Friday, November 08, 2013

Harrisburg Moving Toward New TIF, Developments

The Harrisburg City Council held a public hearing this Thursday to consider establishing the city's second TIF district. The targeted area includes both the down as well as land along the new Route 13 Bypass (Bill Franks Way). Unlike most council meetings the council chambers proved to be standing room only.

The council is expected to approved the district on Thursday, Nov. 21.

Meanwhile the city remains in negotiations with an Indiana theater chain to locate an 8-plex cinema in the former Mad Pricer building at the north end of Commercial Street (Route 45). The city and any would-be developer has until the end of the year to get a redevelopment agreement approved for the soon-to-be expiring TIF 1.

With all the focus on the bypass that fully opened last summer, there's been plenty of effort near the old intersection of Routes 13 and 45 at Poplar and Commercial. Wortman-Meyer Properties has broke ground for a new convenience store/truck stop at the northeast corner of the intersection. The station replaces both an old shuttered gas station as well as a small strip mall behind it that caught fire and suffered extensive damage.

No word as to what name the station will operated under. Randy Meyer, the principle in Wortman-Meyer Properties also runs Meyer Oil Co. out of Teutopolis, Illinois, that operates convenience stores under the Mach 1 name. A Subway is also planned for the Harrisburg store.

Although they asked for a variety of incentives in the end the city agreed only to build the extension of Locust Street from Route 45 east to the city limits that will run along the north side of the development.

Across the street to the northwest at the intersection of Locust and Commercial Streets the city council approved earlier this month the sale of the lot to Diederich Properties of Marion, according to the Daily Register. Jeffery Diederich owns Speakeasy Liquors in Marion and Herrin, which operates as an upscale liquor and cigar store. He has already applied for a liquor license at that location.

According to information included with the bid the intended store will be 5,300 square feet with a drive-through and parking areas.

Diederich Properties states in the bid it has a firm commitment from a general contractor commence construction within 30 days of closing the transaction.

The estimated project investment between both Diederich Properties and its tenant, Speakeasy Liquors is $1,900,000 and is estimated to create 12 jobs in Harrisburg.

The floorplan includes a walk-in humidor, premium liquor room, red wine cellar, white wine and Champagne Cellar, walk-in cooler and a beer cave.

Down Route 45 to the south Knapp Oil appears to be at last halfway finished in the construction of their new convenience store in front of the new Walmart. Likewise the reconstruction of the strip mall beside the supercenter destroyed in last year's tornado appears to be nearly complete as well.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Street Name Hints at Long-Awaited Restaurant

A new road name may provide a clue to a new development rumored for Marion's west side.

The Marion City Council voted 4-0 last night to adopt Resolution 2013-36 naming the new Route 13 frontage road between Walton Way and Skyline Drive that's on the south side of the highway. The resolution names the road Garden Avenue. The resolution also renamed the existing Bradford St. behind Absher Motors to Garden Avenue as well.

Currently there are no garden establishments on that stretch of road, most of which remains closed to public until work progresses enough on the Route 13 railroad overpass to close the existing at-grade highway crossing. When that happens the railroad will allow the new railroad crossing on Garden to open.

City officials had been mixed on the new name as late as a month ago. Although logically they could have simply kept the Walton Way name for the new stretch, engineers wanted to keep the Bradford name and add it to the new stretch.

As the city has a history of naming roads on the west side after businesses or developers, this name may be an important clue. Walton Way is named for the late Sam Walton, founder of Walmart and Sam's Club fame who actually visited Marion when his club opened a couple of decades ago. 17th Street is named for 17th Street Bar & Grill, and there are many more examples as well.

While there's no official hint as to what Garden Avenue means, and absolutely no discussion of the name given at the council meeting, it would probably be safe to assume if another street goes in and needs a name, the city could consider name it Olive Alley.

If you haven't figured it out by now, think about one of the country's top Italian restaurant franchises. It's a chain that's been looking at Marion off and on since its sister franchise Red Lobster opened back in the earliest days of the Illinois Centre mall.

