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YEAR IN REVIEW | Top 10 News Stories

Chaos in Cairo, total solar eclipse, SIUC restructuring: These are The Southern's top moments of 2017

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The news staff at The Southern voted on the biggest stories of 2017 for Southern Illinois. Here are the top 10 stories that defined the year in our region.

1. Chaos in Cairo

We’ve covered the plight of Cairo for more than two years, and in April, the situation in the state’s most southern city came to a head when HUD announced that residents of the run-down McBride and Elmwood housing complexes would have to move. HUD said the complexes would be destroyed.

The complexes, which have been a part of Cairo since World War II, house nearly 200 families.

This did not sit well with residents.

“Until you feel our reality, you can’t feel how we feel,” Kevin McAllister, a resident of Elmwood, said in a heated April meeting where HUD announced its plan.

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Alexander County Public Housing

Kevin McAllister demands answers during a resident meeting at which Housing and Urban Development officials announced they planned to relocate about 185 families from two 1940s-era public housing developments. The meeting was held at the First Missionary Baptist Church in Cairo Monday, April 10, 2017. 

Since the announcement, about half of the complexes’ residents have found new housing. But confusion and anger have been an underlying feeling for residents.

Around Thanksgiving, residents received a letter stating they “must relocate from Elmwood and McBride immediately” even though they were previously told that there is not a deadline by which they must vacate the complexes slated for demolition.

In response to the letter, HUD spokesman Jereon Brown said, “Ideally, we’d like to relocate all the residents to better housing by the summer of 2018.”

In late November, HUD filed a complaint against former Alexander County Housing Authority managers James Wilson and Martha Franklin, alleging the two used federal public housing dollars for travel and gifts and submitted false documentation to HUD. HUD took over the ACHA in 2016.

The situation also prompted an August visit from HUD Secretary Ben Carson. The former Republican candidate for president toured the city and spoke at an event at the high school. He said one of the things he’s thought about is with more national exposure and a good marketing plan “would it be possible to help the rest of the nation to recognize the opportunity that exists in this area.”

2. Eclipse

On Monday, Aug. 21, the eyes of the world were upon Carbondale and Southern Illinois.

In Carbondale, the city had planned for a weekend full of activities before Monday’s big event, but it started out slow. But, by Sunday night and Monday morning, people chasing the Great American Eclipse arrived.

Based on crowd counts, Carbondale city officials estimated that the eclipse brought as many as 50,000 people to the city proper. And according to the Illinois Office of Tourism, 200,000 people traveled to the 16-county region for precious extra seconds of totality.

Local officials said they took note for the next solar eclipse, which comes April 8, 2024.

“The reality was, even though we had events going on, many people opted to arrive really late on Saturday, and so they didn’t even start interacting in the activities until sometime on Sunday, and then many visitors opted to just come in sometime on Sunday and either sleep in their car or do overnight tent camping. And of course we know that many just came in on Monday all by themselves. So that’s why I think that this is just a one-day event, possibly a one-day, one-night kind of thing,” said Cinnamon Wheeles-Smith, executive director of Carbondale Tourism.

All in all, it was a great event for Southern Illinois — even if a few unlucky people had the nearly-three-minute event covered by a cloud.

“We probably over-prepared a bit, and normally I’m not an advocate for over-planning, but in this case I think we had to, just because we didn’t know how many people were coming to Carbondale,” said City Manager Gary Williams. “But looking back, I wouldn’t have done it any differently.”

3. State budget

In July, the Illinois House voted to override Gov. Bruce Rauner's veto of a budget package, giving the state its first state budget in more than two years. It ended the nation's longest fiscal stalemate since at least the Great Depression.

Rauner rejected the measures because, he said, he saw no indication that the Democratic-controlled Legislature would send him the "structural" changes he's demanded. Those include a statewide property tax freeze, cost-cutting restrictions on compensation for injured workers, changes to pension benefits for state employees, and reforms making it easier for voters to merge or eliminate local governing bodies.

Rauner described the override vote as "another step in Illinois' never-ending tragic trail of tax hikes."

The income tax increase means individuals will pay 4.95 percent instead of 3.75 percent. The corporate rate jumps to 7 percent from 5.25 percent.

After more than two years without a budget, the struggle began to show in 2017. Credit-rating houses threatened to downgrade the state's creditworthiness to "junk," signaling to investors that buying state debt is a highly speculative venture.

The standoff had other effects as well. Road construction work shut down. Public universities were cut to the bone and faced a loss of academic accreditation. The United Way predicted the demise of 36 percent of all human-services agencies in Illinois by year's end.

