Deal

As mentioned last week, there's a new partner in the STAR Bonds development of Marion.

Chad Holland announced today that the Ryan Companies US, Inc., will assist with site planning and other project tasks fro the STAR bond development in Marion, Illinois.

Ryan Companies US, Inc. is a nationally-recognized builder, designer, developer and real estate manager specializing in fully integrates solutions. With a mission to build lasting relationships, Ryan delivers full-service customized solutions based on industry expertise and total collaboration - pairing customer's expectations with a specialized team of constructors, architects, engineers, developers, property managers and financiers. Ryan serves customers throughout the United States with offices in the Midwest, Southwest, Great Lakes and Southeast regions and employs nearly 550 workers.

"Having a great team is a key to success. Ryan has been in the real estate industry for more than 70 years. We have the utmost confidence in Ryan and look forward to working with them on this exciting project."

In 2007, Ryan was named the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties' (NIAOP) "Developer of the Year." NAIOP also honored Ryan Companies Tampa, Fla., office with the "Outstanding Developer of the Year" and "Outstanding Office Building of the Year" awards in 2010.

Ryan Companies are on the Web at

It's not tourism related, but Ryan has another potential connection to Marion that might interest city officials. For the last few years they've been building Target's new distribution centers.

Prior to the recession, Target was the all but officially announced company planning the new distribution center east of Marion on Route 13. The Marion city council annexed the 149.5 acre tract into the city four years ago in December 2007.

Back in April 2007, Target announced it planned to increase its presence by 25 percent of the next five-year period. At the time it wanted to add 100 stores a year, but the recession intervened.

The company pulled the plug on its expansions plans for the stores and distribution centers, including the one in Marion.

In 2010, rather than open a hundred new stores, they opened 13 and remodeled another 341 in the first nine months of that year.

Then, this past January, they announced plans to open 21 new stores in 2011 and remodel 400 existing stores, more in line with the slower economy.

Hopefully, as the economy gears up, and so does their expansion plans, they'll be back. They've been looking at Marion for a distribution center for at least six years if not longer.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

New Home-Style Buffet Opening Sunday in Marion

For everyone who misses The Refuge Restaurant in Marion (or for that matter the old Little Egypt Smorgasbord), a new Home Style Buffet will be opening Sunday, Nov. 27, in the Marion Plaza shopping center at 1000 N. Carbon Street behind Hardee's.

I heard more complaints about the truck stop selling and The Refuge closing than I did anything positive about the Pilot Travel Center that's currently remodeling the location. Apparently there's demand for home-style cooking in a buffet style. Replacing a buffet with Subway doesn't sit well with the Refuge's fans.

Now, just in time for the Christmas season, there's another option.

I don't know anything about the owners or the food. I just saw the lights in the old Nong Chen Buffet restaurant tonight after leaving La Fiesta. The note on the door just gave the name and the fact that it will open Sunday.

Major STAR Bonds Announcement Set for Monday

View Marion STAR Bonds District in a larger map
Expect a major announcement Monday from the folks behind the proposed Millennium Development project in Marion's STAR Bonds district.

No, don't expect the names of the major anchors for the project — the destination user and entertainment user necessary to get the project off of the ground. Instead look for the name of a partner with the heft to assist the Hollands in getting the overall project started.

The new partner offers 70 years of experience in designing, developing and managing real estate projects throughout the country, including recent projects in both the St. Louis and Chicagoland area. The firm has been "building lasting relationships" by specializing in "fully integrated solutions."

In terms of heft, they employ 150 people in their Chicago office alone.

Though there has been some griping about the speed of the project (or lack thereof), this step is a good sign. Especially, since keep in mind, this is the worst economic condition in decades in which to start a major commercial and retail development.

Can't wait to see what all Monday will bring, but for now, just know that the project is still moving forward.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Chester Struggles With New Hotel Decision

View Larger Map
To build or to block — that's the question for the Chester City Council.

Developers James Best of Chester, John Bergfeld of Sparta and John Pawloski of Godfrey have proposed a project to build a $6.7 million 65 to 80-unit Microtel hotel on the highway above the Chester Mental Health Center and the Menard Correctional Center. The project would replace the shuttered post-World War II motel, the Hi-3, that's now closed.

To cover part of the redevelopment costs they want to use funds from future property tax payments to the city's existing TIF district.

The problem rests with the owner of the one remaining hotel, the Reid's Inn Best Western, who says there's no room for two in town, and that the city shouldn't be financing his competition.

The city went as far as hiring an expert to conduct a study. The expert though was a property appraiser out of the St. Louis market. That's a problem, the developers imply - he's not really an expert in their field.

The Randolph County Herald-Tribune has his complete report online.

As the council debates the issue they should consider two items not in the report.

First, do they really want to protect what appears to a 40-year-old ex-Ramada Inn now affiliated with Best Western over a brand new property?

In Mount Vernon, the former Ramada became a Best Western and is now shuttered. There's a reason for that, modern travelers not driven by the price will avoid those properties like the plague.

The report states that most of the furnishings in the existing Best Western are less than two years old. That may be true, but it still looks like an old Ramada Inn on the front.

That's not to say it isn't well run. Reviews at are generally positive and complimentary.

Second, if the Chester city fathers would look to Marion they would see that the last seven hotels (and the two now under construction) have all benefited either directly or indirectly from tax increment financing.

Up the interstate, Mount Vernon has created a new TIF district alongside it's new interchange. Presumably any future hotels that locate there will benefit to some extent from those efforts.

City leaders create TIF districts when they determine that blighted conditions are hurting their communities. Lines are drawn, then any development that takes place within those lines become eligible for tax increment financing.

A TIF agreement has to be reached between the developers and the city, but unless the proposed development is a public nuisance or will hurt the community in the long run, it's really not the city's business to start making value judgments.

To me, the difference between venture socialism (like Solyndra and GM) and the use of general tax incentives is the amount of government interference and political posturing that takes place.

Incentive programs like TIFs possess a clear-cut set of rules. If the developer meets the objectives, then they qualify for the incentives. The decision to offer the incentives has already been made when the city established the TIF district in the first place.

The local owner of the Best Western argues that it's not the city's role to pick winners and losers. He's right. It's not the city's role to block competition in the marketplace.

Another thing. The study rightly points out that both Chester and Randolph County lost population during the first decade of the 21st Century. The Southern Illinoisan pointed out that the site in question has been a closed motel for 20 years.

