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Carbondale | Varsity Center
Fundraiser could bring movies back to The Varsity in Carbondale

CARBONDALE — A community fundraiser could bring movies back to downtown Carbondale.

The historic Varsity Center hasn’t regularly screened films since operator Kerasotes shuttered the Art Moderne-style movie house in 2003; since then, it has functioned chiefly as an event center and performance art venue.

“People like to tell us what was the last movie they saw in The Varsity before it closed,” said Peter Gregory, president of The Varsity’s board of directors. “And so we started experimenting.”

The theater screened “Spaceballs” during the weekend of the total solar eclipse in August and hosted a preview screening of Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War” in September. The response was overwhelmingly positive, Gregory said.

“What we found was, there was a demand for movies,” he said.

The Varsity doesn’t own the necessary equipment to screen films; at present, outside vendors or groups are required to bring in their own projectors.

Nathan Colombo, a board member and volunteer in charge of the fundraising effort, hopes to change that.

“What we’re hoping to do is actually purchase our own equipment, control our opportunities moving forward, whether it’s bringing in private events, providing showings to the public or anything else that would involve a movie screening,” Colombo said.

The board hopes to raise a total of $5,000 and is offering various incentives through the crowdfunding website, including movie passes and T-shirts. Factoring in checks dropped off at the theater, the effort has already raised over $1,000 since it was launched a week ago.

“I did a $250 match, and somebody called me on my bluff in about 15 minutes,” Gregory said.

“Nostalgia plays a significant role for a lot of folks in our community who grew up with the theater as part of their lives, so when we get feedback, it’s not just folks excited about the future, it’s also folks excited about being able to relive some of their past memories as well,” Colombo said.

Gregory suggested that the venue could offer art house and “highbrow” films that aren’t available at Carbondale’s two AMC theaters.

bhetzler / Byron Hetzler, The Southern 

The Varsity Center in downtown Carbondale.

“I think that there are a lot of smaller movies for smaller audiences that probably don’t show well at the big theaters,” Gregory said.

“On a cultural level, the hope would be that we operate as a space for any number of folks to come in and screen documentaries, screen locally produced films, screen independent films — but also screen classics that people want to relive or share with the next generation of their family,” Colombo said.

The goal is to equip two theaters with the ability to screen movies: the East Theater and the Balcony Theater. The Varsity’s main auditorium, which seats 400, will require more extensive work, including a new HVAC system and lighting system.

“What we’re calling ‘the big room’ is a project that’s just a little bit down the road. We’re not quite there with renovations in that space,” Colombo said.

In addition to raising money, the crowdfunding strategy serves a second purpose: It functions as a community buy-in to get people invested in The Varsity’s future.

“If we’re able to get folks in the community to buy in to the project as it’s progressing, we’re going to see better success when we’re in the actual functional stages of the project, which is showing films and welcoming people into the Varsity for this type of entertainment,” Colombo said.

Gregory, who became president of the board last fall, spearheaded the Balcony Theater’s transformation into a viable performance space.

“I think that we are a little startup company, we’re a little startup nonprofit, and we’re looking for our audience. We’re looking for what people want to see in our theater. … The question is, what’s the entertainment that people want? So we’re trying things,” Gregory said.

He hopes to have the new equipment up and running by December, when the theater will screen three holiday-themed films: “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” on Dec. 15, “White Christmas” on Dec. 17 and “It’s a Wonderful Life” on Dec. 23.

The online fundraiser can be found at

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Illinois Department of Insurance | Open Enrollment
Illinois insurance department working to get residents insured in a shorter open enrollment period

CARBONDALE — The race is on — open enrollment for the healthcare marketplace began Nov. 1 and the state is working fast to make up for a drastically shortened enrollment period by improving the shopping experience.

With just half of the enrollment days this year — six weeks as opposed to last year’s 12 — representatives from the Illinois Department of Insurance are working to get as many people insured as possible in this window.

That means upping their game in the shortened time frame. Jennifer Hammer, director of the Illinois Department of Insurance, said they have added about 230 extra phone hours, extending their hours to 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. They will be closed Thanksgiving. She also said this year the people at the other end of the line will be licensed health support agents.

Illinois is partnering with GoHealth for its healthcare marketplace interface and delivery. Michael Mahoney, GoHealth’s vice president for consumer marketing, said they are working hard to make purchasing healthcare as comfortable as possible, especially given the reduction in the open enrollment period. He said one way they do this is by showing a wide variety of plans to customers.

“Our site lists a variety of on- and off-exchange plans,” Mahoney said. That means GoHealth’s website shows plans that both receive and do not receive government subsidies, he said.

Should someone want to speak face-to-face, Hammer also said using the website, customers can use a navigator tool to locate and connect with a real person to meet in their area. She said her department is also planning a 102-county tour to help provide information to customers. She said they plan to reach every community.

This isn’t just about simply getting insurance, though. It’s about getting the right coverage. Hammer said it is important that customers not passively enroll.