At the time the budget was done, Illinois had a $6.2 billion annual deficit and $14.7 billion in overdue bills. Since, that number has gone down, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.

And, there’s no guarantee that a budget agreement can be reached in 2018. The governor will make his budget address in February.

4. Butler to retire

On Dec. 1, Marion Mayor Robert Butler announced that he plans to retire Jan. 31. He has been the mayor since he was elected in April 1963, and is one of the longest serving mayors in both Illinois and the U.S. Among mayors still holding office, Butler is second to Charles E. Long of Booneville, Kentucky.

Since Butler has taken office, there is no doubt that Marion has grown exponentially. He refers to Marion as “The hub of the universe.”

The population of Marion was 11,274 when Butler took office in 1963. According to 2015 figures, Marion’s population stands at 17,803.

“I believe the structure and organization of the city and smooth manner in which city affairs are conducted is one of our greatest accomplishments,” Butler said in a story earlier this month. “The city was in complete and utter chaos when I became mayor.”

When Butler took over, the city also was in a deep financial crisis. As an example, Butler said the street superintendent could not get $1.25 credit at a local lumber yard to buy stakes for the city.

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Marion Mayor Bob Butler reflects on 55 years in office following the announcement on Friday, Dec. 1, that he would be retiring at the end of January.

Look at Marion now.

When Butler leaves office at the end of January, Commissioner Anthony Rinella will take over. It will be the first time since John F. Kennedy was our president that someone other than Butler will be the mayor of Marion.

“I have thought of Marion as a special place. With that in mind, I have tried to help make that true,” Butler said.

5. Morthland College

In September, officials from the Illinois Board of Higher Education visited Morthland College in West Frankfort after the U.S. Department of Education earlier this year revoked the school's ability to access federal student aid funds and fined the college for an alleged "breach of fiduciary duty."

The visit meant that the college was to be the subject of an “official institutional investigation” based on a letter IBHE received from the U.S. Department of Education on Aug. 22.

Since then, the college has been subject to many issues including court decisions, tax sales, fines and liens.

Morthland College’s accrediting body, Transnational Association of Christian Colleges, changed its status in November to accredited under probation.

Tim Eaton, president of Transnational Association of Christian Colleges, said the move “basically is financial” and was also in part due to potential compliance issues with federal agencies. “We have a standard that requires that (those) participating in federal financial aid to be in compliance with the regulations,” he said. “What we’ve determined on putting the institution on probation is that there (is) possible noncompliance.”

Eaton said the year probation period is designed to allow maximum fairness to students. He said allowing the college at least the next academic year — no decisions will be made until the commission’s fall 2018 meeting — will let students nearing graduation to finish their coursework.

The college is still being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education as well as by the Illinois Board of Higher Education because of the recent emergency action.

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Investigators from the Illinois Board of Higher Education arrive at Morthland College on Monday, Sept. 25, 2017, in West Frankfort to begin an institutional investigation detailed in a September letter from the IBHE to the school.

6. Juan Carlos Hernandez Pacheco

In February, the national news world was in West Frankfort for the story of Juan Carlos Hernandez Pacheco.

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Carlos Hernandez Pacheco

Carlos Hernandez Pacheco is pictured in this 2015 photo holding his youngest of three boys. 

Hernandez, 38, from Mexico, was arrested at his home in West Frankfort on Feb. 9 and held in a Missouri jail until the end of February. He was held over questions about his legal status in the U.S. Hernandez is the manager of La Fiesta Mexican Restaurant in West Frankfort.

While he was in jail, letters of support from neighbors and business associates flooded in. The letters will be presented as part of his plea to the court for him to remain in the U.S. with his family, and the long list of letter-writers in his support include West Frankfort Mayor Tom Jordan, Fire Chief Jody Allen and Assistant Chief of Police Shawn Talluto.

Pacheco’s case highlights an interesting wrinkle in political psychology, as we wrote in February. The immigration debate that is often spoken of in abstract about the faceless millions takes on another meaning when it becomes about the immigrant one knows and loves.

“I would think that everybody has got to give a different thought to this,” said Tim Grigsby, owner of Simple Solutions Printing in West Frankfort and a close friend of Hernandez. “There’s good people and bad people all over the place. This guy here — he’s one in a million. He’s the whole deal.”

Many news outlets from throughout the United States picked up on the story — including the New York Times. In December, The Times came back to West Frankfort to host a forum about Pacheco and the many other issues that face Middle America.

Pacheco’s case is scheduled to be heard in 2021.

