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Carbondale | Christmas Escape Room
Christmas-themed 'escape room' offers unconventional holiday fun

CARBONDALE — For those looking for an alternative to the usual family activities this holiday season, Jeff Garner says he has just the thing.

The Panic Room, an “escape room experience” on the east side of Carbondale, is now offering a Christmas-themed room that asks participants to work together to solve puzzles, follow clues and save Christmas before the clock runs out.

“I’m promoting this as an alternate (thing) to do for families and friends. Christmas Day especially, there’s nothing to do — everything’s closed,” said Garner, who opened the business in August.

The Panic Room will be open throughout the holidays, and Garner said he has several games booked for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The games are available by appointment only.

Inspired by the point-and-click online games, physical escape rooms first became popular in Asia and spread to large cities in the U.S. a few years ago. Carbondale Escape Rooms, located on The Island in downtown Carbondale, opened in 2015.

The premise behind the trend is simple: You’re locked inside a room and you must solve a series of puzzles to get out.

Garner, who works full-time at the Center for Teaching Excellence at Southern Illinois University, was inspired to start his own escape room business after he visited one in Indianapolis.

“They were still pretty new at that point, and I didn’t really know anything about it. Afterward, it was one of those things where, even though I had a great experience, I was kind of picking it apart, and I was like, ‘Man, if they would have done this, it would have been so much better,’” Garner said.

Garner sketched some of his own ideas out and found he that loved coming up with the puzzles and challenges. He finished writing his first game, picked up some cheap props and asked his family to give his prototype a try.

“They all had a blast doing it, and I started working on a couple more rooms, and then it got to the point where I thought, ‘I think I really have something here,’” Garner said.

“The Christmas Room” launched earlier this month and will be open into the month of January until interest dies down, Garner said. Up to six people can play at a time.

“A Dark Elf has discovered a way to stop Christmas,” reads the description of the game on the Panic Room’s website. “Sensing danger, Santa has sent your team to the only place that may contain the tools necessary to thwart the Dark Elf’s plans. Now it is up to you to restore the magic before time runs out and Christmas is gone … forever!”

“Success rate solely depends on communication,” Garner said. “So many times, you’re monitoring the rooms as they’re playing, and you can see that someone’s found something but the rest of the group doesn’t know it. … The better groups are the ones that communicate well and they work together well.”

bhetzler / Byron Hetzler, The Southern 

The Panic Room on Sweets Drive off of Route 13 on the east edge of Carbondale offers several differently themed escape rooms.

“The Haunting,” themed around paranormal research, is Garner’s largest room, accommodating 10 people. It’s also the most difficult.

“That’s been a big hit, and I’ve had a lot of businesses come in with their staff and do team-building, and different student groups or youth groups, and it’s a really fun game,” Garner said.

“Secrets of Little Egypt,” a smaller escape room capped at six people, is an expedition leading down into an underground ancient Egyptian civilization.

He has two more rooms slated to open up next year: “Hollywood Horror” and “Codebreakers.”

“That is a problem with a lot of escape rooms: Once a group comes in and does a room, they’re not going to come in and do the same room again,” Garner said.

In early 2018, he plans to develop two small spaces that can be transformed into escape rooms quickly at a customer’s request.

“They’re going to be interchangeable, so it’ll be fewer effects, less time, but less money, too,” Garner said. “ … I’ll be able to continually add new rooms, and hopefully keep people coming back over and over and over again.”

Garner strives to make each new room completely different and to ensure that all the puzzles fit seamlessly into the storylines.

As for whether the escape room trend is here to stay, Garner said he hopes so.

“That’s the thing with trends and fads — you never really know,” Garner said. “I hope this is something that continues forever, but if it’s something that it does look like it’s going to start fading away, I’ll evolve with whatever is going to take its place. I think the concept of escape rooms will stay, but maybe the face of it might look a little different.”

For more information or to make a reservation, visit or

Richard Sitler / Richard Sitler, The Southern 

Vehicle Collision

Emergency crew members work at the scene of a two-vehicle collision that occurred around 5 p.m. on Friday afternoon on Illinois Avenue between Industrial Park Road and Charles Road in Carbondale. No further information was available on the crash at press time. 

Carbondale Race Unity Group will support cheerleader protests, SIUC Africana Studies in 2018

CARBONDALE — Since a handful of folks started meeting once a week to discuss topics of race, more than 100 different people have showed up for these sessions.

These are meetings of the Race Unity Group, sessions that are open to the public.

"Others leave and don't come back for a variety of reasons," said Scott Martin, one of the organizers. "Talking about sensitive subjects like racial inequities and prejudices can wear some people out and make others uncomfortable, and it's easier to avoid those feelings by not addressing them."

The group that remains, however, is looking forward to the new year and new challenges, as its members enter a third year of trying to move the dial on race relations in Southern Illinois.

The work of the Race Unity Group was recently recognized by the Southern Illinois Chapter of the United Nations-USA, which awarded the group its  Human Rights Day Award.