“No action is the worst action,” she said. Hammer wants to make sure customers are aware of how their plans might change.

“Keeping your plan does not mean that your premium will stay the same nor the benefits will stay the same,” Mahoney said.

“Cost should not be the only factor,” Hammer said, adding that her department is “encouraging people to shop around.”

Hammer said the recent elimination of cost sharing by the Trump administration will affect premiums — however, she said this year they are not going up as much as they have in the past. She said while premiums may be going up, so too are subsidies in some cases. Hammer provided the example of customers with “silver-level plans.” She explained that 86 percent of them will be able to greatly offset increasing premium costs with proportionally increased tax credits. Hammer did emphasize that 14 percent of silver level customers will not receive credits and could incur a 15-percent average increase, which is why she strongly encouraged people to go to the website and shop.

Hammer said when it comes down to it, it is incredibly important to get covered within the six-week time frame to avoid penalties and fines. She said there is no guarantee that the federal government will be as lenient with late-comers as they have been in previous years.

“Previously, if someone in the process of enrollment and it was a few minutes after (the deadline), the feds extended somewhat, but that’s up to the feds,” Hammer said.

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Proposed TIF in Cambria draws controversy

Mayor Steve Gottschalk and Cambria Village Board are concerned about their village. They face aging infrastructure, few businesses and shrinking resources from the State of Illinois. One way they are trying to combat that is by creating a TIF, or Tax Increment Financing, District.

“The Village of Cambria was surviving on grants and loans from government agencies the past 16 years,” Gottschalk said. “Once the state decided to cut back, many of the grants dried up.”

According to the Cambria TIF proposal, created by Jacob and Klein Ltd. and The Economic Development Group Ltd., the purpose of the TIF is to remove and alleviate adverse conditions, encourage private investment and restore and enhance the tax base. The proposed TIF includes 95 percent of the village’s commercial and residential property.

“The other aspect of the TIF is we’ll get new homes where there are ones that are no longer livable,” Gottschalk said.

Some residents of Cambria and the surrounding area have concerns about the TIF. Probably the biggest issue surrounding a proposed TIF District in Cambria is the effect it could have on Carterville Unit School District 5.

A TIF sets property taxes at a pre-development baseline. As property values increase, the difference, called the tax increment, is put into a special fund for a period of 23 years. It is used to pay back the investment of developers, with the remainder available for use by the village.  

Carterville schools would receive the same amount in taxes from Cambria that they got this year. Part of the problem is that new development brings new residents — many with children — to the area. Carterville schools will receive the same amount of tax dollars with increased enrollment.

“Any property in the TIF goes into an equalized assessed value for 23 years. It shows no growth until the TIF expires,” Superintendent Keith Liddell said during a recent school board meeting.

Residents like Jennifer Ramirez and Lisa Nation worry that the school district will have to raise property taxes to pay for the increased enrollment. Although property in Cambria would be protected from property tax raises, property in Carterville and Crainville would not. They would pay more to educate students from Cambria whose parents moved to new developments.

Cambria officials have offered to give the school district 15 percent of TIF funds collected. The district has agreements with Carterville and Crainville to receive 27.6 percent of TIF funds. The agreements also restrict Carterville and Crainville from creating residential TIF districts.

Gottschalk said the village is still negotiating an agreement with the school district. If the district rejects the agreement, the village is under no obligation to make a contractual commitment to the school district. It is more likely that the village would make donations to the district for specific projects.

Ramirez and Nation, like many other residents of the Tri-C area, would support a strictly commercial TIF district in Cambria. They are opposed to the creation of a residential TIF district.

Residents also see any involvement by Zach Cox in a vote related to creating a TIF district as a conflict of interest. Cox is owner of Skyline Contracting, which has been used in the past as a subcontractor by one of the TIF developers.

Cox will abstain from voting on Thursday, a decision he reached after consulting the village attorney, TIF attorney and a private attorney.

“I have a blonde and two little boys who come first in this guy’s world. That’s the only reason I will abstain,” Cox said.

He said the TIF controversies drive a wedge between him and the people he was elected to represent.

“I feel like the city voted me onto the board to do what’s best for Cambria,” Cox said. “What matters most to me is the village. It’s a way to revitalize the town as a whole.”

Does TIF meet legal conditions?

Illinois law sets conditions for areas to qualify as TIFs. First, officials have to ask if the property is likely to be developed without an extra incentive. The answer must be no to create a TIF in that area.

This is a point of controversy for many residents. Most of the people who have voiced concerns over the TIF believe property in Cambria would be developed without the incentives offered in a TIF district. However, developers Max Falmier and Paul Wood are both listed in inducement resolutions as needing TIF incentives to offset the cost of developments off Cambria Road and Noah Lane.

Carterville Mayor Brad Robinson credits Carterville school district with drawing new residents to Carterville and the surrounding Tri-C (Carterville, Crainville and Cambria) area. He believes that land in Cambria would be developed without TIF incentives because not many places outside Cambria are available for development.

