CARRIER MILLS — In 1993, the Sahara Coal Co. closed its doors and some 300 miners lost their jobs.
On Wednesday, Gov. Bruce Rauner visited that company’s reclaimed strip mine near Carrier Mills and announced that the state plans to develop a 26-mile off-highway vehicle trail system here, the first-of-its kind on state-owned land in Illinois.
Rauner said the trail system at The Sahara Woods State Fish and Wildlife Area will be a “tremendous boon for the economy here in Southern Illinois.”
“It’s going to bring a lot of good jobs,” he said.
Asked how many jobs he expected the trail system to bring to the economically depressed region that has suffered from the loss of mining jobs that have never been replaced, Rauner wasn’t able to say.
“I’ve seen different estimates, but I don’t know. Wayne, do you have the estimates?” Rauner said, deferring to Illinois Department of Natural Resources Director Wayne Rosenthal.
“I don’t think we actually know until we get through the design phase,” Rosenthal said.
After the event, Ed Cross, IDNR’s director of communications, said that there is not a firm date at this point for breaking ground at the site and more details will be forthcoming.
In 1999, six years after the company shut its doors, the state acquired the property from Sahara Coal. The 4,100 acres managed by IDNR is a serene natural area interspersed with timber and grasslands, small ponds and a large lake.
Rosenthal said the goal is to make this a place where people from all over will bring their families and stay for two or three days, generating economic activity throughout the broader region. Rauner said the trail system, which he hopes will open in the first half of 2019, will expand Southern Illinois tourism, help local motels and restaurants and other local businesses in Saline and Williamson counties.
Though short on details Wednesday, Rauner declared it will be a “great economic engine” for a region desperately in need of one.
As coal companies have downsized and closed, Saline County has been hit especially hard. Between 2000 and 2015, the percent of people living in poverty in the county increased 8.8 percentage points, to 23 percent, or nearly one in four people. More striking, the percent of children younger than 18 living in poverty increased from 19 percent to 35 percent during that same time frame in Saline County.
“This is what I’m fighting for. It’s the reason I ran for governor.” Rauner said when asked what he would do to address the broader issue of systemic and growing poverty that puts Southern Illinois’ southernmost Ohio River Valley counties on par with the economic conditions facing the Appalachian regions. Southern Illinois has been “particularly hurt” but is not alone as a region in economic suffering in Illinois, he said.
Rauner said that “what we need” is for “the state to free up businesses to come here” by reducing the tax burden and cutting regulations on businesses. “Southern Illinois is perfectly located. We should be a major economic engine,” he said.
In broad, vague terms, he also called for rolling back the “Madigan income tax hike,” lowering property taxes and restoring good government. “I’ve got, actually, dozens of companies who want to come to Illinois. They want to come to Southern Illinois,” Rauner said. But he said Illinois is losing out on that potential to neighboring states such as Indiana where “the property taxes are one-third, the workers’ comp costs are one-quarter.”
“They’d love to be in Illinois but the costs are prohibitive,” Rauner said.
An aide to Rauner cut off questions from media six minutes into a question-and-answer session following his announcement of the ATV park.
Sahara Woods is located about three miles northwest of Carrier Mills and five miles west of Harrisburg. According to state Sen. Dale Fowler, R-Harrisburg, 26 trail miles will be developed on 1,400 acres, just more than a third of the property. “This is a fantastic day for Saline County. This is a fantastic day for Southern Illinois,” Fowler said.
The trail system is being funded by a $1.3 million Federal Highway Administration Recreational Trails Program grant, and a roughly $300,000 commitment from IDNR.
Barb McKasson, conservation co-chair for Shawnee Group Sierra Club, said she was disappointed by the news as the group opposes the creation of the trail system on state-owned land. The noise of the off-road vehicles bother hunters and bird watchers, and can disrupt the natural habitat of the species who call the wildlife area home, she said. “I have seen ATV damage and it can turn areas into a muddy mess,” she said.
Hunter John, the off-road representative for A Brotherhood Aimed Toward Education, commonly known as ABATE Illinois, a nonprofit motorcycle rights organization, said this has been a project in the making for seven years. John dismissed the concerns of the Sierra Club, saying that the property is big enough to accommodate everyone and that off-road vehicle enthusiasts should have a place on state-owned ground to enjoy their sport, too.
He said the state’s share of the project is funded by the taxes paid by people purchasing off-road vehicles. John said it doesn’t make sense for the state to lose the business of off-road riders to other states.
Tim Aut, the owner of Mills Café in Carrier Mills, said he’s hopeful the trail system brings more people into his restaurant. He’s owned the cafe since 2001 at two different locations in the town of about 1,600. Business was good, but has fallen dramatically in the past few years since American Coal Co. began laying off workers and downsizing its operations in nearby Galatia in the fall of 2015.
That affects the discretionary income of coal miners, but also many others whose businesses revolves around the mines, such as truck drivers, Aut said. That’s really hit hard, he said, and only recently has business started to rebound — though not close to what it was, he said. Aut said he welcomes any ventures that might help boost the local economy.
