Tom's Mailbag April 11, 2014

Tom's Mailbag April 11, 2014

Back from a short trip to North Carolina and it seems nothing has changed. All the questions/statements are about restaurants, state spending, County Clerk Gordy Hulten and road projects. I think I’m stuck in a mailbag rut, or maybe I’ve been typecast. It’s time for a new challenge, a new role. I hear Stephen Colbert’s job is available, although I’m hardly the right demographic for that one.

Seriously, I’m eager to answer queries about hockey, baseball, state politics, local and state history, highway conditions between Champaign-Urbana and Raleigh-Durham, N.C., the Durham Bulls and North Carolina barbecue.

A call for more poetry in the newspaper

“I’m a big fan of the Sunday poetry section. Is there any chance The News-Gazette would pick this up?”

Jim Rossow, executive editor of The News-Gazette, said he is always open to new ideas for the paper and, and will consider your suggestion. He also noted that The News-Gazette publishes past U.S. poet laureate Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry column every Sunday in the Features section. He also said that many people consider Loren Tate’s sportswriting to be poetry.

I agree. Here’s some gorgeous Tate poetry from October 2003:

“As the Cubs seek their first NL pennant since 1945, ‘wait ‘til next year’ has new meaning. Because, for the first time, the Cubs present a young staff that throws knee-knocking fear into the league’s best hitters.

“If Wrigley Field is a home run haven, it doesn’t matter if you can’t make contact.

“Face it, the Cubs can start any of three first basemen. They can flip a coin at catcher. There are middle-infielders abounding who can take grounders. And the Cubs can lose their best outfielder in the first half of the season (Corey Patterson), and wind up ahead of the game with perennial castoff Kenny Lofton.

“But they can’t replace Wood and Prior. They are the difference-makers and, as long as those two are healthy, the Cardinals and everybody else in baseball has a major problem.”

Expensive solar power

“I thought the state of Illinois was broke and that the University of Illinois was facing budget cuts, but I read Wednesday that the University of Illinois had agreed to pay $5.3 million more to purchase solar power, versus the cost for electricity purchased from conventional sources. How can the university and the state justify to the taxpayers this added cost?”

First, Illinois is not broke. It is hobbling along, to be sure. But it is paying its bills (late) and meeting its obligations (for now). For the first nine months of this fiscal year, the state took in $26.266 billion and spent $26.251 billion. `

Second, the project is part of a campus commitment to renewable, sustainable energy. Part of the funding will come from a sustainability fee approved by students several years ago. 

Julie Wurth wrote about this project in November 2012.

Here’s part of what she wrote ...

“As a developing technology, alternative energy is more costly than coal or other conventional sources and will likely remain that way for the next five or 10 years, officials said.

“‘I don’t know of a renewable energy project that costs less than conventional energy,’ said Jack Dempsey, executive director of UI facilities and services.

“‘This project is primarily about following up on our commitments,’ (Morgan) Johnston added.

“It would be the UI’s first solar farm, though solar panels were installed on the Business Instructional Facility and others are planned for the Electrical and Computer Engineering Building.

“The first project under the Climate Action Plan, a wind turbine on the south farms, never made it to fruition. The initial plan for three turbines was put on hold because of cost considerations in 2008. A scaled-back plan for one turbine surfaced in 2010 but was suspended again after objections from neighbors and the city of Urbana. Neighbors had complained about potential noise and disruption from the 400-foot turbines just outside Urbana city limits.”

And ...

“(UI junior Marika Nell) said the Student Sustainability Committee unanimously endorsed the project, with a few stipulations, in a straw poll in late October, so administrators could take the project to UI trustees this month. The committee tentatively agreed to contribute $350,000 a year for the next three years from the student sustainability fee, which generates $1.4 million annually.

“We need to move forward on renewable energy, and we need to be a leader even if it’s going to cost us a little bit, to show people we can do this,” said Brian Deal, professor of urban and regional planning, who helped draft the campus Climate Action Plan,

“We’re going to offset our coal use. Every kilowatt we produce at that solar farm means a kilowatt that we don’t buy from Ameren. ... Every kilowatt is a net savings in our carbon footprint.”

Gordy Hulten’s voter registration drives

“Before the recent primary election, County Clerk and election authority Gordy Hulten attended Sunday worship services at several churches in north Champaign, and apparently conducted voter registration drives for the congregations immediately afterward. Coincidentally (or perhaps not-so-coincidentally), these churches happened to be ones where the  

ministers later publicly endorsed Carol Ammons in her 103rd District race against Sam Rosenberg.

“At the same time, Mr. Hulten has made no secret of his strong support for his longtime friend and colleague, Kristin Williamson, on the Republican side of the race. In fact, he has even sent out messages on his Twitter account with accompanying photographs that show him wearing Kristin Williamson campaign shirts, as he helps out as a volunteer at her campaign headquarters or, in another shot, that show him posing in a different Williamson shirt for a group shot with other Williamson volunteers.

“Isn’t Mr. Hulten at all concerned that voters may perceive him as having helped to set up a race between Carol Ammons and Kristin Willamson, so that he could then shift his support to his longtime friend Williamson in the general election campaign?  Do you think, Tom, he will equally help both candidates in the general election campaign? Also, have you ever known of an election authority who actually attends Sunday worship services in order to register members of the congregation immediately afterward?”

Someone is searching hard for conspiracies.