Also, the area must be blighted or qualify to be a residential or industrial park conservation area. Conservation status has to do with the age, condition and occupancy of buildings.

According to the TIF proposal, Cambria has 792 structures over the age of 35 years. The village also has 66 dilapidated properties, 540 that show signs of deterioration, 12 with excessive vacancies, three that lack sanitary facilities, 29 that are overcrowded and 541 that have declining or static value.

A TIF district has to prove that 51 percent of its area is blighted. Many of those who oppose the TIF do not see Cambria as “blighted.” To be blighted, a property must meet stringent criteria, including those listed above.

Mayor Gottschalk said around 118 homes are vacant in the proposed TIF zone. The village would like to tear down vacant homes, but it costs $5,000 to $6,000 to tear down a home. Sale of the empty lot would bring about $1,200.

He would like to see the village use some of its early TIF funds to tear down some of those houses. After that, he would like to see sidewalks put in to the Dollar General Store to accommodate those with wheel chairs or scooters.

Cambria village board will vote on the TIF proposal at 4 p.m. Thursday in the community center gymnasium.

Illinois lawmakers engulfed by fixing sex-harassment mess

SPRINGFIELD — Illinois lawmakers spent most of Tuesday trying to get control of an avoidable sexual-harassment mess which began with a seemingly benign, if sincere, proposal last month to explicitly forbid harassment and intimidation in the ethics code.

Both the House and Senate unanimously adopted the legislation that started the melee, House Speaker Michael Madigan's proposal to require sexual harassment awareness training for all state officers, lawmakers, staff members and lobbyists and leave enforcement of violations to the inspectors generals for each.

The apparently straightforward, universally supported idea created side effects that engulfed the General Assembly for weeks in a state still suffering the impact of a historic, two-year state budget stalemate and $16.6 billion in past-due bills.

It required additional legislation, also OK'd unanimously, to expand powers for the newly appointed legislative inspector general to investigate more than two dozen complaints that piled up during a two-year vacancy in the post.

The impact of inaction became painfully clear last week when legislative activist Denise Rotheimer accused state Sen. Ira Silverstein, a Chicago Democrat, of sexual harassment last year while the two worked on legislation.

Silverstein has denied the allegations. He appeared on the floor Senate, waving to reporters as he passed the press box and speaking for several minutes with Senate President John Cullerton for several minutes before taking his seat and working on a laptop. No one approached or spoke to him.

Later, as he left the floor, he told reporters, "My first conversation will be with the inspector general. Thank you."

Chicago Democrat Madigan's legislation proscribing harassment appeared days after an open letter signed by 300 people swept through the Statehouse demanding an end to a long-established culture of harassment and intimidation in the capital. The letter followed on the heels of sexual-harassment scandals roiling the nation this fall, beginning with allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and other powerful men, through the revival of the #MeToo social-media campaign among victims.

"It's time for us to find a way to call a halt to sexual harassment in and around the Capitol and allow the sun to shine instead of shadows to prevail when people misbehave," said House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, a Chicago Democrat.

But Madigan's plan revealed the vacancy and when Rotheimer, testifying last week in favor of it, publicized alleged incidents in which Silverstein, working with her last year on legislation, sent her inappropriate messages and paid her unwanted compliments. She asked why nothing had happened on the complaint she filed in November 2016.

Senate President Cullerton's office acknowledged the complaint was referred to the inspector general's office, where it sat idle after the last full-time inspector retired in 2014. That forced Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, to accept Silverstein's resignation from his leadership post and a $21,000 annual stipend.

And the Legislative Ethics Commission, after years of saying it couldn't find a suitable candidate for the job, met in an emergency session Saturday and appointed former federal prosecutor Julie Porter.

Cullerton authored the expansion of investigative authority to answer the problem of 27 pending complaints, including Rotheimer's, filed since 2015 which await an investigator to review them. State law limits the time for resolving ethics complaints in many cases to a year, meaning most or all on file are beyond the reach of any investigation. The legislation would allow Porter to investigate allegations awaiting her arrival in office.

With a nod to untangling the debacle, Cullerton called the action "a beginning."

"We addressed problems and issues that should have been tackled a long time ago," he said in a statement which offered support for task forces each House also established Tuesday for further study and recommendations.

Despite the unanimity, House Republicans complained that the ethics changes don't go far enough. Several pointed out that the first inspector, former House member and appellate court judge Tom Homer, who occupied the office from 2004 to 2014, described it as "toothless tiger" for the law's inability to hold lawmakers accountable for conflicts of interest and other ethics lapses.

"This state is known for corruption and unethical behavior," said GOP Rep. Grant Wehrli of Naperville. "Not just sexual harassment, which shouldn't be tolerated anywhere, but in patronage schemes, in not properly filing annual statements of economic interest. We have so much to do to clean up and restore the faith and the trust people have."

bhetzler / Byron Hetzler, The Southern 

Carbondale's Darius Beane (25) dribbles around Marion's Nick Williams (4) during the fourth quarter on Jan. 13 in Marion. Carbondale went on to win 59-44.