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Walker’s Bluff
Illinois Gaming Board vote brings Walker's Bluff casino project closer to reality
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Walker's Bluff Casino & Resort in Carterville is a step closer to reality. 

The Illinois Gaming Board voted Wednesday to grant a determination of "preliminary suitability" for the project, a crucial step forward in the licensing process.

It comes as Walker's Bluff officials and organized labor expressed confidence that a project-labor agreement for construction of the $150 million complex could be signed soon, a necessity due to legislation signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Thursday. 

The proposed facility, which would be built and operated by Iowa-based Elite Casino Resorts, would include a casino with 650 slots and 20 table games, a sportsbook, a 116-room hotel that includes a pool and spa, an events center for weddings and meetings and several restaurants. 

Walker's Bluff was one of six locations authorized under the state's 2019 gaming expansion legislation. To this point, the only other location to receive preliminary approval is Rockford.

Mo Hyder, an Elite official involved with the development, labeled it "a monumental day" for Southern Illinois. 

"We are very excited to bring a beautiful resort to Southern Illinois and we're certainly going to build something that the entire community is going to be very proud of," Hyder said. "It's going to be an economic engine that's definitely going to create jobs and, of course, an opportunity to engage a lot of businesses in the local area."

A finding of preliminary suitability is not final licensure, but allows Walker's Bluff officials to move forward with laying the groundwork that could lead to shovels in the ground. 

"Our goal is to start as expeditiously as possible in the interest of all parties involved," Hyder said. "So we will follow the gaming board's guidance on what their specific requirements are in terms of what they need for us to submit to them and when and what approvals are necessary in order to get the process started."

It's a major step albeit a delayed one. Gaming officials in October 2020 pushed back a vote at least six months, citing the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Another factor with the potential to derail the project is the lack of a project-labor agreement for the casino's construction. 

Perhaps hoping to nudge negotiations along, state lawmakers approved legislation last month requiring that all casino applicants enter into a PLA when seeking a new or renewed license. It was signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Thursday. 

"The whole initiative of this is to ensure that Southern Illinois people have an opportunity to go to work and to be able to build this resort, which was advocated from the initial stages," said state Sen. Dale Fowler, R-Harrisburg, the bill's sponsor. 

With it now law, pending casino applicants have 30 days to show evidence of a signed PLA in place. 

Walker's Bluff stakeholders and organized labor have been negotiating for months to reach a PLA and have indicated one is not far down the pike. 

"It's one of the things we need to comply with as part of the licensing as well once that becomes a rule," Hyder said. "So we will comply with the requirement of ensuring that we have a PLA in place in time to meet all the specific criteria to start construction."

Clint Walker, president of the Egyptian Building and Construction Trades Council, added that "at the end of the day, we had some good meetings and hopefully get this thing signed and get going here soon."

Hyder said that once awarded a casino license, the group would commence with construction of a temporary casino that'd have about 400 slots and some table games. It'd be open about nine months after the license is awarded.

Once the temporary facility is built, construction would begin on the permanent facility, which would take about 15 months to complete.

The temporary casino would then be converted into the complex's events venue for weddings and meetings once the permanent facility is open. 

The project could lead to more than 1,000 construction jobs.  

"We've been struggling in Southern Illinois with good-paying jobs," Fowler said. "And so these are not only good-paying jobs, this is going to be a world class resort, and it needs to be built with Southern Illinois labor."

9 films set or filmed in Illinois (but not Chicago)

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Aetna Better Health of Illinois donates freezers, refrigerators to area food banks
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As Mona Crim turned to put another bunch of turnips in the refrigerator Thursday, she couldn’t help but smile.

The food pantry director for Harrisburg’s Christian Community Compassion Center was not necessarily grinning about the root vegetables she was putting away —rather, hers was a smile of gratitude.

The refrigerator that would house the turnips had arrived at the food bank just the day before, a gift – or “a blessing” as she called it – from Aetna Better Health of Illinois.

The Compassion Center was one of 34 Southern Illinois food pantries being presented this week with a total of 51 new refrigerators and freezers to help the non-profit agencies serve people in need.

Aetna Better Health of Illinois, which handles the state’s Medicaid managed care program, is delivering and installing the new appliances in food banks from McLeansboro to Jonesboro at no cost to the pantries.