The Chester city council was right in taking steps to revitalize their community by creating a TIF district, but if they balk at local investors wanting to redevelop blighted eyesores, I'm not sure where they're going to grow.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Mount Vernon Targets Growth off of New Interchange

View Larger Map

The City of Mount Vernon has started a project to extend sewer service to the west of Interstate 57 at the new Veterans Memorial Drive interchange.
More improvements will take place next spring when the city undertakes a $9 million project that will include a continued extension of sewer and water infrastructure as well as a road that will connect Veterans Drive to Davidson Avenue, where recent retail growth includes a Kohl's department store.

The improvements will open up some 600 acres of land primed for development, Mount Vernon Mayor Mary Jane Chesley said.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Herrin Innkeeper Ann Hindman Dies

A former co-worker at the Williamson County Tourism Bureau just contacted me that Ann Hindman, proprietor of the Park Avenue Motel in Herrin died this morning.

Hindman and her late husband and Herrin contractor Paul Hindman had opened the motel back in the early 1960s. I served with her on the Williamson County Tourism Bureau board of directors twice, and then later as executive director of the bureau. I could always count on her to speak her mind if she felt the need, which I appreciated.

She and her husband broke ground for the Park Avenue at the beginning of August 1960.

"Construction will be concrete and fireproof throughout," [Paul] Hindman [told the Southern Illinoisan at the time].

Concrete slabs will form the room and Anna stone and aluminum decorative screens will be used on the walls. Each room will be 12 by 20 feet. The portion near the entrance will house a coffee bar, office, lounge and meeting room.

Rainy weather delayed construction as her husband worked to fit it into his schedule of other work. Finally, after months of delays, the Hindmans opened the motel on April 15, 1962.

A full-page ad from July 17 that year told tourists what they could expect.

The PARK AVENUE MOTEL is a new concept in downtown motel convenience. Mr. and Mrs. Paul Hindman, owners, believe in making every guest as comfortable as possible. In each of the 20 units are automatic telephones, electric heating and air conditioning, television, wall-to-wall carpeting, tile bath and showers. And something special ... courtesy coffee located in each unit! Truly, this is comfortable living.

Stop by the PARK AVENUE MOTEL the next time you’re in Herrin. Paul and Anna Hindman will be glad to show you how staying at the PARK AVENUE MOTEL will leave you rested and refreshed.

Located at 912 North Park Avenue, Phone WIlson 2-3159.

Mrs. Hindman was pretty particular who she let stay at her place. If you looked rough or ratty, she wouldn't hestitate to send you packing.

At least up to the last few years she cleaned the rooms herself. To make a telephone call, she would have to personally make the connection on the old-fashioned telephone operating board in the office.

Over the last few years I would get updates every once in a while about her condition as she struggled with some ailments. She will be missed. She was a Herrin institution.

Her husband Paul died Nov. 2, 2000, at the age of 77.

Funeral arragements are pending at Johnson-Hughes Funeral Home in Herrin.

Hardin County Weighs Options Over Hogrock

Hardin County should follow Sen. Gary Forby's advice.

That's not something I write often, but he's correct that Hardin County should consider Home Rule when it comes to covering the costs associated with the events at Hogrock and the Gathering of the Juggalos.

The Southern Illinoisan has another story today of county officials highlighting the costs to the sheriff department, ambulance services and unpaid hospital bills.

Previously, Sheriff Lloyd Cullison told the Southern back in August the event cost at least $10,000 in overtime for his department.

County officials want a law passed that would allow them to charge the promoters of such events. The trouble is that while the General Assembly could approve such a law, it's unlikely it would be available to them by next year. With the turmoil that makes up the General Assembly's relationship with Gov. Quinn, it's not quite clear a bill could even pass and get signed.

While area lawmakers have been able to get some local legislation passed in recent years, they've run into road blocks when it concerns taxation or other similar issues.

Meanwhile, there's another option. Home Rule counties and communities could pass such an ordinance, but first, voters would have to approve Home Rule for Hardin County. It's something that officials should put on the ballot for the spring primary.

For example, if the county voters approve home rule, the county board could then levy an amusement tax like the City of Chicago does.

If I've read the rules correctly the Windy City levies an amusement tax on tickets of 5 percent of admission receipts for live theatrical, musical and other live cultural performances in places where the maximum capacity is more than 750 persons.

Part of the opposition to home rule is that any new ordinance might snag other events sponsored by churches or other non-profits.

First, even Chicago's ordinance exempts amusements held by religious, charitable and not-for-profit organizations used for fund raising purposes.

Second, most local festivals and events would not be covered because there aren't any tickets sold anyway.

Third, the county could easily draft an ordinance that did not include sporting events such as anything at the high school.

Fourth, religious gatherings couldn't be taxed anyway under existing law, so no one would be going after the Baptist camp for their youth events anyway.

So what could the county do with an Amusement Tax?

Various accounts of this year's four-day Gathering of the Juggalos give attendance at more than 10,000. Let's do the math. Tickets were $175 a person, so 10,000 x $175 comes to $1.75 million. A five percent amusement tax would have generated $87,500 for the county.

That's more than eight times what it costs the sheriff's department. It's time for the county to take the issue to the voters.

Here's another suggestion. Use the funds not only to cover costs associated with the event, but make investments in other tourism that could pay off in years to come.

Designate 25 percent for law enforcement (including some for the municipal police departments in the county). Take another quarter for medical costs (ambulance as well as the hospital).

Designate the other 50 percent for tourism development. Send another 25 percent to the Hardin County Bed Tax Committee (the local tourism group in the county) for additional marketing and other projects as they see fit.

That would leave 25 percent for capital projects. Hardin County is full of state and federal sites that are suffering due to neglect and lack of funding, not to mention the impact of river flooding, wind storms and ice storms from the past couple of years.

One relatively small project could be to add interpretive and educational signage at Cave-in-Rock State Park. It's a historic site but the only interpretation is the park brochure on a bulletin board under a piece of broken plexiglass. If that isn't bad enough, the "facts" in the brochure are incorrect.

Hardin County leaders should take a field trip to Johnston City. It took a number of tries, but voters there finally approved Home Rule. It's been a blessing to the cash-strapped city.

Hardin County's one of the three smallest counties in the state. Tourism is one of the few opportunities it has to grow. It's easy to notice the bad when it comes to Hogrock and the Gathering, but don't overlook the good it can bring as well.

IDOT Seeks Consultant on New Interstate Route in Region

The response has been totally unwhelming north of the Shawnee Hills, but at least the Southeast Missourian is covering plans for a new interstate corridor between Paducah and Cape Girardeau.

Since the 1980s, transportation officials across the country have been planning for a new Interstate 66 to connect San Diego with Norfolk, Va. The TransAmerica Corridor would tentatively include Missouri and Kentucky. Community leaders in Paducah and Cape Girardeau have convinced their state officials to make their towns part of the route, which means a connector would logically cross the southernmost counties of Illinois using the existing I-24 bridge at Paducah and the new bridge at Cape Girardeau.

