Tom's Mailbag June 20, 2014

Tom's Mailbag June 20, 2014

Short week for me but lots of questions in the mailbag. Here you go ...

July 4th fireworks

“Is the setup for the 4th of July fireworks the same this year at the University of Illinois? There is lots of construction near the two arenas.”

According to the Champaign County Freedom Celebration Committee’s website ( this year’s setup is the same as last year’s. 

“The evening’s festivities begin at 7 p.m. with musical entertainment on the main stage which will be located along Kirby Ave between First & Oak streets. There will also be children’s activities (bounce house/inflatables). Parking is available in the State Farm Center and Activities and Recreation Center (ARC) parking lots. Following the music, at around 9:10 p.m., there will be some announcements and presentations. After the announcements, there will be the singing of our National Anthem, an invocation, and then the retiring of our nation’s flag by a color guard. Immediately following, the always-entertaining fireworks display.”

Noisy Fluid Events

“Tom, I live about 175 yards from the Fluid Center. I can hear the music from inside my home, a bad idea to let them have anything outside.”

Jeff Grant, a co-owner of Fluid Events, told the Champaign Plan Commission earlier this week that only indoor concerts would be held at the former lumber business, which is now being used for dances, concerts and other special events. 

He told me that he has no plans to hold outdoor concerts, noting that the weather — rain, heat, winds — make them far more risky. And he said he wants to respect his neighbors.

He said he hadn’t heard any other noise complaints.

“This is really the first one,” he said. “We have soundproofed the walls, and our sound system is pretty controllable. Now you want it to sound like you’re at a concert but we don’t want to disturb our neighbors. We go out to the back of the property (during concerts) to see how loud it is.”

Grant said he’d like to make more use of the property for outdoor markets and free movies, but that those would not disturb the neighborhood.

Street closings list

“In the “Street Closures” listings that The News-Gazette periodically publishes, is there a reason why the closed University of Illinois streets are not included in that?”

The entries for the road work list come to us from public works officials and state transportation offices. We run UI notices when we receive them.

U.S. 150 roadwork

“On U.S. 150 between Urbana and St. Joe are they going to be redoing that road this summer or is that work for the bicycle path that’s going on the old railroad track?

“I was thinking 150 was to be redone this year but maybe was wrong as don’t remember seeing it in the projects in a article recently.”

Work began this month on the much-needed widening and resurfacing of U.S. 150 from Illinois 130 to St. Joseph. The work also will include new storm ditches to improve storm water drainage. The $6.8 million project is expected to be completed in November. The work on the first phase of the Kickapoo Trail bike path (Urbana to St. Joseph) probably won’t be far behind, according to Champaign County Engineer Jeff Blue.

The list of projects you may be referring to was a list of new capital projects approved by the Legislature this spring that could be undertaken later this year. It is separate from the ongoing list updated every year by the state Department of Transportation.

Don Gerard’s history

“Much has been said back in forth on this but do you think (Champaign Mayor) Don Gerard’s history of domestic abuse will hurt him in his mayoral race?”

It’s hard to see how the two civil complaints against the mayor (both of which have been resolved) would help him, nor your question about them. Mission accomplished, right?

John Shimkus’ history

“I was wondering if it’s very common for Illinois politicians these days to hold fundraisers where they charge $1,000 or more for a ticket, but then don’t even show up to attend their own event.

Last summer, for example, Politico had a story where they reported:

“(Rep. John) Shimkus held an event at a performance of the musical ‘The Book of Mormon” at the Kennedy Center last month, in addition to fundraisers at Fleetwood Mac, New Kids on the Block, Boyz II Men and 98 Degrees shows. (His office says the congressman did not attend any of those events — or the Beyoncé concert — and that they were organized on his behalf by his fundraising team.)

“If you do a bit of searching on the web, you also find that Shimkus had ‘fundraisers’ at a Dave Matthews Concert, a Black-Eyed Peas Concert, a Georgetown vs. Duke Basketball game, a Keith Urban concert, and a ‘Billy Joel & Elton John’ concert.

“But the thing is, if he doesn’t even bother to show up at his own so-called ‘fundraisers,’ don’t these events really start to look like some kind of hybrid ‘money laundering/ ticket-scalping’ operation? How is the accounting done in terms of rental fees for the Verizon Center skybox for the events and the ‘contributions’ that are paid to his fund-raising team?”

What you didn’t note from the Politico story is that both Democrats and Republicans make use of this new fundraising scheme. Also, there’s nothing illegal about it; it’s just a new way of raising money.

Incidentally I got your question the same day I received a notice from the Illinois Senate Democratic organization about a series of fundraising events they’re holding this summer, including golf outings (by senators who I know do not golf), a reception at a private suite at Busch Stadium (for a game between the Cardinals and Dodgers for a senator who lives in Olympia Fields) and for a tickets for a Jay Z and Beyonce concert at Soldier Field. 