The company worked through the Southern Illinois Food Pantry Network to award the commercial-grade refrigerators and freezers to food pantries in the 16 southernmost Illinois counties. The total value of the appliances is about $138,000.

“This collaboration with Aetna Better Health of Illinois is helping us achieve our mission to reduce hunger and improve the health of our communities through increasing access to healthy and nutritious food. We are excited to support more than 30 area food pantries in their efforts to increase cold storage and bring healthier, fresh foods to their communities,” said SIFPN representative Toni Kay Wright in a statement released by Aetna Better Health of Illinois.

In Harrisburg, Crim said the gift will help her agency better serve clients.

“Before, we were having trouble when the trucks came in. If we got too many eggs, for example, we’d have to find a way to store them,” she explained. “Now we have plenty of space. This upgrades us tremendously and is going to be wonderful for the people we serve.”

She said the gift is “like Christmas in June.”

At the Murphysboro Food Pantry on Thursday morning, Megan Austin, director, was eagerly waiting for delivery of a new refrigerator and freezer. She said the donation literally fills a need.

“We had a freezer that went out on us and now we’re able to replace it. We are so blessed to get this,” she said. “These will allow us to store what we need up front in the pantry and it’s a real help to our volunteers and to those we serve.”

Austin said her pantry serves between 60 and 80 area families each week 

In a prepared statement, Aetna Better Health of Illinois CEO Kim Foltz, said, “Food insecurity leads to poor health outcomes. The Southern Illinois Food Pantry Network and its partners provide a critical lifeline to healthy foods for families in hard-to-reach and underserved areas. With 25 percent of residents living in areas designated as food deserts, these pantries provide much needed access to healthy foods.”

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From art to aviation, SIU summer camps engage students
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Luci Vick does not own a horse — yet.

But if and when the 12-year-old from Tamms is able to convince her parents to get her one of her own, she will be better prepared to care for it and know better how to ride after participating in “Saddle Up,” one of dozens of summer camps at Southern Illinois University.

Campers are learning how to fly airplanes, become better students, speak another language, play better on the field or stage through a variety of in-person and virtual camps for ages 5-18.

The university is offering more than two dozen camps, coordinated by the university’s conference and scheduling services office and offered on campus and at other locations.

At the university’s Equine Center on McLafferty Road, Vick and her fellow campers learned everything from horse anatomy to nutrition, horse care and riding skills, explained SIU Associate Professor Erin Perry who worked with the campers. Perry said participation in the camps gives students insight into potential career paths and more.

“These students are getting to explore new fields and they're growing their self-confidence, too,” she said. “I’m sure many wouldn’t get some of these same experiences outside of camps. This is a unique opportunity.”

At the SIU Transportation Education Center at the Southern Illinois Airport, a group of first-through-third graders spent time looking at the instruments and controls in a small aircraft before discovering how the technology makes a plane fly. They used toy models to understand propellers and designed, folded and decorated paper airplanes to learn concepts of lift.

Next week, another group of students will tour buildings to learn more about buildings and design, while others explore different art mediums and styles.

In July, students can participate in esports – competitive, multiplayer video gaming — or learn more about careers in advertising or accounting.

“There is such a variety of camps this year,” Sarah Vanvooren, associate director of conference and scheduling services, said. “We have some day camps, some virtual opportunities and some overnight camps as well.”

She said some camps are half-days, like the "Saddle Up" camp, while others are daylong. Most meet for five sessions.

Vanvooren stressed that camps were developed for the summer with the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions in mind, but said she is thrilled with the number opportunities available. Despite concerns, she said the number of campers registered for this year’s programs is high.

“I think people are really excited about getting their kids out and doing things this summer,” she said.

She added that camps are a great summer option for families where both parents work or where children are simply looking for things to do. She said not only do the participants enjoy themselves, they learn from professionals.

“One of the things that is really awesome about these camps is that they are hosted and led by educational professionals in their fields. So if you go to architecture camp, it is with an architecture professor; if it’s baseball camp, it is the actual Saluki Baseball coaches.”