A few years ago Marion Mayor Bob Butler mentioned that a long-rumored restaurant had settled on a site in Marion. It was believed to be a reference to this chain. Around that time another source hinted at the restaurant in question and a site along the south side of the highway.

I could be wrong and we could get nothing, or a Garden Inn by Hilton, but there hasn't been anything on a new hotel, other than the upcoming expansion of Country Inn & Suites. All the talk has focused on restaurants.

This new stretch of property opening up is all due to the Route 13 six-lane expansion project. With the new lanes and the new railroad overpass knocking out direct access to the mall there at Toys 'R Us, the state agreed to develop the access road on the south side. With the railroad not agreeing to another at-grade crossing, and IDOT refusing to allow commercial development on the south property unless an access road was built, the landowners on the south side were caught in a Catch-22 situation.

Chain restaurants that specialize in dinner regularly want to be on the side of the road with the heaviest evening traffic flow. For the west side of Marion that means the side closest to the east-bound lanes of Route 13 as they approach the interstate.

The new road should create at least four or five good-size outlots on the Reinbold and Campbell properties with high visibility. When the road opens highway access will initially be from Skyline Drive on the west and Williamson County Parkway on the east by Sam's Club. Mall traffic will also be able to use Marathon Drive by Toys 'R Us and drive under the highway over to Garden Avenue.

The city has proposed a new TIF district to cover the two aforementioned properties. A hearing on the proposal will take place prior to the next council meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 12, at 5 p.m. with the regular council meeting starting at 6:30 p.m. A previous TIF covers the property between it and Skyline Drive where the 1960s-era furniture store is slated for demolition.

Part of the new TIF proceeds will be used to extend the mall entrance road at Red Lobster and O'Charley's (Sinclair Dr.) south to the new Garden Avenue. That will make the existing three-way intersection a four-way intersection.

A public hearing concerning an amendment to TIF 1 will take place the same night at 6 p.m.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Downtown Upgrades on Focus for Marion, Mount Vernon

Rare Chop House at 224 S. 10th St. in Mount Vernon.
New restaurants and new projects have targeted the downtowns of the King City and the Hub of the Universe this summer.

Developed behind the scenes by an executive of a local industry who saw the need for a top of the line restaurant in town the new Rare Chop House held its grand opening August 29. It's located in a restored three-story downtown building at 224 S. 10th St. in Mount Vernon, one block south of the courthouse on Illinois Rt. 37. The building formerly was home to a True Value franchise.

The website at is just a page with basic information at the moment. More information can be found at the establishment's Facebook page. Jason Piercy is general management and hours are 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

At a book signing last week at the former Grenada Theatre, now the Grenada Center for the Performing Arts, I learned that a new independent book store will be moving in next door. The owners say they are six to nine months away from opening.

The city's use of tax increment financing appears to be paying off. The downtown buildings looked as good as I've ever seen them.

The relatively new Hub TIF District in Marion is also starting to see payoffs for the downtown area.

Purple Peacock and Latta Java at 410-412 N. Market St. in Marion
After Hurst-Roche Engineers rehabbed 200 N. Market St. two years ago with a covered porch, a second building is adding a permanent cover for its customers as well as some outdoor living space on the second floor.

The Purple Peacock has been upgrading its buildings over the last year further up the street. The building hosts both the antique store as well as Latta Java, a local coffee shop.

New restaurants and bars are also looking at downtown.
The Vault Cafe opened earlier this year on the ground floor of the historic five-story Marion State and Savings Bank building at 504 Tower Square Plaza.

Also the old Marion City Hall at 100 Tower Square Plaza is also currently undergoing renovation for what is supposed to be a restaurant. Just down the alley the former Mollie's that sold last year has reopened as Miss Kitty's Cathouse and Lounge. On East Main Street a new Mexican restaurant is under construction across from Washington Grade School.

City officials hope to see the trend continue. They will be holding a meeting with business and building owners in the downtown area in early October to go over details of a new $10,000 low interest loan program for building upgrades and improvements.

Friday, September 13, 2013

I-57 Interchange Ahead of Schedule

The massive two-year I-57/IL Rt 13 interchange project in Marion that isn't supposed to be finished until next year may open fully finished before the end of 2013, according to Mayor Robert L. Butler.