In August, the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded $3.6 million in fundng to the Illinois Department of Transportation to study the corridor from Metropolis to East Cape Girardeau.

Now Carrie Nelsen, IDOT District 9 program development engineer in Carbondale tells the Southeast Missourian that the agency will select a consultant in January to do the work starting in July 2012.
It's estimated the phase one study, which includes an environmental evaluation of five Southern Illinois counties the new roadway could pass through, will take three years to complete. Counties in the study are Alexander, Union, Polaski, Massac and Johnson.

"There are a lot of sensitive environmental resources through Southern Illinois and the project area," Nelsen said.

Those resources include wetlands along the Cache River Basin and bluffs along the Mississippi River that may be home to both endangered plant and animal species.

Because of the landscape involved the Sierra Club has already begun meetings in the area to drum up opposition.

IDOT will also be sponsoring public meetings to gain input as part of the planning process.

Meanwhile this winter IDOT and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will be conducting LIDAR (light detecting and ranging) surveys of the five counties involved to get detailed elevations of the land.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

DuQuoin Ponders Return of Street Machine Nationals

It's been quite a while since the Street Machine Nationals roared through DuQuoin, but the event's organizers as well as city officials are warming up to repeat visit starting as early as 2013.

This year the Ozark Empire Fairgrounds at Springfield, Mo., hosted the event the first weekend of October. Nearly 1,400 participants took part with nearly 20,000 visitors attending.

DuQuoin hosted the event in the 1980s and '90s when as many as 100,000 attended and boosted the economy anywhere from $3 to $15 million depending on the year.

However, there are reasons why DuQuoin no longer hosts the event. For those who don't remember, the Street Machine Nationals has what could be described as a colorful history since its start in Indianapolis in 1977.

Matthew King of Car Craft magazine and website explains:
Throughout most of its 25-year history, uncontrolled burnout contests held anywhere, anytime, were the norm; shirts were optional for men and women; and the highlight of one of the first Nationals held in Indianapolis was a riot that resulted in a police car going up in flames.

That's right. Launched during the high point of the Pro Street movement in 1977, the goings-on at the Street Machine Nationals mirrored the essence of the era's over-the-top proclivities as reported on by this magazine. The disco era was in full swing and so were fat tires, chromed blowers soaring through holes in hoods, and gaudy pastel paint jobs emblazoned with garish graphics.

I don't think there were any riots in DuQuoin, but a lot of trash and a lot of flash. When it finally left, few community leaders wept.

Car Craft no longer hosts the event. The Promotion Company does. Even better, the event has "mellowed," become "wiser," and generally, "older, tamer, and less out of control" according to King.

Vice President for Marketing Matthew Louck told the Southern Illinoisan that if they return, the organizers are looking at the possibility of a spring date, rather than just a fall one. But first, he says, some type of exploratory committee needs to be formed to work out details between the organizers, the city and the fairgrounds.

Fair Manager John Rednour Jr., believes those details can be worked out.
"We just have to figure out how to do it without it being a problem to the city and I think we can do that," Rednour said.

Rednour has previously talked of keeping spectators on grounds throughout the two-day event. When the Street Machines were in Du Quoin before, attendees had to leave the fairgrounds at 5 p.m. and would then filter out in the community, which was the source of many problems associated with the event.

If it returns it would not only be a boost to DuQuoin, but surrounding counties as well. It could easily be a sell-out weekend to hotels not only for the host city but in communities in the arc from Carbondale to Marion and up to Mount Vernon.

Whether the street machines return or not in a couple of years, fans will be able to read about the DuQuoin years. Toby Brooks, author of a new book about the 1948 Illinois State League Champion West Frankfort Cardinals, is currently working on a book about the Street Machine Nationals during their years in DuQuoin.

Meanwhile, there's a "Bring the Street Machine Nationals Back to DuQuoin" Facebook page. So far, more than 3,500 fans and clicked that they "like" it.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Hotel Receipts Up in Region for FY11

The good news is hotel bed tax receipts were up for the 12 months ending in June 2011. The bad news, it's extremely difficult to match the state figures with local bed tax receipts. That shouldn't be the case (more on that later), but now the numbers.

After many areas took a battering last year in lodging revenues, most counties in Southern Illinois saw an increase in FY 2011.

Overall, the Illinois Department of Revenue reported that the state saw a 3.3 percent overall increase in bed tax collections throughout the 17-county region from Mount Vernon south (at least in the 11 counties where they broke out figures; data wasn't available for the other six). Area lodging operators collected more than $3.1 million for the state's 6 percent bed tax from travelers in the region.

For the last couple of decades Mount Vernon and Marion have boasted the most hotel rooms along with interstate interchanges, but for the last two years Williamson County has surprassed Jefferson County in taxable hotel revenues.

Jefferson County lodging operators brought in more than $13.5 million during the 12 month period compared to Williamson County's $13.9 million. Both counties saw revenues just 7.3 to 7.4 percent.

Jackson County saw revenues go up 1.6 percent to $8.7 million. Massac County also saw a small increase of just 1.2 percent to $4.35 million, but river flooding is also partly to blame with two of Metropolis' major properties closed at times this spring due to the high water, (one of which was still closed for remodeling as of a few weeks ago).

Franklin County comes in fifth with $2.9 million in hotel revenues, down 10.6 percent during the year, and down 16.9 percent compared with two years earlier.

Randolph County with hotels in Chester and Sparta saw a 10.5 percent drop in revenues last year, down to $2.5 million, but they're still up 7.8 percent over the last two years.

Union County rounds out the top seven counties with its establishments reporting just under $1.6 million in revenue. They were down three-tenths of a percent compared with the year before. Unlike its larger competitors, Union County sees most of its revenues come from smaller specialty properties of cabin rentals and B&Bs rather than hotels and motels.

In reality, Union County's lodging operators actually played a bigger role, as the state counts establishments by their zip codes rather than their actual location. Thus all of the places with Makanda zip codes including Giant City Lodge, are included in Jackson County's totals.

Likewise Williamson County loses three cabins with a Carbondale zip code to Jackson County, but picks up two at the Lake of Egypt with a Creal Springs zip code that are actually in Johnson County.

Elsehwere Saline County experienced a 13.1 percent increase with hotel revenue up to nearly $1.3 million. Perry County hotels followed with nearly $1.2 million, pretty much the same as the year before.

White County with most of its lodging on its north side at Grayville and Interstate 64 reported $1.1 million in hotel revenue.

Hardin County lodging operators reported $356,000 in revenue down 2.1 percent from the year before while Pope County saw a 35.9 percent increase in revenues reported though from a smaller base. Their operators reported $262,000 in room rentals.