As for the accounting by Shimkus’ campaign, it reported a $205.46 expense for tickets to an event at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., as well as almost $19,000 paid to the Gula Graham Group (a firm that organizes fundraising events for Republican House and Senate members including Shimkus, Davis, as well as members’ leadership fundraising committees like Shimkus’ John S. Fund).

There are plenty of reasons to criticize Shimkus’ fundraising — he continues to raise money from industries his committee regulates and he has more than $1.1 million on hand for a race in an overwhelmingly Republican district — but perhaps your goal was to tarnish Shimkus’ reputation by questioning his fundraising efforts. Mission accomplished, right?

Behind the paywall

“Interesting conversation this week on the Champaign-Urbana Memories Facebook group’s page. One of the posts went like this:

‘I think that the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette has gone beyond cheap and inconsiderate to charge the public to read obituaries instead of making viewing obituaries FREE! Why should anyone have to subscribe to the paper for something so personal? It is robbery that they charge families SO MUCH MONEY to publish the obituaries of their loved ones and then make it impossible for  

friends and relatives to find out arrangements so we can pay our respects!’ There were 20-some comments after that, some agreeing and others discussing how newspapers (in print or online) need to fund their operations. Wondered if you’d like to weigh in on this.”

Recently The News-Gazette fixed a problem with its system that prevented viewings of obituaries from counting on its paywall meter. Essentially people had been allowed free access to obituaries, although that was not the intent.

“Yes, we charge for publication of the obituary. In exchange, we offer families the ability to say just about anything they want to say (within reason) as part of the obit,” said John Reed, The News-Gazette’s chief financial officer. “Obits are paid content in print, and the model we introduced on the web nearly a year treats the digital version in the same fashion.”

The fundamental debate, I guess, is whether people are willing to pay for content that until recently had been available online for free. With reduced advertising and circulation — and the revenue that comes from both — news organizations operate in a different economic world than they did years ago. In order to continue to provide the services they have for decades, new revenue sources have to be identified.

The business I started in almost 40 years ago is nothing like it was then when there were two newspapers in town, several radio stations providing news coverage and three TV stations aggressively covering the news. It’s distressing to me, but is it any different than the professional changes faced by independent store owners, railroad workers, coal miners, steel workers, physicians, auto mechanics, cab drivers, even teachers? Fifty years ago this community had numerous jobs for department store clerks, gas station attendants, television repairmen, soda shop employees, railroad workers, telegraph and telephone operators and more. Nearly all of those jobs are gone. It’s a different world, but you adjust or you disappear. Newspapers, which likely won’t be available on paper in 50 years, are adjusting.

News-Gazette’s width switch

“Hi Tom ... Did I miss an announcement about the print version of The News-Gazette getting smaller in size?”

Executive editor Jim Rossow addressed it in his “Top of the Morning” feature on Wednesday.  

“Starting Thursday, The News-Gazette will feel smaller in your hands,” Rossow wrote. “Our broadsheet pages will drop from 12 1/2 inches wide to 11 inches as the depth remains the same. It’s the third time since the early 1990s that we’ve tightened our product in part to combat the rising cost of newsprint.

“This much I know:

“— We’re not the first newspaper in these parts to do this; Bloomington, Chicago, Danville, Decatur and Springfield beat us to it.

“— The change won’t affect our editorial approach. It won’t lead to a reduced story count, fewer photographs or even smaller print.

“But it will feel different.

“If you’d like to discuss the changes, we’re all ears. Email me at or call 217-351-5231. Circulation director Pete Jones (217-351-5327) and the fine folks in our customer care department (217-351-5252) also are available.

“Compliments or complaints — we’ll accept both.”

I understand that we have received both compliments and complaints about the change.

Rodney Davis’ reelection chances

“I’ve seen you highlight on more than one occasion commentary that tries to downplay the vulnerability of Republican Congressman Rodney Davis. (On Wednesday), Capitol Fax reported that the national Republican and Democratic congressional committees have purchased a total of over $2.3 million in TV ad time (and that doesn’t include the candidates themselves or superPACs, just the party congressional committees). I found it very interesting that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee reserved a total of $1.6 million for the 13th CD race, the most money they plan to spend TV ad time out of any other race where they are targeting an incumbent Republican, according to the Roll Call article linked by Rich Miller.

“Don’t you think a better gauge of the competitiveness of the 13th CD are the actions of the campaign professionals who have access to actual polling data, rather than the prognosticating of D.C. pundits?

“I do, and I think this spending shows that, at least right now, Democrats in charge of trying to win back the House think that the 13th CD is their best opportunity to knock off a weak incumbent.”

Yes, the DCCC has budgeted $1.6 million for challenger Ann Callis — $940,000 in the St. Louis market and $670,000 in the Champaign-Decatur-Springfield market, but those numbers don’t mean a lot. Those purchases can be canceled or revised at any time; the release of these numbers is a PR gimmick by the national congressional committees to indicate how much they’re behind the candidates. 