Learned a few other updates from him yesterday about Marion developments. Nothing new on the STAR Bonds project, based on past conversations with him and state Rep. John Bradley, D-Marion, the would-be developers looking to step into Bruce Holland's shoes are waiting for the road projects to be completed.

Last year's drought helped the construction of the new rebuild of the Exit 54 interchange, but the mayor's still waiting for construction to begin on the connections and upgrade of the Morgan Avenue interchange. The additional overpass is up, but remains unconnected with Morgan Avenue.

Crews have finally begun earthwork on the new access road off of the south side of Morgan and on the west side of the interstate that will provide access to the north end of the old Holiday Inn/Executive Inn hotel and the mobile home sales lot at the southwest corner of Morgan and I-57. Due to restrictions on entrances too close to the interchange IDOT purchase access rights from the property owners and agreed to build the new access road. One thing different from the original design, the road will not hit Morgan opposite the Holiday Inn Express entrance, but a bit to the east.

Meanwhile work continues on the six-lane expansion of Route 13 from I-57 east to Court Street, the new overpass of the Burlington Northern on Route 13 by the Illinois Centre Mall (I'll add the "Star" to the name when the new owners get around to actually changing their signage). Once traffic can be redirected onto the new overpass and the area around Skyline Drive and the new extension of Walton Way is finished, that new road will be opened.

On the jobs front the owners of the former Circuit City building are hot on one or two tenants for giant warehouse and distribution center on the west side of town. If successful it could mean around 300 jobs.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

New Harmony Seeks to Save Bridge

According to, folks in New Harmony, Indiana, are seeking ways to save their bridge over the Wabash River that's been closed since May 2012.

...The Harmony Way Bridge Committee began meeting this summer to work on proposals for the 83-year-old New Harmony Bridge.

The span was operated for decades by a private commission as a toll bridge until inspections last year found extensive deterioration, prompting its closure in May 2012. Indiana officials have said replacement costs could be as much as $25 million.

Businesses in both Indiana and Illinois have been hurt by the bridge's closure, committee member Linda Henning of Crossville, Ill., told the Evansville Courier & Press.

The group is looking at having the city buy the bridge and issue bonds which would be covered by bridge tolls.

One thing that could help is if Illinois extended a spur from the Ohio River National Scenic Byway from New Haven (where the current byway crosses into Illinois, up through White County to the New Harmony bridge. Indiana already has a spur of the byway leading to the tourist town.

The move could generate some additional traffic as well as give the bridge some additional points when it comes to grants.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Grayville Prepares for Oil Boom

"Let the Boom Begin" is the theme for this weekend's Grayville Days. Located in the heart of the Illinois Basin, White and Edwards Counties can't wait for the start of a new fracking-inspired oil boom. 

They remember the first post-war oil boom in the region in 1950, and while there's still a number of small independent oil producers and oil drilling suppliers, it's nothing like what the region may face if North Dakota-size boom develops over the next few years.

As the picture above shows even the local nursing home is getting into the action with their float.

Below is a sample of the oil equipment residents hope to see much more over the coming months, from Franklin Well Services of Vincennes, Indiana.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Mount Vernon Makes Progress

Drury Inn & Suites (under construction - August 2013)

The new 180-room Drury Inn & Suites continues to take shape in Mount Vernon at the interchange of Interstates 57/64 and Illinois Rt. 13. When complete the hotel will also include 3,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space.

The project started in March and replaces a previous Drury Inn and Thrifty Inn on the north side of the highway at 44th Street.

The project also included demolition of the shuttered Best Western (originally built as the Ramada Inn, more than decades earlier). No word yet on what new restaurants or retailers Drury has promised to bring to their development. That northeast quadrant of the interchange also includes Steak 'n Shake, Dale's Harley-Davidson and GenKota Winery.

Down the highway to the east the owners of the Times Square Mall are aggressively seeking new tenants and replacements for Sears. The mall, which first opened in 1974, is currently owned by Pine Tree Commercial Realty, LLC, of Northbrook, St. Louis-based Sansone Group and Elgin-based Wanxiang America Real Estate Group.