“I don’t think people know how bad things are right now in Southern Illinois,” he said.
DU QUOIN — A valuable asset for Du Quoin's low-income community will be closing its doors for good this week.
The Salvation Army Thrift Store, which has called Du Quoin home for about eight years, will be shuttered because of budget problems, according to Jack Wang, a spokesperson for the SA. He attributed the need to close the facility to “the rising cost of operating.”
He said the decision was not any easy one — he said closing community access points to the Salvation Army is always hard.
“It always is because for so many small towns, the thrift store is how the citizens connect with the Salvation Army,” he said. He said they are aware, too, that the loss of jobs will also sting for the locals hired to run the shop.
Wang said the Salvation Army exists in about every ZIP code in the U.S. and has a dual mission.
“What people have to realize is that the SA as an organization is a ministry,” he said. This is in combination with its needs to also operate a successful business. He said this spiritual ministry, which he said is what separates a place like the SA from Walmart, is what guides the Salvation Army’s officers.
“They are called to in essence (help) their fellow man especially if their fellow man is in need,” Wang said.
Wang said while the Salvation Army is closing its storefront, they will still be offering rent and utility assistance through a partnership with Western Egyptian E.O.C.
Ashley Greer, Perry County community service coordinator for WEEOC, said residents looking for rent or utility assistance should visit their Du Quoin office. She said clothing vouchers are still available as well, but would need to be redeemed at the closest Salvation Army Thrift Store location.
Wang pointed out that there are still Salvation Army Thrift Store locations in West Frankfort, Marion and Harrisburg. He said there are no other Salvation Army locations in the area that are slated to be closed.
Du Quoin Mayor Guy Alongi said he only heard of the news a few weeks ago through social media. He said the Salvation Army Thrift Store helped key parts of his city.
“I think it served the low-income community real well,” he said, adding that while there are other places in town that also deal in reasonably priced, gently used clothing, having options is always good.
Alongi said his office was not contacted by the Salvation Army for assistance.
“The city of Du Quoin would have definitely done everything we could to keep it,” he said, adding that he was not sure what kind of assistance they could have lent, if any.
Alongi said he has not had anyone come to him expressing concern or disappointment over the closure, but he said he’s not surprised.
“I think that that’s just the mindset of people when they see something (like this) that they just know it’s probably being closed because of budget cuts,” he said.
Even still, though the closure of the Salvation Army Thrift Store might leave a hole in his city, Alongi said he has faith in the people he represents. He knows they are strong and community-minded, he said. However, he said losing any business is always hard, especially when Du Quoin has not had quite the rebound from the recent recession as other, larger cities in Southern Illinois have. But he feels Du Quoin will move forward.
“We make our way and we survive,” he said.
Colette Caplinger is the regional thrift store and social services director for The Salvation Army of Southern Illinois. Caplinger said she and her team have been honored to serve the Du Quoin community.
Caplinger plans to serve the whole of Southern Illinois this season by raising donations for their Tree of Lights campaign, a fundraising opportunity to support those needing food, rent and utility assistance. She is also helping coordinate the Angel Tree campaign — a program giving community members the opportunity to help purchase Christmas gifts for children who may otherwise have none.
After the Thrift Shop’s doors close for good Friday, Wang said the leftover merchandise will either be given to other retail locations or donated to area churches.
MARION — On Monday, Carterville Community Unit School District No. 5 followed through with its threat to file a lawsuit in Williamson County Court if the Village of Cambria adopted its proposed Tax Increment Financing (TIF) District Redevelopment Project Plan, Area and Project.
On Nov. 8, during a special school board meeting, the Carterville School Board voted down an intergovernmental agreement with the Village of Cambria and voted to retain counsel to sue if the village passed any ordinances related to adopting its proposed redevelopment plan.
Cambria’s village board met the next day and passed three ordinances pertaining to adopting its proposed redevelopment plan. The ordinances create a commercial and residential TIF district; designate slightly more than 95 percent of the village as the TIF project area, including both residential and commercial property; and allocate TIF funds.
The lawsuit says that the school district will suffer irreparable harm if Cambria is allowed to create a TIF district. Loss of funding will prevent the district from adequately educating its students for years to come. The district is asking for a temporary injunction to stop creating of the TIF district, followed by a permanent injunction to make sure the redevelopment plan is never adopted.
In the suit, the school district alleges that the Village of Cambria did not follow proper procedure with the board of review, saying the taxing bodies that share in the property taxes paid by Cambria residents submitted written objections Oct. 24, the same day as a public hearing on the redevelopment project plan.
The school district also alleges Cambria Village Board violated the TIF act in the following ways:
• Cambria’s classification of the TIF redevelopment plan area as a combination of blighted and conservation area is erroneous.
• Asserting that the redevelopment area as a whole has not been subject to growth and development by private enterprise and would not be reasonably subject to development without a redevelopment plan is erroneous.
• The redevelopment plan area includes noncontiguous parcels.
• The village did not provide proper administrative support to the board as required by 11-74-4-4 of the act.
The case is set for review Dec. 18. A hearing on a temporary injunction is scheduled for Nov. 20.