For the new year, Martin said the group wants to find ways to support two issues: the protests by cheerleaders from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, as well as the continuation and expansion of the university's Africana Studies department.

During this past football season, three cheerleaders at SIU decided to protest police brutality by kneeling during the playing of the national anthem before games. After a range of reactions, including death threats, a change in procedure moved the cheerleaders off the field during the playing of the anthem, although university officials did not say the change was in direct response to the protest. The Race Unity Group's members include representatives from the law enforcement community.

The group also plans to host a showing on Jan. 30 of the PBS film "Sisters of Selma," about a group of St. Louis-area nuns who participated in the civil rights movement protests. They're also looking at scheduling another viewing of the film "Racial Taboo," a documentary on race relations in America that provided impetus for the group's founding.

For more information, visit the group's Facebook page at

Richard Sitler / Richard Sitler, The Southern 

Anna-Jonesboro's Logan Sawyer passes the ball to a teammate while Pinckneyville's J.C. Moll (left) and Dawson Yates try force a turnover during the second quarter at Pinckneyville on Friday.

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Alexander County
Illinois labor board to take up Local 773's unfair labor practice charge filed on behalf of ACHA workers

SPRINGFIELD — Sometime in 2018, the Illinois Labor Relations Board is expected to hear the unfair labor practice charge filed this summer by the Laborers’ International Union of North America Local 773 after federal housing officials moved to end the collective bargaining agreement between the Alexander County Housing Authority and the union representing employees.

According to records The Southern obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, ILRB Executive Director Kimberly Stevens moved to have the complaint heard at a hearing, which means that after an investigation, she determined that the state panel has jurisdiction over the matter, and that there are issues of law and fact to be determined.

In the “Complaint for Hearing” document she filed on Sept. 13, Stevens did not state an opinion on the matter, as the outcome will be determined during the hearing process in Springfield. A date has not been set yet for hearings to begin in Springfield, though Stevens said recently the process would likely begin next year.

The unfair labor practice charge filed by the Local 773 claims that the Alexander County Housing Authority “failed and refused to bargain in good faith.”

The charge was filed shortly after Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, on June 27, issued a determination directing the immediate abrogation of the collective bargaining agreement between the ACHA, which federal officials are operating under administrative receivership, and the Local 773, which up until that point had been representing all full-time employees of the local housing authority, as it had for years.

Employees at the time were working under the terms of a five-year contract agreed to in October 2010. Though the contract had expired, it included language the labor union interprets as continuing to cover employees until which time a new agreement is reached, which is common language in employer-labor contracts. The charge states that on June 26, the parties met for mediation but did not reach an agreement.

The memo from HUD came the following day, and it took union leaders by surprise. At the time, the then-general manager of the Local 773, Kevin Starr, told The Southern he thought progress had been made that day, and noted that mediation often takes multiple sessions to reach a deal.

But according to the union’s charge, on June 28 — on the heels of Carson issuing the memo — Towanda Macon, a member of HUD’s ACHA recovery team, informed employees their employment with the housing authority would end in 30 days, and that the contract no longer covered the terms of their employment. The Local 773's charge states that these decisions came following an agreement in May to proceed to mediation to assist efforts to reach a new agreement.

At the time, HUD spokesman Jereon Brown said that the decision was necessitated by the fact that the ACHA’s finances were seriously troubled, and that the agency could not afford to pay the salaries and benefits agreed to in the 7-year-old contract. In a letter around that time sent to the school district, Carson described the ACHA as “nearly bankrupt.” The memo Carson signed off on directing the ACHA to end the Local 773's collective bargaining agreement stated that it contained “extremely favorable terms for the employees and "no protection or flexibility for the ACHA.”

Richard Sitler / Richard Sitler, The Southern 

HUD Secretary Ben Carson speaks Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2017, at a public forum concerning the housing crisis in Cairo. 

Starr, who is no longer with the Local 773, called the contract “sloppy” in an interview in the fall of 2015. This summer, in response to HUD’s decision, Starr said that some of the benefits contained in the contract were excessive, but he said that some of those above-and-beyond the norm benefits, such as two retirement accounts for employees, were included at the request of James Wilson, the former executive director, not the Local 773.

Starr said, at the time, that he thought that there had been movement toward reaching an agreement fair to the ACHA and employees. 

In the ACHA’s official response filed with the ILRB, the local agency denies that the Local 773 represented employees at the time the contract was abrogated, which is at the heart of the legal matter. The reason it gives is that the contract had expired on Sept. 30, 2015. The contract in question states that it takes effect on Oct. 1, 2010, and "shall automatically continue year to year thereafter." It further states that either party wanting to change or modify the agreement was to give 120 days notice prior to the Sept. 30, 2015 expiration of the contract. HUD took over the ACHA on Feb. 22, 2016. 