Last week the owners announced Hobby Lobby had signed a lease for 52,729 sq. ft. in what had formerly occupied by Sears.

"Kicking off with Hobby Lobby puts our leasing of the soon-to-be-vacant areas of the center in fast gear," said Pine Tree Ex. Vice-President Bruce Boruszak who promised announcements of "additional major new leases in coming weeks."

Meanwhile work continues on the widening and rebuild of Interstates 57/64. As of June 3, IDOT esimated the work at 68 percent complete with completion expected by Dec. 1 this year.

The project includes adding a third lane in both directions "to mitigate traffic congestion... The work consists of new continusouly reinforced concrete pavement, earthwork to build the new lanes and correct slope deficiencies, culvert extensions, guardrail upgrades, pipe underdrains, patching and bridge deck repairs."

The project is the first step in the eventual six-laning of Interstate 57 from its intersection with Interstate 24 south of Marion north to where I-57 and 64 split north of Mount Vernon.

A second phase of the additional lanes also started this summer between Marion and Johnston City.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Missing Pool Hints at Hotel Expansion

First it was the north building of America's Best Inns in Marion that bit the dust to make way for Jim Zeller's Country Inn & Suites back in 2008. Now five years later, the Best Inns pool has literally gone to dust as crews rode their roller back and forth today over the former aquatic amenity.

Zeller actually bought the land, the 60' by 175' tract, back in May for $15 a square foot, which seems to be going rate for commercial property along Halfway Road.

While no official announcement has been made it's believed the move is part of a larger expansion plan which should result in an additional hotel for Marion utilizing at least some of the vacant Drury Inn property off of Morgan Avenue.

UPDATE: [8/24/13] For now the expansion seems to be limited to another nine extended-stay rooms on the north side of the Country Inn & Suites. The new 60' feet of ground leveled off this past week will be parking.

As of Thursday, no building permits had been filed yet with the city.

Monday, July 15, 2013

2012 Tourists Break Record for Illinois

Illinois officials announced earlier this month that Illinois' tourism sector grew in 2012 to record numbers. Domestic tourists increased 6 percent to 99 million domestic visitors who in turn generated another $31 billion for the state economy. This comes after a record 93.3 million Americans who visited the state in 2011.

The numbers for international guests won't be released until later this summer.

The following comes from the state's news release.

"Another year of record breaking numbers proves that travel is back and the tourism industry in Illinois is thriving," Governor [Pat] Quinn said. “Our world-class cultural attractions and destinations continue to attract more and more visitors to Illinois each year, which in turn directly drives the state’s economic growth."

This marks the second year in a row that Illinois’ visitor numbers broke records and outpaced the national average of 5.4 percent, highlighting the industry’s vital contributions to Illinois' economic growth, job creation and tax revenue.

Bolstered by a surge in leisure travel, the Illinois tourism industry generated nearly $31 billion in 2012 from domestic visitors alone, up 5 percent from last year’s record-breaking domestic travel expenditures of $29.5 billion. Preliminary data indicate that international visitor numbers are also on the rise. International numbers will be released later this summer.

The positive performance reflects an improving economy and Governor Quinn's targeted efforts to showcase Illinois as a travel destination. In the past two years, the Quinn Administration launched a new tourism marketing campaign, touted Illinois tourism on trade missions to Canada, China, Mexico and Brazil and worked closely with local convention and visitors bureaus across Illinois to trumpet the unique attributes of their regions.

"The tourism industry plays a vital role in growing Illinois' economy, providing valuable jobs for residents and spurring business of all sizes," Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO) Director Adam Pollet said.

State and local tax revenues from tourism totaled more than $2.3 billion in 2012, an increase of more than $124 million. State tax revenue rose 5.3 percent to $1.6 billion, while local tax revenue rose 6.6 percent to more than $699 million. Initial estimates indicate that the Illinois travel industry workforce grew by 1.9 percent in 2012. Final figures will be released later this summer.

