Tuscola playing waiting game — again
TUSCOLA — Over cups of coffee at the senior center, 82-year-old Wilfred “Billy” Laley, 88-year-old Ruth Sims and 76-year-old Joan Rhan remember the days when over 1,000 people worked at the USI chemical plant, when you could buy a wool coat from the Four Seasons department store, and in the evenings you could meet your friends at the bowling alley or movie theater in downtown Tuscola.
Is Cronus a good thing or not? Tell Tom Kacich here
The town of about 4,500 off Interstate 57 has seen some reinvestment in recent years — a vacant bank building has been remade into an arts collective and Lambo’s, a new gas station and convenience store, has been the talk of town with its car wash and fried chicken. But The Pharmacy on Main Street closed its doors at the end of last month and some folks still haven’t gotten over FutureGen. The town was passed over to host an underground storage site for the coal plant project that involved injecting carbon dioxide emissions deep into the earth.
Now awaiting to hear if the city will land the Cronus Chemical fertilizer plant, Laley said he has a quarter in his pocket and “I’m not going to invest it until they break ground. I’ve got to see it happen before I get excited,” he said.
However if the city does land the fertilizer plant, “it would be a big boon. ... You might say, it’d save Tuscola,” Laley said.
“They’ll do what USI did to Tuscola in the ’50s,” added Sims, who was a secretary at USI Chemicals (now polyethylene maker Lyondell) many years ago.
The Cronus plant is proposed to be built at 785 East Highway 36, west of town, and it would manufacture nitrogen-based fertilizers. The project could employ up to 1,500 people during the construction period and 150 when operational. State and local agencies have offered up to $14 million in a variety of economic incentives to the developers.
“Size-wise and dollar-wise, this is probably the biggest we’ve worked on in my tenure as mayor,” said Dan Kleiss, who has been mayor for just over a quarter of a century. “It’s pretty big for an area to get what appears to be anywhere from 150 to 200 full-time jobs. This area doesn’t see this often.”
Back in the early ’90s, Kleiss helped bring in the factory outlet shops (now Tanger Outlets), then a $20 million project, he said. Construction value of the fertilizer plant is estimated at $1.2 billion.
In Tuscola, many folks share Laley’s attitude of, “We’ll believe it when we see it,” said Devon Flesor Story of Flesor’s Candy Kitchen at the corner of Main and Sale streets. Several principals of Cronus Chemical have eaten and bought chocolates from the restaurant and confectionery, where they follow recipes developed two generations ago and hand-dip chocolates on marble slabs.
“We are now 99 percent sure to the point it’s going to happen,” Flesor Story said, “but, given that we lived through the FutureGen disappointment, we’re trying to keep an open mind.”
Plus, “there have been delays, delays, delays,” she said.
Speculation has been building since early 2013, when the town learned it was up for the plant. (Mitchell County, Iowa is also being considered and that state also has promised millions in tax breaks and other subsidies.) In recent months, however, the plant’s developers, a mix of Swiss and Turkish investors, have been able to check off several key steps for building the plant in Tuscola.
Earlier this year, the Urbana-Champaign Sanitary District approved an agreement with Cronus to sell about 6.3 million gallons a day of treated wastewater for the fertilizer plant’s manufacturing process. The water will be pumped through a pipeline south to the plant. The district approved the sale of water over the objections of some area residents and Prairie Rivers Network, which raised concerns about the contract and the environmental impact on area streams caused by the diversion of the water to the plant instead of into waterways.
Since the district approved the agreement, a committee of landowners organized by Brian Moody, Tuscola’s economic development director, and area farm bureaus has been working on drafting easement agreements. The project involves about 60 landowners and 80 different pieces of land throughout those 20 miles between the plant and Champaign. They’re making progress, but they’re not quite there yet, according to Moody.
Because it would be considered a major new source of emissions of various pollutants (including nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, particulate matter and greenhouse gases, volatile organic material), the Environmental Protection Agency requires what’s called a Prevention of Significant Deterioration, or PSD permit, per the Clean Air Act. The Illinois EPA has prepared a draft construction permit for public review and comment. That comment period ended July 25.
“The elephant in the room is how townspeople feel about scary chemicals. No one talks about it,” Devon Story said.
Because Tuscola already is home to a network of natural gas pipelines and two other large chemical plants — Cabot, which manufactures silica products, and Lyondell — townspeople have already emotionally gone through the process of living with chemical manufacturers, she said.
“We’re not worried. We need jobs here,” said Cindy Pfeiffer, who hand-dips chocolates for Flesor Story.
The attitude is “What’s one more?” said Ainslie Heilich. “They’re planning a state-of-the-art facility. I’m sure it will be well-built.”
Heilich, a tattoo artist, and artist Laura Davis opened Vintage Karma two years ago. In addition to offering tattoos, they sell a variety of handmade items in their shop.
“As business owners, we’re excited. Anything to bring in more people to town would be good,” Davis said. In a small town like Tuscola, the shop owners all try to send customers to each other’s shops.
In the former bank building, artists sell paintings, furniture and jewelry over two floors and 12,000 square feet of space.
“Looking at it from the perspective of building an arts community, any boost in the general community will help that,” said John McDevitt, an artist who opened The Vault Arts Collective about a year ago. “Just 1,000 temporary (construction) jobs for a year or two would be a huge boost. They will need gas, food, hotel rooms. Some might stay and buy homes.”
Moody is optimistic and said he likes to think the city and all the other agencies involved have moved the process far enough along to make him think Tuscola has become the preferred site.
“We absolutely want to get over the finish line, to make sure we’ve got everything in place for them, so the company and bankers can make a good decision.” Moody said.
There are a lot of peaks and valleys when working on a big development project such as the fertilizer plant, Kleiss said.
“You think you’re right there, and then there’s another hurdle to clear. ... I’m looking forward to it as much as anybody,” he said.