At the time the decision was announced in June, Brown, of HUD, said ACHA employees were told that they would have the option of reapplying for a new set of positions that HUD created and deemed essential to carry out the duties of the housing authority within its financial constraints. 

The agency estimated that eliminating the positions of 19 full- and part-workers and then rehiring to fill specific needs would save the housing authority about $339,886 annually of the $705,550 it was paying in salary and benefits, according to a financial document that was provided to The Southern when the decision was announced. 

The workers were informed that all but one of the new positions would be part time, up to 32 hours, and that employees will no longer receive any benefits beyond pay, such as health insurance, annual bonuses or employer pension contributions, and no longer be covered by a collective bargaining agreement, Brown said in June. 

“This is completely illegal in our view and every resource we have we will use to make sure they follow the law,” Starr, of the Local 773, said at the time, in response. In September, the Local 773 removed Starr from his position as general manager as the union was placed under "emergency trusteeship" by the international.

In doing so, LIUNA’s Washington, D.C.-based president, Terry O’Sullivan, stated in a letter obtained by The Southern that the general manager was removed from the post related to multiple reports he was carrying firearms and ammunition “in a threatening matter at the local union hall and while on official union business, causing others to also carry firearms while attending union meetings.” Starr has declined to comment on the allegations to The Southern.

The Southern previously reported that Wilson, the former longtime director of the ACHA, and the Local 773, seemed to enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship, based on a review of numerous public records. As well, in 2013, HUD officials informed the ACHA it was a conflict of interest for John Price, the union negotiator, to also sit on the ACHA board. Records indicate that Price voted on contracts as a board member that he negotiated as the union representative for ACHA employees covered by the collective bargaining agreement.

Earlier this year, HUD successfully imposed a three-year debarment against Price for what the federal agency claimed was a conflict of interest. That means he is not allowed to participate in the administration of federally funded programs until the sanction expires.

If the ILRB hearing process comes out in the Local 773’s favor, the ACHA could be required to pay back wages and benefits, or other remedies. Brown, of HUD, said the ACHA, which remains in a financially precarious situation, has not set aside any funds to cover costs in the event the ruling is not in their favor. 

Trump signs, lauds tax overhaul, off to Florida for holidays

WASHINGTON — In the end, Donald Trump's top achievement as president— a $1.5 trillion tax overhaul — was finalized in a "rush job" of an affair. And that was OK with him.

None of the members of Congress who muscled through the biggest tax overhaul in 30 years were in the Oval Office on Friday as Trump signed the measure into law. That's because the president was not pleased with news coverage that morning questioning whether he would get the bill signed before Christmas. So he ordered up a spur-of-the-moment signing event where he ticked through what he described as the "tremendous" accomplishments of his first year in office.

"This is the capper," Trump said of the tax package, using his last moments of the year in the White House to sign the bill before flying to Florida for the holidays. He also signed a temporary spending bill to keep the government running and provide money to upgrade the nation's missile defenses.

But the tax cut was at the top of Trump's mind after months of struggling to deliver his agenda through a Republican-controlled Congress. Trump on Friday thanked the absent GOP leaders and called the bill "something I'm very proud of."

Then, with no legislators on hand, he offered to distribute pens from his signing event to reporters assembled in the Oval Office. Clearly feeling some end-of-year cheer, the president who loves to decry "fake news" gave reporters and camera crews credit for "working very hard" and said, "We really appreciate that."

Starting next year, the new tax law will deliver big cuts to corporation and wealthy Americans and more modest reductions to other families. The tax law is the largest since 1986, but far from the biggest in American history, as the president repeatedly claims.

The first major overhaul of the nation's tax laws since 1986 could add $1.5 trillion to the national debt over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Republican leaders have said they're willing to take that step in pursuit of a boost to the economy. But some in the GOP worry their party could face a political backlash without an aggressive public relations tour.

Trump continued to pitch the new law as a win for the middle class, insisting that even though polling indicates the tax cut is unpopular, the results will win people over.

"I don't think I'm going to have to travel too much to sell it" during the 2018 midterm elections, Trump said. "I think it's selling itself."

Passage of the tax bill marked a significant victory for a president hungry for a win after chaos and legislative failures during his first year in office. Trump also ended the year with his sights still trained on his treatment by the press, tweeting that the mainstream media "NEVER talk about our accomplishments in the end of year reviews."

"We are compiling a long @ beautiful list," he tweeted.

Trump did celebrate passage of the tax bill at with a big ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House earlier in the week. But he scrapped plans for a more formal signing ceremony in the new year to get it signed before heading to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.

"I said that the bill would be on my desk before Christmas," Trump said, as a Marine helicopter whirred outside, waiting to ferry him to Air Force One. "I didn't want you folks to say that I wasn't keeping my promise."

There were more big promises to come, including Trump's suggestion that he'll work with Democrats in the election year to rebuild the nation's roads and bridges. Infrastructure, he said, is "easy."

And there was no looking back.

Asked if he had any regrets, Trump shook his head and said, "No."