No figures were made available for the industry in Alexander, Gallatin, Hamilton, Johnson and Pulaski counties (as well as White County for previous years). The state doesn't release county level information if there are fewer than four lodging establishments paying state taxes.

Another problem is that even when the zip code issue is taken into account, the state's still four or five establishments short in Williamson County alone. Either some folks aren't paying the state taxes, but should, or there's yet another issue with the Department of Revenue's procedures.

The difference between the state and county's figures in Williamson County is more than a vacation rental, or an outdated motel or two that's more residential than tourist any more. It's the equivalent of one or two of the largest hotels not paying.

I'm beginning to wonder if the state is counting the location of the hotel management company and where they write the monthly check rather than the actual location of the hotel. All the Department of Revenue is concerned about is, well, the revenue.

The problem is that the Williamson County Tourism Bureau may be getting shortchanged in state funding, just as Carbondale benefits and Southernmost Illinois Tourism loses when Giant City Lodge and all the other Makanda-addressed facilities on the Union side of the county line get counted in Jackson. Except in Williamson County's case the figures may be more significant.

Local certified convention and tourism bureaus are funded by local bed tax collections as well as a state Local Convention and Tourism Bureau (LCTB) grant. The General Assembly appropriates the overall amount for the LCTB grants and the Illinois Bureau of Tourism uses a formula to distribute the funds proportionally among the various bureaus. The formula is based on three components; the state's bed tax collections from the bureau's service area being the biggest component, with restaurant sales tax collections being the second biggest factor.

The problem? IBOT gets the figures for their formulas from the Illinois Department of Revenue.

That's a mystery I don't have time to unravel right now, but at least we can focus on the positive: More people are spending more money in Southern Illinois than they did the year before.

West Frankfort Considers Little Egypt Oasis Development

West Frankfort Mayor Tom Jordan joins area developer Scott Williams in the latest video about the Little Egypt Oasis proposal to split the Exit 65 interchange on Interstate 57.

Williams owns the old Burlington Railroad bridge over the interstate and wants to make it a new centerpiece for development on the west side of the city.

The plan would move the south ramps at Exit 65 south past the bridge to what's known as North Road. There the ramps would connect to two one-way frontage roads on either side of the interstate that would run north to Main Street and the existing interstate ramps to the north.

The current ramps on the south side of Exit 65 are shorter than desired even by 1960s standards for interstate highway construction. The problem then was the presence of the massive railroad bridge.

With the planned widening of the interstate to six lanes during the next decade the railroad bridge's presence will only increase the safety issues, unless as Williams points out, the state splits the exit and moves the south ramps south of the railroad bridge.

That move would not only open up hundreds of acres for new commercial development, but would also allow the development of a southwest bypass or Burlington Boulevard along the old railroad grade connecting Route 37 on the south side of Frankfort to Route 149 west of Kmart.

Wiliams has been working on this for a few years now. The pyramid part of his project over the interstate would also create a huge gateway to Southern Illinois for southbound tourists entering the region.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Labor Agreement, Hotel Upgrades Boosts Illinois Tourism

Chicago's trade show industry sighed with relief yesterday with the joint announcement by Gov. Pat Quinn and Mayor Rahm Emanuel that unions representing workers at the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority have agreed to work rule changes.

The two unions had sued over exhibitor-friendly work rules the General Assembly ordered last year. In March, a federal judge sided with the unions and threw out some of the reforms on the grounds that the Legislature was overstepping its authority.

The judge’s ruling threw the convention business into an uproar. Some show managers threatened to cancel bookings at McCormick Place, citing a fear of escalating costs.

With the new deal, the unions and McPier, as the McCormick Place board is commonly called, will agree to end the litigation.

McPier now can put in place an “exhibitors’ bill of rights” that lets show managers and exhibitors set up their own booths with simple tools. Exhibitors also can drive and unload their own vehicles at McCormick Place, and union work can be done by two-person crews instead of the old minimum of three.

The effort to change the work rules and preserve Chicago's trade show status has been in the works for two years now.

Meanwhile Emanuel's office also announced that Chicago hotels are pledging $500 million in rehabs and upgrades "to help bolster the local convention industry as city leaders strive to attract more trade shows."

Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office made the announcement Friday. Hotels making commitments include the Chicago Hilton, Hyatt Regency Chicago, Strategic Hotels & Resorts, Inc. (Fairmont Chicago and InterContinental Chicago hotels) and Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide (W. Weston and Sheraton hotels).

Emanuel also wants to increase the city's bed tax by 1 percentage point, jacking it up to 4.5 percent. When state and other bed taxes are included it would make Chicago's overall rate to 16.4 percent, one of the top three in the country.

It doesn't seen like it, but the moves will help tourism throughout the state, including Southern Illinois. Chicago convention business is the single biggest factor in the state's bed tax receipts. When Chicago hurts there's less money for tourism promotions throughout the state, less money for state's tourism grants that help fund local tourism bureaus, marketing campaigns and development projects.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

State to Dedicate Extension of Tunnel Hill Trail to Eldorado

Local and state officials will officially dedicate the newest segment of the Tunnel Hill State Trail Friday at 4 p.m. in Harrisburg. The segments starts at the north end of Harrisburg, crosses the Saline River on a new bridge and travels through Muddy and Wasson before connecting with an existing network of bike trails in Eldorado.

View Larger Map of the Tunnel Hill State Trail at the Middle Fork of the Saline River by Harrisburg

The showpiece of the new path must be the bridge spanning the Saline River at Muddy, where great blue herons may be seen trying their luck with the little fish flashing in the water below.

"The scenery is spectacular throughout the bike trail and the bridge enhances the beauty of the trail," Harrisburg Mayor Eric Gregg said. "I think this is something we can build on and I'm interested in working closely with (Eldorado) Mayor (Rocky) James and everybody along the bike path."

The ribbon cutting will take place where the trail crosses Veterans Drive at the Small Street intersection.

South of Harrisburg the state maintains a 45-mile segment through Tunnel Hill, Vienna, and finally ends at the Cache River Wetlands Center at Perks.

The trail is crushed limestone in rural areas, and concrete in Harrisburg and Eldorado.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

New Hotels to Add 165 Rooms in Marion

The addition of a new Holiday Inn Express with 101 rooms and a new Comfort Inn with 64 rooms will take Marion's room count from 1108 to 1273, when both projects are open by early 2012. Williamson County's count will grow from 1246 to 1411.

The top seven hotels in Marion have averaged around 78 percent of the motel tax receipts over the past five years. The seven are Comfort Suites, Country Inn & Suites, Drury Inn, Fairfield Inn, Hampton Inn, Holiday Inn Express (soon to change to another flag when the new hotel opens), and Quality Inn. When they open the Big 7 will become the Big 9.