Vanvooren said spots remain open for many of the camps. More information is available at

US consumer prices surge
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WASHINGTON — American consumers absorbed another surge in prices in May — a 0.6% increase over April and 5% over the past year, the biggest 12-month inflation spike since 2008.

The May rise in consumer prices that the Labor Department reported Thursday reflected a range of goods and services now in growing demand as people increasingly shop, travel, dine out and attend entertainment events in a rapidly reopening economy.

The increased consumer appetite is bumping up against a shortage of components, from lumber and steel to chemicals and semiconductors, that supply such key products as autos and computer equipment, all of which has forced up prices. And as consumers increasingly venture away from home, demand has spread from manufactured goods to services — airline fares, for example, along with restaurant meals and hotel prices — raising inflation in those areas, too.

In its report Thursday, the government said that core inflation, which excludes volatile energy and food costs, rose 0.7% in May after an even bigger 0.9% increase in April, and has risen 3.8% over the past year. That is the sharpest 12-month jump in core inflation since 1992. And it is far above the Federal Reserve's 2% target for annual price increases.

Among specific items in May, prices for used vehicles, which had surged by a record 10% in April, shot up an additional 7.3% and accounted for one-third of May's overall price jump. The price of new cars, too, rose 1.6% — the largest one-month increase since 2009.

The jump in new and used vehicle prices reflects supply chain problems that have caused a shortage of semiconductors. The lack of computer chips has limited production of new cars, which, in turn, has reduced the supply of used cars. As demand for vehicles has risen, prices have followed.

But higher prices were evident in a wide variety of categories in May, including household furnishings, which rose 0.9%, driven by a record jump in the price of floor coverings. Airline fares rose 7% after having increased 10.2% in April. Food prices rose 0.4%, with beef prices jumping 2.3%. Energy costs, though unchanged in May, are still up 56.2% in the past year.

Meanwhile, the number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits fell for the sixth straight week as the U.S. economy, held back for months by the coronavirus pandemic, reopens rapidly.

Jobless claims fell by 9,000 to 376,000 from 385,000 the week before, the Labor Department reported Thursday. The number of people signing up for benefits exceeded 900,000 in early January and has fallen more or less steadily ever since. Still, claims are high by historic standards. Before the pandemic brought economic activity to a near-standstill in March 2020, weekly applications were regularly coming in below 220,000.

Nearly 3.5 million people were receiving traditional state unemployment benefits the week of May 29, down by 258,000 from 3.8 million the week before.

From the cereal maker General Mills to Chipotle Mexican Grill to the paint maker Sherwin-Williams, a range of companies have been raising prices or plan to do so, in some cases to make up for higher wages they're now paying to keep or attract workers. This week, for example, Chipotle Mexican Grill announced it was boosting menu prices by roughly 4% to cover the cost of raising its workers' wages. In May, Chipotle had said that it would raise wages for its restaurant workers to reach an average of $15 an hour by the end of June.

Andrew Hunter, a senior U.S. economist at Capital Economics, noted that the price category that covers restaurant meals jumped 0.6% last month. He took that as evidence that labor shortages at restaurants, hotels and other service sector companies are beginning to fuel wage and price increases.

The inflation pressures are not only squeezing consumers but also posing a risk to the economy's recovery from the pandemic recession. One risk is that the Fed will eventually respond to intensifying inflation by raising interest rates too aggressively and derail the economic recovery.

The central bank, led by Chair Jerome Powell, has repeatedly expressed its belief that inflation will prove temporary as supply bottlenecks are unclogged and parts and goods flow normally again. But some economists have expressed concern that as the economic recovery accelerates, fueled by rising demand from consumers spending freely again, so will inflation.

The question is, for how long?

"The price spikes could be bigger and more prolonged because the pandemic has been so disruptive to supply chains," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics. But "by the fall or end of the year," Zandi suggested, "prices will be coming back to earth."

So far, Fed officials haven't deviated from their view that higher inflation is a temporary consequence of the economy's rapid reopening, with its accelerating consumer demand, and the lack of enough supplies and workers to keep pace with it. Eventually, they say, supply will rise to match demand.

Officials also note that year-over-year gauges of inflation now look especially large because they are being measured against the early months of the pandemic, when inflation tumbled as the economy all but shut down. In coming months, the year-over-year inflation figures will likely look smaller.