"We are always looking for innovative ways to share Illinois' unique stories with the world and to encourage visitors to discover all that the state offers,” Illinois Office of Tourism Deputy Director Jen Hoelzle said. "Our efforts drive visitors to the people, places and experiences that make a trip to Illinois memorable."

The Illinois Office of Tourism directly supports the travel industry by promoting visitor travel both domestically and internationally, to help grow the tourism industry throughout the state. The Illinois Office of Tourism is funded by a percentage of the state's hotel and motel tax revenue.

Destination information, trip inspiration ideas, the 2013 Illinois Travel Guide and more can be found at or by calling 1-800-2CONNECT.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Let the Fracking Begin

In a quiet, not-quite ceremony located not in Southern Illinois, or even in the state capital, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed Senate Bill 1715 in Chicago today. More than anything, even the STAR Bonds bill from a few years ago, SB 1715 which creates a 21st Century regulatory standard for hydraulic fracturing in the oil and gas industry has the power to totally transform downstate Illinois.

It's a shame that the governor treats his greatest legacy as something to be ashamed of.

While we've had fracking for 50 years at a small scale, and even some medium-size attempts recently, we're now waiting for what happens next. Something between the oil-caused catastrophes just waiting to happen and the economy-changing creation of 50,000 new jobs in the next decade.

For some perspective I suggested reading up on North Dakota and the Bakkan Shale formation.

The Weekly Standard has a nice article online about North Dakota oil boom that's taken off due to fracking.

Some claim fracking will hurt tourism. Actually the hotel industry has already benefited the most from the leasing activity, at least in the Mount Vernon area.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Progress Made Toward Little Egypt Oasis

The drive to develop the Little Egypt Oasis on top of Interstate 57 at West Frankfort continues through the planning and engineering phases.

Overpass owner and developer Scott Williams sent out an update earlier this week. On Monday he met with representatives of both the Illinois Department of Transportation as well as the Federal High Administration. The meeting "went well," he reported.

The preliminary engineering findings and drawings for the Access Justification Report (AJR) were reviewed. This was the first meeting that included FHWA and was a big step forward in the process. As each segment of the AJR is created it will be submitted for comments and when the complete AJR is created it will be submitted to FHWA for conceptual approval.

The conceptual approval, if all goes well, will take about 4 to 6 months and the study that will follow will take 12 to 18 months. So the project is moving forward but still has a long way to go.

The moves comes after the initial kickoff meeting for the Access Justification Report last November.

The Little Egypt Oasis would make major changes in the interstate interchange and open up hundreds of acres for development. The key point of the plan would include using the railroad overpass as the site of the main development. An early stage would be building of a truck stop on the west side of the highway.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

New Hotels For Marion, Mount Vernon

With the Drury chain focusing on a major new project in Mount Vernon the company took the rare step of actually placing some of their undeveloped acreage for sale. The chain has long been known for sitting on property until the time is right for development.

Recently in Marion, they turned over part of their land for the new Panera's and was in negotiation with America's Best Inns to buy and demolish that property for another well-known chain restaurant. That deal did not materialize.

Now they've placed three acres up for sale located behind their hotel and Panera's that fronts 17th Street (Morgan Ave.), and it looks like there's another developer eyeing it for a new hotel and apartments that would cater to professionals and workers who need longer-term stays.

As of last week no building permits had been issued with the city.

Drury's three acres would make a good fit for such a development. There are nine restuarants in that block or just across the streets that surround it, as well as a liquor store. Gold's Gym is just a short walk away as is Rent One Park up on The Hill.

Meanwhile work progresses in Mount Vernon for Drury Inn's new $22 million development on the northeast side of the main interstate interchange. Drury has knocked down its long-time three-story inn, a gas station next door, and as of late last month when the picture below was taken, was in the process of knocking down the Thrifty Inn and the former Best Western Inn, which had been closed for years.

The old rooms wiped out will be replaced by a seven-story hotel similar to the built in the last few years at O'Fallon, Illinois. In addition the company will create space for two new restuarants yet to be publicly identified. Plans also call for additional retail space as well.