The other motels in the city generate about 6 percent of the overall bed taxes. That leaves the remaining lodging establishments outside the city limits making up about 15 percent.

To put it in perspective, all the lodging establishments in the county generated roughly $700,000 in the 5 percent bed tax levied in calendar year 2010. Forty percent, or about $280,000 went to the Williamson County Tourism Bureau and 60 percent, or about $420,000 went to the Williamson County Events Commission to pay debt service and mandatory reserves on the Williamson County Pavilion.

Since then the city has taken over the Pavilion and levied a 3 percent bed tax on city hotels that preempts the county's 3 percent bed tax for the Pavilion within the city limits. The city issued new bonds to take the place of the outstanding debt. The biggest difference in terms of operational benefit is that any excess bed tax collected by the 3 percent city tax can be used by the city for operations. Under the original bonds, the excess funds went into a separate Bed Tax Savings Account that couldn't be touched short of a major disaster.

The Big 7 hotels have 640 rooms. Adding another 165 is a 25 percent increase. If the new hotels can add to the market rather than just eating into the existing hotels' market share (and that's what their competitors are hoping), then that could be a big kick of revenue for the tourism bureau and the Pavilion.

A 25 percent increase of the Big 7's 85 percent of the market using 2010 figures comes to just under another $60,000 for the bureau and almost another $90,000 for the Pavilion.

Being realistic the figures might be half that amount with the shaky economy. However historically bed tax revenues were up nearly 50 percent between 2010 and 2000 in Williamson County.

Even better, the larger hotels in Marion often employ far more employees than most people realize as they have to remain open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Other than the management positions, it's not the highest paying jobs in town, but in this economy, every job counts! 
Looking Back — 2000 to 2010

The county started the 21st Century with 1303 rooms. The county lost 200 when the old Holiday Inn/Travelodge/Executive Inn finally shut its doors in 2004, and another 53 rooms or so when Jim Zeller bought the back wing of America's Best Inns and tore it down for the new Country Inn and Suites in 2008. Another 20 rooms at SIU Touch of Nature aren't counted any more when the university decided it was no longer going to collect bed tax back in 2007.

Meanwhile Lake Tree Inn & Suites opened in 2000 with 20 rooms, Fairfield Inn opened in 2004 with 89 rooms, Hampton Inn expanded mid decade with another 20 rooms, and Country Inn & Suites opened in December 2008 with 69 rooms.

The decade also saw the expansion of the specialty lodging market. Olde Squat Inn already had 5 cabins and added two more. Devil's Kitchen Cabins opened with two cabins in 2006 and are now up to three. The Four Seasons Campground in Herrin added two cabins in 2006, though in recent years they've been turned into apartments.

The first traditional bed and breakfast inn, Oakridge Manor B & B opened in 2004 with four rooms and they've since added a fifth. Mary's Bed and Breakfast in Herrin opened in 2008 with two rooms and Jasones Bed and Breakfast in Marion opened with five rooms in 2010.

The county also saw its first legal vacation rental, the Carriage House open down at the Lake of Egypt in 2008. Regrettably, there are at least two more on the north side of the county line down at the lake that aren't legal having failed to pay the county any bed tax.

Overall specialty lodging has gone from 1/10th of one percent to about 1.3 percent of the market in the last decade.

A Missed Opportunity

Regrettably in August the county board voted to eliminate the county's 3 percent bed tax after the city took over the Pavilion. Far from being next to nothing, the county threw away about $63,000 in economic development funds that could have been spent on brick and mortar tourism development projects in the county. The tax affected 10 properties, including two modern motels, four older motels, two properties with 10 cabins, two bed and breakfast inns and one vacation rental.

Potential development projects could have included a system of tourism highway signage on county highways and roads to compliment what's already on the state highway system, interpretive signage at county historic sites, capital funding for repairs to public and non-profit tourism sites, capital funding for the proposed tourist information center next to the chamber office, engineering costs for development of bike trails connecting to the Tunnel Hill State Trail, or proposed bike trails in Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge, and matching funds for larger state and federal development grants.

The 3 percent county bed tax had been added to pay for the Pavilion, a big capital project that was originally proposed to help tourism development. When the city took that over, the money should have been moved to something similar. Although the bed tax is collected by local lodging operators it's paid by out-of-town visitors. Lowering the bed tax rate doesn't attract any more visitors to the area, it just throws away thousands of dollars that would have been coming to the county but now won't.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Construction Updates in Marion

A few pictures from earlier today.

The new Holiday Inn Express on The Hill is up to three stories now. The goal is four stories and 101 rooms.

Progress continues on the former Marion Truck Plaza, purchased last month by Pilot Travel Center.

Last picture is the Comtech building on DeYoung St., a few blocks west of Court Street (Illinois Rt. 37).

With the expansion of Route 13 to six lanes from the interstate east to Route 37, all the buildings on the north side of the street from E. N. Baker Cash Chevrolet will be moved or demolished.

It looks like a little recycling work has begun as workers dismantled the metal roof of the building this afternoon.

This used to be a restaurant in the 1960s when originally built. I think it lasted until the early 70s, but I'm not sure.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Two Buildings Get Rehab, One Torn Down in Downtown Marion

Again, it's not exactly tourism, but two projects on North Market Street in Marion are changing the views in the historic downtown shopping district.

Hurst-Roche Engineers, Inc. bought both the Duty and Heyde buildings in the 200 block of North Market Street last year and shortly thereafter began renovations.

They've now moved their Marion operations into the Duty Building on the corner. The Marion location is one of six in Illinois and Missouri.

The south wall includes Marion's third exterior mural downtown. This time showing three figures that could be workers for the firm.

The figures are similar to the scenes in Greenville, Illinois.

The building has recently housed furniture stores in the last couple of decades, but before that it was home to a series of pharmacies since the beginning of the 20th Century.

Delos L. Duty, former owner who gave his name to the building when he added the second floor nearly a century ago, started out as a pharmacist there in the early 1900s. He became an attorney in the early 1910s and Williamson County's state's attorney in the turbulent 20s.

He began a high profile murder trial on the first day of his term in 1920, which resulted in a death penalty against Settimi DeSantis, which will be the subject of a new book out later this year by this author tentatively titled, "DeSantis the Doomed and the Curse of the Black Hand."

Duty went on to prosecute union miners following the Herrin Massacre and become a thorn in the side of the Ku Klux Klan during the Klan War of the mid 1920s.

Down the street on the other side in the 300 block, Meridith Ashe, owner of M Clothing & Accessories in the renovated Williams Hotel building next to Bennie's Italian Foods has torn down the old Book Exchange building at 301 N. Market on the corner, but is planning to keep the building in between at 303 and 305 N. Market St.

