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SOUTHERN ILLINOIS - Rep. Brandon Phelps could hardly contain his glee.

He learned Wednesday that the state has set aside $325,000 in the capital budget to be used for the development of Sahara Woods State Park in Saline County and that an additional $150,000 would be devoted to the renovation of the Old Slave House in Gallatin County.

"Everything still hinges on the budget being passed, but I'm ecstatic. This is really great news," said Phelps, D-Norris City, during a phone interview. "I've been pitching these projects for a long time. I think they could bring millions of dollars to our area."

The Sahara Coal Company donated more than 4,000 acres of Saline County land six years ago to the state for an outdoor recreation area. The land, known as Sahara Woods, is bordered by Illinois 13 to the north, private property to the south, Carrier Mills blacktop to the east and Illinois Central Railroad tracks to the west.

The land will be developed for fishing, hiking, hunting, horseback riding, biking, and much more. Some land reclamation work has already been done at the property.

Phelps said a deer season bow hunt was so popular at the site last fall that some people had to be turned away.

"For too long that property's been sitting there doing nothing, but now we can develop the property and it can become a huge economic engine for us," Phelps said. "It can help put southeastern Illinois on the map."

The money budgeted for Sahara Woods, which includes a 100-acre lake, will be used to help build roads, picnic areas, hiking trails, boat ramps and possibly an office building.

Joe Bauer, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources in Springfield, said funding for the Sahara Woods state park project is money well spent.

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"This is money that is committed to Southern Illinois," Bauer said. "It's a little too early to say how soon the park will open to the public. We'll have to get in there and see how things progress."

Bauer said he is confident the park will be a huge attraction.

"New accessible parks are always a big draw for tourists," he said.

The Old Slave House near Equality is now a nationally recognized historic landmark. The National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program has recognized the historic mansion, because of its history as what amounted to a reverse underground railroad.

The house was recognized as a place where free black people were often kidnapped and kept and then sold back into slavery during the 1800s. The house was owned by John Crenshaw in the early and mid-1800s.

The house was operated privately as a tourist destination until the doors were closed in 1996.

"When the Old Slave House is re-opened, it will help all the businesses of Gallatin County because so many more people will come to visit the house," Phelps said.

"When I was elected representative, getting funding for these two projects was near the top of my list," Phelps said. "I'm just glad the governor sees the importance of both, too."

john.homan@thesouthern.com 618-997-3356 x15807

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