The old Best Western hotel was one of the two original major hotels in Mount Vernon after the opening of Interstate 57. Ralph Gray, brother of U.S. Rep. Ken Gray, and developer of the Gray Plaza motel chain, built the hotel in 1967-68 as a 101-room Ramada Inn.

Gray announced the $1.1 million project at the time he opened his new Ramada Inn in Marion. Both hotels were designed to be identical. While the Mount Vernon languished in recent decades hidden behind a row of pine trees planted on the Thrifty Inn property, the Marion hotel has survived as a budget motel under a variety of franchises.

The hotels originally included a cocktail lounge, coffee shop and a banquet room large enough for 150 people. An ornate curved staircase to the a second floor was a major feature in the lobbies. Each guest room included "piped-in-music, color television and air conditioning" and were "decorated in three color schemes, gold, green and blue," according to an article in the July 23, 1967, edition of the Southern Illinoisan.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Fracking Cuts Unemployment to 0.7 Percent

Oil gusher at Robinson,
Illinois, in 1907.
The Chicago Tribune had a front page feature story Sunday about the oil boom in North Dakota which mentioned, fairly high up in the story, the potential in Southern Illinois.

There's been a lot of debate, most of it one-sided and hysterical, about the negative impacts of fracking, usually from people who don't realize our state's oil industry has been using the technique since the 1950s.

What's new is the combination of fracking, far deeper drilling as well as the development of horizontal drilling. I did a series of articles last year for The Daily Register in Harrisburg about the potential.

Those opposed to it certainly haven't swayed me. It would be better if some of their leading spokespeople weren't opposed to our petroleum-based civilization in the first place. I get it. You don't like oil. Go back to your cave. There aren't any real alternatives except for coal and natural gas which for the former you like even less.

My favorite complaint is that it would hurt tourism. In actuality, only to the extent that it would drive up room rates and eliminate vacancies. Neither of those, mind you, would bother hotel operators.

But the best reason to support a resurgence in our oil industry is the jobs that come with it. There's a story in today's paper about Illinois fighting with Iowa over a $1.2 billion new anhydrous ammonia plant.

That's a lot of construction jobs but only 150 permanent jobs when it's built. They're talking 50,000 jobs if downstate Illinois starts to do its best imitation of North Dakota.

I knew it was serious last spring when U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, came to Harrisburg for a photo op following the Leap Day Tornado. A week earlier he had targeted the coal industry at a global warming news conference in Chicago.

I wanted to ask him about his comments. To his credit he didn't change them even though he was in the heart of coal country. He surprised me when he brought up oil and natural gas as replacements for the mining jobs.

I had been hearing about the possibilities of fracking coming to Illinois and a potential oil boom. I asked, "how big?" He wouldn't quantify an answer, but smiled, and made reference to North Dakota. It was around that time that North Dakota passed Alaska as the county's second largest oil-producing state.

And with that reference it's time to get back to Sunday's focus story.

Appropriately, the Trib's big story starts with a little one, how Andy Turco went from high school dropout in a series of dead-end jobs to a solid blue collar career. All he had to do was leave Chicago for the northern plains.
Then [Turco] talked to a buddy working here, in a barren corner of North Dakota, where an ugly-sounding word — fracking — has driven oil from the ground and pushed unemployment down to 0.7 percent. That's right: seven-tenths of one percent.

Turco sold his car, hopped in a van and drove west.

Today, he's earning nearly six figures working about 90 hours a week on a drilling rig, one of many Chicago-area transplants who have joined thousands in a remote region experiencing an oil boom while much of the country tries to shake off a recession hangover.

"It is the best thing I ever did; no doubt about it," said Turco, 24, who arrived in Williston in October 2011. "I'm finally living an adult lifestyle, instead of a teenage dropout lifestyle."

And it's all thanks to fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, a relatively new and controversial drilling technology in which highly pressurized water, sand and other substances are driven into oil-rich shale thousands of feet deep, creating cracks that release the oil deposits and send them up the well.

Read more about the developments here.

The Illinois General Assembly will be taking up state Rep. John Bradley's bill to regulate fracking. It will be the toughest regulatory oversight in the country. It's backed by both industry and the still-in-the-mainstream environmental groups.