At one point she had considered plans for a bed and breakfast on the second floor of the Williams Hotel above her clothing store, but ended up with apartments instead.

As to her future plans for the remaining building and the corner lot, nothing is set in stone.

"Right now, I'm not sure, since I just finished renovations [on the Williams Hotel]," Ashe said this afternoon.

As to the corner lot, "for right now, we're just clearing it off and planning."

She's wanting to keep the middle building and eventually renovate it.

UPDATE — Oct 6, 2011
For more on Ashe's business, check out this feature on her from earlier this summer in the Southern Illinoisan.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Sunday Liquor Sales Move Forward in Metropolis

The move to allow Sunday Liquor Sales at Metropolis restaurants could pay off for the city's establishments in a matter of days rather than weeks according to a report Sunday on News 3.

Marion made the change a couple of years ago and restaurants predicted a big increase in Sunday revenue.

Marion and Carbondale Get $2.5 Million for Projects

They're not exactly tourism developments, but both Carbondale and Marion will be building new aquatic facilities thanks to a new state grant announced today by Gov. Pat Quinn.

Quinn announced 22 projects awarded funds in the Park and Recreational Facility Construction (PARC) Grant Program.

The funds are for "targeted investments to eligible local governments for acquisition, development, construction, rehabilitation or other capital improvements to park and recreation facilities in Illinois."

The Department of Natural Resources oversees the grant program and will reimburse "grant recipients up to 75 percent of approved project costs with up to 90 percent reimbursement available to local governments defined as disadvantaged."

The two Southern Illinois proposals were both development projects. Carbondale Park District will get $2.5 million to construct an outdoor aquatic center which will feature one leisure zero-depth entrance pool and one competition pool with a diving well.

View Projects Underway in Marion in a larger map

Marion will get the same amount to go toward constructing a new community recreation center at the site of the old Marion Memorial Memorial Hospital. The building will have an indoor swimming pool, basketball, volleyball and racquetball courts, restrooms, locker rooms and a wellness center office space.

Marion Mayor Bob Butler described the proposal to the Marion Daily Republican last December.

"I think it should be the type of facility that will appeal to people of all ages and will provide a broad and diverse type of activity," Butler said.

The former hospital site is five acres on West Main Street, just west of Court Street. The city owns the land.

"It is a good utilization of that property," Butler said. "It will bring a facility to the city that is really needed. We don't have anything in one location that would provide the activities and the endeavors it will provide."

The city at the time stated the plans called for $3.5 million, 20,000 square-foot facility. Much of the remaining funds would come from the new Hub TIF district. Baysinger Design drew up the original plans.

Williamson County hasn't had any racquetball courts since May 29, 1982 when the Airport Racquetball Club became one of the first casualties of the Marion tornadoes of that day.

The project will be the fourth indoor aquatics center though for the county, and the third in the modern era. John A. Logan College operates one currently and another is planned for Herrin on Bandyville Road.

The county's first indoor pool was once located at Cagle Park, a 10-acre amusement center on Route 13 (now Main St.) west of Halfway Road, back in the 1920s. That park also had a dance hall and game rooms. The Klan and Prohibition officers raided it a couple of times. The owner, Hosea Cagle, died during that era after driving through a closed section of the highway and getting clothes-lined on a cable the contractor had used to block off traffic.

UPDATE — Oct. 5, 2011
The cost of the overall project seems to have been lowered to $3 million in the stories this week rather than the $3.5 million from last December. Not sure about the difference, except the new figures might not include the cost of the land, which the city would have been allowed to count as an in-kind match in the grant application.

Click on the links for the stories in the Marion Daily Republican and the Southern Illinoisan.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Map of Marion Projects Underway

View Projects Underway in Marion in a larger map
Click on the outlines of the colored shapes for more information about the developments.

Marion Truck Plaza Closes for Rehab Work

For the first time since the 1982 tornado the Marion Truck Plaza is closed for business. This time though the devastation is intentional as the truck stop goes through a complete overall.

I'd been hearing about this for last month but didn't think much about it. What I had been hearing was complaints from fans of the Great American/Refuge Restaurant which was slated to close and be replaced by yet another Subway (the city's fourth by last count).

There's a fan base for smorgasbord-style restaurants that cook American-style. Since the closing of the old Little Egypt Smorgasbord (where Farmers State Bank is today), the Refuge has been the only place to go in town. When you got there at the time right the food was hot and good.

The Marion Truck Plaza was originally known as Skelly's Truck Stop and dates back to the 1960s and the earliest days of Interstate 57. Back then, the restaurant was known was George's and the truck stop offered its own mechanic services.

The tornado of May 29, 1982, caused major damage to it and the Regal 8 (now Motel 6) motel across the street. Both reopened a few months later.

So far workers are digging out the tanks and the scales on the east edge of the property. There were workers on the roof taking apart the bracing for the old wrap-around which suggests they're not planning to take down the entire building and rebuild from scratch.

This is the second major change on that side of the Halfway Road/Route 13 intersection. The Amoco service station on the southwest side was demolished earlier this year. Plans to replace it with a liquor store/smoke shop combination seems to have stalled after the liquor store, Speakeasy Liquors, opened just down the road at the base of The Hill this summer.

I'll add more updates as they become available.

UPDATE: That was quick. The Marion Daily Republican ran a short brief earlier this month. According to Tom Kane's story, the owners of the truck place sold it to Pilot Travel Centers on Sept. 21

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Interstate 57 marks 50 Years of Traveling

MARION, Ill. (Sept. 26, 2011) -- Today marks the 50th anniversary of first dedication of Interstate 57.

On Sept. 26, 1961, Gov. Otto Kerner dedicated the first 30-mile stretch of the Chicago to Cairo superhighway. At the time motorists could drive only from Marion down to Dongola.

The Southern Illinoisan quoted Kerner at the time claiming the route through the Shawnee Hills as “one of the most scenic to be found in the entire 41,000 mile national interstate system.”

Illinois had 1,589 miles of planned interstates, but only about one-third ready and open to the public.

Kerner bragged that when completed, the interstate system “would make it possible for motorists to leave the point where we are assembled today and drive from coast to coast and from border to border without encountering a single traffic light.”
Work on the interstate began in the 1950s. At the time engineers priced the 50-mile stretch “though the hill county of southern Illinois” at $21 million, according to an Oct. 17, 1959, article in the Mt. Vernon Register-News.

Interstate 64 was part of the original plans for the state’s interstate system, but not Interstate 24. Originally, planners called for I-64 to cross the region from Vincennes, Ind., to St. Louis, intersecting I-57 at Salem. Only due to strong pressure in Indiana to move the interstate closer to Evansville helped pulled the route down to Mount Vernon.