In Callis’ case, they’d better show her the money; they’re the ones who talked her into this race and openly supported her over two other Democrats in the Illinois 13 primary. It’s their race as much as hers.

More important, according to a story in The Hill, is that the competing numbers ($1.6 million “committed” to Callis versus $720,000 committed by the National Republican Congressional Committee) show that the DCCC now has a $44 million to $30 million fundraising edge over the NRCC.

As important as the Callis money is, it may be more telling that the DCCC has committed $1.8 million to protecting incumbent Rep. Bill Enyart in the 12th District. It may be that, based on these (sarcasm alert) all-important TV ad reservations, that they’re more worried about losing Enyart’s seat this year than gaining Callis’.

Finally let me note that the DCCC spent $2.7 million against Rodney Davis in 2012, when David Gill — a guy they didn’t even support in the primary or like very much — was their candidate. When the DCCC spends significantly more than that on Callis (or against Davis), then we’ll know they’re really committed in Illinois 13.

Apartment vacancies

“I had a question, Tom. With all the new high rises going up in Campustown, it got me thinking ... I was a student from ‘92-’96, and there was never a lack of housing then. With all these new apartments going up, I don’t think there are that many more students going to the U of I now than 20 years ago. So is there really the need? Are older apartments going barren for the year? Just curious what the availability versus occupancy in Campustown is now versus then if that’s possible to ascertain. Thanks!”

The apartment rental companies haven’t responded to questions about the occupancy rate in Campustown, but Esther Patt, the former director of the C-U Tenant Union, said that census bureau data in 2010 had the campus rate at well under 5 percent.

“The census tracts don’t go exactly along the boundaries of what students consider the campus area so to figure the vacancy rate on campus, I used tracts 3.01, 3.02, 4.01, 4.02, 59 and 111.  That covers Champaign from Neil to Wright between University and Kirby and in Urbana, roughly Wright to Race Street from University to Florida,” she wrote. “For Urbana, it’s harder to identify the eastern boundary of ‘campus area’ because the first few blocks east of Lincoln have mostly furnished apartments that are mostly occupied by undergraduate students but by Coler or Orchard or McCullough, depending on the street, the majority of land uses become owner-occupied homes.  

“For that area, the rental housing vacancy rate four years ago came out to 3.2 percent. On engineering campus (Wright to Lincoln and Springfield to University) the rate was only 1.4 percent. I don’t know whether that will mean that students will want to pay high rent for the new apartments on Gregory and University, though.”

In the greater community, Patt said, the rental vacancy rate was 9.2 percent.

“It broke down to 6.7 percent for Champaign and 13 percent for Urbana but Urbana (community development) staff said that 465 people were not counted in one census tract (the apartments near Lincoln & Bradley) so if you adjusted for that number, it came out to 11 percent vacancy rate in Urbana.”

Thanks for your help, Esther.

‘Dirty pool’ by elections board

“The dirty pool tactics to keep ‘Yes for Independent Maps’ off the ballot is just plain disgusting. Let me guess, the Board of Elections positions are political appointments ...”

Yes, the seven members of the board of elections are political appointees, including former Bloomington Mayor Jesse Smart and former Coles County Clerk Betty Coffrin. But political doesn’t necessarily mean dirty or corrupt. There appear to be legitimate reasons why many of the signatures on the Yes for Independent Maps petitions are being challenged. It’s not just about signatures that didn’t match those in voter files.

According to Rich Miller at Capitol Fax, most of the signatures being challenged are from people who are not registered to vote. That claim comes from Rupert Borgsmiller, director of the board of elections. If true — and this assuredly will be sorted out later this summer by the courts — it calls into question the review processes done by the paid staff of the Yes for Independent Maps group, as well as the paid petition-passers in the Chicago and Rockford areas (those passing petitions in Champaign County and other parts of downstate Illinois were volunteers). 

Although there appear to have been some board of elections staffers who were particularly aggressive about challenging signatures, this could be a case where the well-funded Yes for Independent Maps group may be at fault. 

In another case, Miller said, one person signed petition 35 times. 

If true, why didn’t the “Yes for Independent Maps” staff discover these irregularities? 

Where the new Champaign high school should go

“The intersection of Interstate Drive and Neil Street is where the new  high school should be built.”

That’s it for this week’s mailbag. Happy first day of summer and longest day of the year tomorrow. And keep your calendar open on Saturday, July 12, for CUBS Night at beautiful Danville Stadium. Details to follow.

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pattsi wrote on June 20, 2014 at 4:06 pm

oops duplicate posting.

pattsi wrote on June 20, 2014 at 4:06 pm

Hum-m-m-m, your mailbag this week must have been cut short because there is no who, what, where, when, and why after the quote concerning the HS siting. Are you "feeding the goat"?