The county clerk’s office has been a partisan office in Champaign County since 1833. When Hulten, a Republican, took office he pledged to run it fairly and honestly, the same as the state’s attorney, sheriff and coroner. If they don’t, the opposite parties can and should challenge them. So far the Champaign County Democratic Party has been unable to find someone to run against Hulten. But it’s not too late.
Hulten is free to support fellow Republicans outside of his official work, just as Democratic clerk David Orr does in Cook County or Democratic clerk Lynn Foster does in Vermilion County. As for registering voters at worship services, why is that any different than registering voters at the Saturday Market at the Square, the county fair, park district festivals in north Champaign or Quad Day at the University of Illinois? 

Do you really want to criticize someone for registering voters?

Road work

“I noticed what appear to be construction signs going up along I-74 a couple miles east of Prairie View Road in Mahomet, and at the Prospect Avenue and Neil Street to westbound I-74 on ramps. What work is about to start?”

Illinois Department of Transportation program development engineer Craig Emberton said the signs are related to upcoming work on cable rail barriers that are being installed in the median along I-74 from around Prospect Avenue to west of Duncan Road.

You’d better get accustomed to slowing down for work along I-74 this summer. Emberton said there also will be roadway patchwork done on both I-74 and I-57 in the coming months as well as a new surface applied to the I-57/I-74 interchange ramps.

As an aside, in today’s “50 years ago” column it was noted that in April 1964 the Illinois director of public works and state buildings was advertising for bids on several area projects, including construction of the original interchange (still in place) between I-74 and I-57 northwest of Champaign. 

“The interchange project will be for the construction of 2.29 miles of highway, including eight ramps at the interchange and 1.37 miles of pavement on the relocated U.S. Route 150 northwest of Champaign,” The News-Gazette reported.

What people want to replace Prairie Fire 

People in Champaign-Urbana don’t seem to appreciate locally owned restaurants, which may explain in part Prairie Fire’s lack of success at the South Neil Street location, along with what I thought was only fair service. Apparently most people in Champaign-Urbana would prefer to dine on the same stuff you can get in Peoria, Naperville or Fort Wayne, Ind.

— “JOE’S CRAB SHACK!!! Should be in the building of Prairie Fire.”

— “I would love to see them bring back Snacks Fifth Avenue.”

— “Famous Dave’s”

— “Well, I know I asked about this recently, but AURELIO’S PIZZA would fit like a glove in that location. If not them, how about something like Joe’s Crab Shack?”

— “I’d like to see a Joe’s Crabshack or even another Texas Roadhouse in town. Either of those would most likely be successful.”


Thanks for the mail. Looking forward to a new batch.

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gamera wrote on April 11, 2014 at 2:04 pm

Black Dog, Farren's, Big Grove, Radio Maria, Minneci's, Sakanaya, Yellowfin, Kamakura, Escobar's, heck even ZORBA's...all these locally owned restaurants THRIVE in CU.

Prairie Fire had nothing special (kitchen sink menu with nothing unique) and the service was terrible. You can't have a thriving restaurant if you don't have something special that drives people to your tables. And poor service is a death knell for a restaurant. 

I have no idea where these comments come from, but most folks I know specifically seek out locally owned restaurants becasue that's what makes CU special....

shurstrike wrote on April 11, 2014 at 3:04 pm

....and don't forget Maize, Milo's, Crane Alley......

Another thing to keep in miind is that as a new business, they seemed to sink an awful lot of their start-up capital into their facility. Something that most of the venues you noted have in common are relatively modest facilities. Add that to their high rent and they had very little room for error. I never got to eat there, but from what I'm hearing it isn't a bad thing.


jdmac44 wrote on April 11, 2014 at 3:04 pm

What I didn't appreciate was TGIF's lease not being renewed (at least that was my understanding of it).  I liked the TGIF location there, I get comfortable with my favorites, I appreciate the familiarity, whereas developers seem to think that everyone wants New and Improved, though I suppose I've seen where that does bring in customers, at least for awhile, but then I've seen new places boom and then bust (e.g. Meatheads doesn't seem as popular as it was when it first opened, not even close).  The name "Prairie Fire" didn't really capture my imagination and then there was the big "SPIN ZONE" sign, I didn't care to know what that was about.  I'm weird, but it just didn't attract me and then the word of mouth was the last nail in the coffin for me; lackluster.  

ROB McCOLLEY wrote on April 11, 2014 at 10:04 pm
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The name did not connote "delicious food," from my persepective.  Around these parts, it's a TV documentary show. So when I heard it, I thought "public television."


In the 90s, it was west coast slang for a yeast infection: also not Pavlov material for my saliva glands..

SaintClarence27 wrote on April 15, 2014 at 3:04 pm

I never ate there, but I probably would have if I hadn't gotten stories about bad service. Tom needs to understand that for a lot of people, quality is the issue. I try to only eat at locally owned restaurants, but I also don't want to waste my money on a bad experience.

Mr Dreamy wrote on April 11, 2014 at 5:04 pm

Cubs fans, fools that they are, think the Cardinals are their rivals. Cardinals fans know that Cincinnati is the rival team. The Cubs to the Cardinals rivalry is akin to me and Steve Stricker. We've both played U of I Orange at Savoy, but he has no concern about me. And when the Cubs win a game against the Redbirds, it's like letting your little sister win at checkers. It doesn't matter, but it makes her feel good.

Go Cards!