Although not part of the original system, U.S. Rep. Ken Gray hinted at the future I-24 as early as Mar. 8, 1960, according to the Register-News.

By using a southerly alignment of Route 64 it may be possible to utilize Interstate 57 from a point south of Mount Vernon, Ill., to Pulley’s Mill south of Marion, Ill., and a newly constructed road from Pulley’s Mill across the Ohio River to Nashville, Tenn., and points south,” Gray said, accurately predicting the eventual route.

When I-57 opened in 1961, only the 20-year-old Motel Marion stood close to the interstate, luckily for them as a new Route 13 had opened along DeYoung St., on the north side of Marion a couple of years earlier. The four-lane portion of Route 13 only ran from Fair Street on the east side of Marion west to Illinois Route 148. From there it was just two lanes to Carbondale.

The Motel Marion added a new pool and completely rebuilt their rooms to compete for interstate travelers, bragging about Georgia cypress paneling, glass shower doors and lavanettes in the bathrooms. The sleeping rooms included walnut furniture, brown and tweed carpeting, television sets and colored telephones.

Marion Castellano broke ground on the first modern multi-story hotel on DeYoung St. in the summer of 1960. It opened eventually as the Travelodge in Nov. 1962. It later became the Family Inn and then the Heritage Inn before closing in the 1980s.
Rep. Gray’s brother Ralph Gray opened up the Marion Gray Plaza motel in the summer of 1963.

Ralph Gray and three Harrisburg businessmen developed the 101-room Ramada Inn on the east side of the interstate in Marion which opened in July 1967. The coffee shop had half barrels in the ceiling and became the city's first Cracker Barrel when it opened. Today the inn is operated as a Days Inn.

Carbondale Holiday Inn owner Stan Hoy announced plans for a new Marion hotel in 1968. The new Holiday Inn with then just 100 rooms opened in June 1969. It later became a Travelodge and finally an Executive Inn before closing in the last decade. A new Holiday Inn Express is currently under construction in the city up on The Hill.

Gov. Kerner came back to the region on Nov. 1, 1962, to open the next stretch of I-57 from Marion to Johnston City. The West Frankfort interchange opened the following year and by 1965, the interstate opened for traffic as far north as Mount Vernon.

One interesting tidbit about the original construction. when the state bought the land for Exit 30, the I-57 interchange with Illinois Route 146 east of Anna, a small park had to be relocated. Known as King Neptune Park, it was the final resting place of a 700-pound hog whose patriotic duty during World War II helped generate $19 million in sales of war bonds.

Eventually, his remains and a marker was placed along Route 146 a few miles east of the interchange. In recent years though a new marker has been placed at the Trail of Tears Welcome Center along the interstate just north of the interchange.

Dedications and ribbon cuttings continue 50 years after the interstate opened. State and local officials will open Marion’s newest ramp onto the interstate off of Morgan Avenue this Thursday.

New Comfort Inn underway in Marion

It's not been announced, no story in the paper, not even a building permit on file yet with the city, but there's a second new hotel coming to Marion, and this time it's a Comfort Inn.

The proof is in the mail, or at least on the outside of the mailbox at 2403 Black Diamond Drive, between Sao's Asian Bistro and Black Diamond Harley-Davidson's warehouse as seen in the background of the photo.

A number of people have known about this for sometime as it's been in the works now for four years. It was one of three new lodging establishments under development when I was at Williamson County Tourism, but after Country Inn & Suites opened and the recession hit, everyone went quiet for a while.

Now that we have a Holiday Inn Express under construction and currently up to its second floor, it's apparently time for the new Comfort Inn to make the big leap from simply being proposed, to actually becoming a reality.

From the way it looked Friday before the rain site prep must have just started this past week. No building permit was on file as of Thursday or so at City Hall, which isn't that much out of the ordinary. The big apartment complex underway on Russell Street south of St. Joseph's Catholic Church didn't have a permit either even though they've cut down the trees and are getting ready to lay waterlines this week.

The 2.36 acre lot for the hotel sold four years ago on Dec. 14, 2007, for $346,250, or $3.37 a square foot (down from the $8.45/sq.ft. asking price). It includes 286 feet of road frontage and runs 359 feet deep. On the east side a lake divides this property from the Fairfield Inn on top of The Hill.

The Comfort Inn brand is part of Choice Hotels International which franchises more than 6,100 hotels around the world. At the end of June they had 450 hotels under construction, awaiting conversion or approved for development in the United States. Other brands include Comfort Suites, Quality Inn and Econo Lodge which are already represented in Marion. The original Comfort Inn in Marion is now the Quality Inn.

Choice Hotels hold the second largest market share of all chains, behind only Wyndham.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Three Tickets Left for Fort Massac Autumn Feast

The Friends of Fort Massac have just three tickets left for their Autumn Feast fundraiser at the fort as of this morning.

Tickets, which are priced at $20 each, are expected to sell quickly. To purchase tickets or for more information, call Reba Reed at 618-645-1034, Sharon Burris at 618-524-9657 or Fort Massac State Park at 618-524-9321.

The fundraiser's looking good. The three tickets left are out of 185 originally offered.

The Autumn Feast will begin at 5 p.m. with period music by Heritage Band, a group from De Soto. The menu consists of fall foods that would have been available between the 18th and 19th centuries, and the costumes worn by members of Friends of Fort Massac will approximate that period, as well.

Numerous door prizes will be awarded, and guests will have the opportunity to bid on various silent auction items. There will be paintings by local artists, pottery by a local artisan, knives, jewelry, a hand-crocheted afghan and an original print entitled "Recruitment" by Michael Haynes.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

STAR Bonds Deal Slows, But Still Moving Forward

Though it seems like months since anything new has broken about STAR Bonds development deal for Marion, it's still moving forward, just at a pace frustrating to local officials.

The Marion City Council had two items on the agenda last night about the project, but delayed votes on both. The agenda labeled the items the "Millennium contract" and the "Holland Ancillary contract." Mayor Robert Butler told the council the two contracts weren't quite ready yet.

In other business with a bit of tourism impact the council created a new set of taxi licenses which will replace the current system. For years the city has limited the number of licenses available with existing companies able to buy up licenses and prevent competition.

The new system sets the license at $100 and no limits on the number that can be issued. The Marion Daily Republican provided the details.
Marcus Commander had approached the council previously and was present again Monday as the council changed its policy to accommodate his business and to keep others from monopolizing the market.

The council now requires a vehicle to go with each license, with a $100 annual fee per vehicle as well as proof of liability insurance with at least $500,000 in coverage. The current licensing system will be phased out by next June.

“We are putting no provision on the rates to be charged,” Butler said. “I felt that free enterprise and competition will take care of those rates.”

