Lodge's condition has officials worried
But leaseholder says it wants to talk to DNR before it will discuss situation with others
SHELBYVILLE — Officials are getting increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress toward reopening the Eagle Creek Resort at Lake Shelbyville, shuttered and unused since mold problems prompted a court-ordered closure in July 2009.
Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, said he has asked Marc Miller, the director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, to meet with officials from BMDD Resorts Corp. of Decatur, which in 2010 was awarded the lease to operate the 138-room lodge, conference center and golf course.
Although the 18-hole golf course was open last year, there has been virtually no progress on renovating the lodge on Lake Shelbyville, about 70 miles southwest of Champaign-Urbana, said local officials.
"The thing just needs to be opened. That's the bottom line. If they're not going to open it, we need to find someone who will," said Rose, whose Senate district includes Lake Shelbyville.
BMDD Resorts executive Dennis Ballinger said he also has asked for a meeting with DNR officials "but I haven't heard back from anybody. I wanted to discuss our relationship and answer any questions they may have."
Ballinger said he didn't want to talk publicly about his relationship with DNR, or the lack of progress at the resort, before meeting with state officials.
"Honestly, I didn't want to talk to anyone but them about the issues," he said. "I need to give them the respect of discussing with them before I talk to you about this."
Meanwhile, Bruce Cannon, chairman of the Shelby County Board, said he too hopes to meet with DNR officials about the long-closed resort.
"Everyone on the county board is frustrated," he said. "We had invited the Ballingers (Dennis and Michael) down to try to get an update on where everything is at. He declined to come to a public meeting. He said he would meet with me one-on-one. But that doesn't do any good. I wanted to meet with him and with representatives of my board, not one-on-one."
Cannon said his concerns about Eagle Creek are "multifaceted."
"The county really needs the rooms for the amount of tourists and visitors we could have here," Cannon said. "Last year we had a Bassmasters fishing tournament here. Most of the fishing was done on Lake Shelbyville, but most of the rest of the stuff — the weigh-ins and the hotel rooms — went up to the Decatur Conference Center. This coming summer we have an opportunity to bring in a group of antique airplanes for a fly-in for a weekend. It would bring in probably 50 airplanes, and 50 airplanes bring in probably 50 people who need rooms. We really see the need here for rooms locally. And I receive numerous calls from tourists who just randomly call and say, 'Hey, when are you going to have some hotel rooms available around the lake?'"
Pauline Briney, who was mayor of Findlay when Eagle Creek opened in the 1986 and once called the resort "my baby," said she is disappointed with the lack of renovations.
"I want to help them all I can, but I think we have a right to know something about progress, or not progress," she said. "Now people keep telling me that it's never going to open. I can't stand to think that it wouldn't."
The DNR and BMDD have been at odds over the developer's plans to build a pro shop at the golf course, according to documents obtained by The News-Gazette under the Freedom of Information Act.
DNR officials wrote to the Ballingers that the "current lease agreement does not authorize the construction of an external pro shop" and that any new construction would need the agency's approval.
"While the Illinois DNR is prepared to continue considering your proposal, our primary focus is on completing the lodge renovation and reopening," Todd Rettig, the department's director of realty and environmental planning wrote to the Ballingers last August. "If sufficient progress is not made toward reopening the lodge, then new construction will no longer be considered."
A document provided by the Ballingers last fall shows they had spent more than $600,000 at the resort since 2010, on items ranging from sod and bunker remodeling at the golf course to mold remediation at the lodge. A report on mold sampling, dated Oct. 21, 2013, said that MMLP Ltd., a Springfield environmental engineering firm, had determined that levels of mold in the main wings of the lodge were believed to be acceptable.
The Ballingers were awarded the Eagle Creek lease in February 2010 over three other bidders. Since then, however, they have claimed that legal disputes with two banks prevented them from undertaking significant renovation. Still, Dennis Ballinger said at a public meeting in October 2012 that he believed the resort could reopen in 2014.
Rose said he felt optimistic about the resort's future when he met with DNR and local officials last spring.
"When they came in and showed us all the pictures of the interior of the building with all the mold remediated and everything was taken down to studs, I think most people were pleasantly surprised that work had been done on the interior of the building. And not a little bit but a lot. Getting rid of all that mold was significant. But when I was out there in December, it was nothing. It doesn't seem like anything had been done in the meantime," the state senator said.
"There does appear to be a legitimate issue about this court case. I'm trying to be as fair as I can, but when you see six months or more go by and little to nothing has been done, that's not acceptable," he said.
"It's time to fish or cut bait. If they're not going to do it, then the state needs to find someone who is."