7. SIUC restructuring

For years, enrollment has been declining at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

Because of this, new Chancellor Carlo Montemagno presented a reorganization plan after starting the job in mid-August. Montemagno’s plan was met with skepticism and support.

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SIU Chancellor Carlo Montemagno poses for a portrait in his office.

“Things aren’t getting better. And it’s quite scary,” he said. “You’ll hear a lot of discussion about how we need to discuss this more, how changes are happening too fast, how they’re ill-conceived. What I want to point you to is some work that’s been done in this university for a very, very long time.”

The chancellor’s plan would trim the university’s eight academic colleges down to five. Those colleges would contain 15 schools, which would house programs. Montemagno argues that his plan to eliminate the university’s 42 departments will allow for more interdisciplinary work and elevate the status of the university. A key element of the plan is the elimination of department chairs, which he contends would save about $2.3 million in administrative costs.

Now, there’s still a lot to be done as it comes to the chancellor’s plan. In fact, there’s going to be a lot more done in 2018.

Board chair Randal Thomas said it would take some time to review the hefty documents pertaining to the plan. “We have our homework to do,” he said.

Since Montemagno’s announcement outlining his plan, SIUC’s Faculty Association, the Graduate and Professional Student Council, and the Undergraduate Student Council all passed resolutions opposing the unilateral elimination of departments.

The chancellor has said he hopes to implement the changes July 1, 2018.

8. Montemagno hired as chancellor

carlo montemagno mug

Montemagno

In July, for the first time in nearly three years, Southern Illinois University Carbondale finally had a full-time, permanent chancellor after the Board of Trustees approved Carlo Montemagno as chancellor. Montemagno took over the Carbondale campus on Aug. 15.

Montemagno, who was one of six candidates to be considered for the role, was a professor of engineering at the University of Alberta's Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering and founder of the Ingenuity Lab for the Province of Alberta.

“SIU Carbondale is an institution that possesses the DNA of greatness. It is an institution with strong genes that enable opportunity, creativity and discovery,” Montemagno said when he was hired. “By engaging with the entire SIUC community — including faculty, staff, students, alumni, friends, the Southern Illinois community and industry — we will fully activate SIUC’s DNA to realize the possible.

“The jewel that is SIUC is bright, and I am confident that by working together we will make it brilliant.”

Brad Colwell, who was one of the finalists under consideration, served in the interim role since September 2015. He remained at SIU, becoming vice president for academic affairs for the SIU system.

“(Montemagno) is going to be a very strong champion for SIU Carbondale. Obviously, given his background, he wants to strengthen the roots of the university as a national research institution and is already talking about ways to do that, including bringing his own lab to the campus, or as much as we can,” Dunn said.

9. Feb. 28 tornado

On Feb. 28 — toward the end of winter — a tornado ripped through Elkville, Vergennes and other local communities, damaging property and tearing up homes.

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Elkville tornado damage

Crews from Ameren Illinois and the Egyptian Electric Cooperative were out in force March 1, 2017, in the Elkville area to repair downed power lines and broken power poles from the tornado that struck the area the previous evening.

A week later, the National Weather Service in Paducah rated the tornado an EF-4. NWS said the tornado had estimated peak wind speed of 180 miles per hour and a path 50.4 miles long. The tornado killed one person in Perry County, Missouri, and injured 12.

The tornado set down at 7:55 p.m., 4.8 miles west-northwest of Perryville, Missouri. It lifted at 8:57 p.m., 1.8 miles southwest of Christopher.

In Southern Illinois, the storm damaged 46 homes, 12 of which were a total loss, according to a report from the Jackson County Sheriff's Office and the Jackson County Emergency Management Agency. Four Jackson County residents were treated at local hospitals for minor injuries from flying debris.

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Elkville Tornado

A home damaged by storms that struck Elkville Feb. 28, 2017.

In Franklin County, Sheriff Donnie Jones said three homes were destroyed in Six Mile Township, which is near Mulkeytown. The majority of the damage was on Yellow Bank Road in the township. Two of the homes of were occupied, but there were no known injuries.

10. Interstate 57 issues

2017 was full of issues and fatal crashes that happened on a stretch of Interstate 57 from Mount Vernon to Cairo. At times, it seemed like there were crashes daily.

In fact, during one four-day stretch in October, there were five reported crashes.

The headlines this past year were littered with crashes, fires and accidents that occurred on the stretch of road — a number of the issues happened at the interchange at Interstate 24.

Illinois State Police has beefed up its presence on the interstate, but it hasn’t seemed to slow down the incidents. Just last week a fatal crash closed the interstate for a few hours.

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