Kudos to the council for the action.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Marion Moves to Take Over Williamson County Pavilion

The Marion City Council took action tonight cleaning up the financial mess known as the Williamson County Pavilion, a mess caused at its creation when excess bed tax funds originally intended for the operation of the building, were unexpectedly required to be set aside.

That move crippled the Williamson County Events Commission's ability to adequately staff and operate the convention facility, requiring the separate Williamson County Tourism Bureau to subsidize the operations at a detriment to its own tourism promotion efforts.

Tonight the council passed an intergovernmental agreement with the Events Commission, voted to take over the facility, levy its own city 3 percent bed tax to pre-empt the existing county tax, pay off the old financing bonds, and issue new general revenue bonds in their place

The other part of the mess was the issue of property taxes on the property. Although a non-profit corporation, the Events Commission found out to their surprise that they were not tax-exempt when it came to property taxes. In a move suggested, or at least supported, by the local bank backing the bonds, the Events Commission sold its interest in the land back to the city (who originally donated it in the first place). Afterwards the city immediately leased the building back to the commission to operate. Since then the property transfer has been the subject of a lawsuit brought by the Marion School District in an effort to collect the taxes they feel should have been paid.

The council approved a lease of office space to the Williamson County Tourism Bureau which has been housed in the facility since it opened in 2005. The original proposal called for a five year lease of $500 a month. In recent negotiation the bureau asked that they be allowed to get out of the lease after one year with 30 days notice. The city's point man on the issue, local attorney Ron Osman, countered that both sides to the lease should be able to cancel it after one year. The bureau agreed and wanted 90 days notice, and the council tonight agreed.

Though there was some discussion at the meeting that they couldn't see why the bureau might want to leave. Trust me, it's obvious to anyone who has ever tried direct tourists to the building behind the Illinois Center Mall.

Between the proposed tourism development with the STAR Bonds district on the east side of the interstate and the Chamber of Commerce's earlier plans (now presumably on hold due to the STAR Bonds proposal) for a new visitors center on Main Street in front of the state regional office building, the bureau is smart to keep their options open.

I hope to know more tomorrow, but it's clear to me that tonight's move is a major step forward both for the Pavilion's operations and the potential of improvement for the tourism bureau as well.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Road Construction Ramps Up On The Hill in Marion

A line of concrete trucks idled next to Rent One Park today for work on the extension of Champions Drive in Marion from the Kokopelli clubhouse to the home of the Southern Illinois Miners.

Now that the rains have stopped for more than two days in a row it's construction time. Soon golfers, diners and residents heading to Kokopelli will be able to go up Halfway Road to pick up the new extension.

Meanwhile, a bit to the south at the four-way intersection at the base of The Hill next to 17th Street Bar & Grill where Halfway now turns into Champions and Morgan Avenue becomes the namesake 17th Street, crews are installing much needed stoplights.

It's amazing to think no intersection even existed there a decade ago!

With the new Speakeasy Liquors at the intersection now taking applications for workers while construction progresses, the new Holiday Inn Express on The Hill moving in construction trailers, the widening of the south side of the Route 13/Halfway Road intersection and the new Ron's OneStop planned for that corner, it seems that the construction drought has officially ended.

Maybe, just maybe, if gas prices don't strangle the recovery, this ever-dragging recession will finally become a thing of the past.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Fight Continues Over Use of New Madrid Floodway

The fight is now in the federal courts over whether to blow the levee below Cairo in order to save the city. The area in question is the New Madrid Floodway and was designed to be flooded in emergencies.

Since the 1927 Mississippi River Flood that has only happened once, in 1937. The Corps of Engineers wants to open a gap while Missouri is fighting to block the flooding.

Here's the area in question that would be flooded. Basically, there is a levee along the Mississippi on the right side of the area and another levee protecting a larger section of communities on the left side of the designated area.

The map is my best estimate based on the existing levee roads. The area stretches from Bird's Point, Mo., opposite Cairo, to New Madrid.

View New Madrid Floodway in a larger map

Crest Prediction Lowered a Bit

The National Weather Service is lowering its predicted crest of the Ohio River to 60.5 feet on Monday due to plans to release less water from Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley.

Still unknown is whether the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will blow a hole in the levee just below Cairo and flood 130,000 acres of Missouri farmland. The Missouri Attorney General sued in federal court today to stop the plans, which have been standard operating procedure for decades since the feds purchased flowage rights to the land following the levee building after the 1927 Mississippi River flood.

In 1937, they blew the levee when the water reached a little above 58 feet at Cairo, which it will be sometime before morning as it was 57.11 feet at 6 p.m. Back then, it lowered the water nine inches at Cairo before the river started rising again.

Dynamite Agains Becomes An Option

In a repeat of what happened in 1937, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is considering the dynamite option, Fox News reports.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was considering the extraordinary step of intentionally breaching the Birds Point levee in southeast Missouri, just downriver of the confluence, in a bid to reduce the amount of water moving down the Mississippi. The move would soak 130,000 acres of farmland, and Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon objected to the idea. A decision was expected Tuesday.

This is part of a plan put in place after the levees were built following the disastrous 1927 Mississippi River Flood. They did it in '37 to help save Cairo and it worked.

[For the history go here at]

Then Cairo was a city of 14,000, now it's down to 2,800. In 1937, the river was getting close to overtopping the levee in Cairo. So far that's not the case — yet. The latest prediction is a crest next Tuesday at 61 feet, three feet below the top of the levee, and 18 inches above the '37 record.

Right now the biggest levee worry is along the Black River at Poplar Bluff, Missouri, where more than 10 inches of rain has fallen over a wide area since Friday night, according to the radar estimates.

At Cairo, the city council met last night to discuss evacuations. So far, eight families have notified police they are leaving. River levels were 56.6 feet last hour at 10 a.m., more than seven feet below the levee top. In 1937, the evacuations of women and children began on Jan. 25, a week before the Feb. 3rd crest when waters reached 58 feet, just two feet shy of the then 60-foot levees.

The biggest problem if the water doesn't overflow the levee itself like it is at Poplar Bluff, becomes sand boils.

The major problem by Feb. 2, 1937, became the dreaded "'sand boils' bursting up in the heart of Cairo Tuesday forenoon, gave warning of deeply undermined flood barriers. Emergency squads rushed to the danger spots, dumping hundreds of sandbags on the miniature "geysers" boiling through the then strata of protective surface over the city's foundation of sand."

Back then, a crew of 4,500 men manned the levees, adding sandbags, quickly adjusting to whatever was the latest danger. Approximately 1,500 were townsmen, 500 WPA workers, some CCC enrollees and the by one account (I know the math doesn't add up), 4,000 federal and state troops.