Tom Kacich: Developer's self-preservation saves mural
Few people today think of Champaign as a factory town. But it once was, with manufacturing plants making, among other things, clocks, automobile repair kits, gloves and undergarments.
Brian Knox is helping to preserve some of that industrial history by buying an exceptional granite mural from the old A.C. HumKo plant, which closed in 2009, and attaching it to the former home of the Universal Bleacher Co., which closed in 1983.
"They were tearing it down and it ended up in my lap," Knox said of the piece that once decorated the entrance to the HumKo plant on Mattis Avenue in Champaign. "I tried to find people who were interested in finding a use for it, but nobody seemed that interested, so I ended up paying to have it taken off and then stored it and then paid to have it put on my building."
The mural — made up of 15 stylized panels that portray steps in the food-production process — is affixed to the front of an office building he is renovating at 1303 N. McKinley Ave., C. From 1958 to 1983, the building served as the offices for Universal Bleacher, a company founded in Champaign in 1926 that made folding bleachers.
"I started the Public Art League here, so when it became available, information went out and they contacted us," said Knox, who owns six buildings on what he calls a 12-acre "creative campus" just north of Bradley Avenue. I couldn't get anybody in the art league excited about it and didn't want to see it get destroyed. I found a way to utilize it myself. It's more of a creative solution.
"I thought it was cool and I wanted to preserve it for what it was worth, and it seemed like the more that I looked at it and thought about it, that it really fit the front building I have there. It just had a big blank brick wall," he said. "When I bought the property, I thought, 'Well, that's ugly, to have that big wall there.' It was just waiting for a mural. This was a pretty neat application for it."
Knox said he hasn't been able to learn any of the history behind the mural, which apparently dates from the time that HumKo, capitalizing on the area soybean market, opened its plant in Champaign in 1958.
"I wish I did. I tried to search on the Internet," he said. "It's like a '50s-era industrial mural, which I really like."
The mural is about 6 inches thick, made of Wyoming granite.
"It was a minor undertaking to take it off and put it back up," he said. "It was not a cheap endeavor."
The mural is secured to the wall with the help of stainless steel T-clips and two steel I-beams. He estimated he spent "about $40,000" on the project.
"One of the things about the mural is that it's sort of the production cycle," Knox said. "If you look at the picture that's there, it's stylized crops, and a tractor and chemists and conveyors and vats. It tells an interesting story."
Local developer Peter Fox said he was glad to see the piece preserved.
"I was interested after hearing about the mural from our mason, Marty Kirby. I thought it would be great for the research park and its heritage," Fox said. "I'm glad Brian saved it and would be anxious to have it if Brian were to let it go."
Ammons, Williamson update
The Champaign County Chamber of Commerce, through its Business Empowered Political Action Committee, has endorsed Republican Kristin Williamson in the 103rd House District. That support comes with a $5,000 contribution, said Jim Goss of the Atkins Group, who chairs the chamber PAC.
The group has also endorsed Rep. Adam Brown, R-Champaign, in the 102nd House District. Brown is opposed by Democrat Matt Forcum of Mode. Brown got a $2,000 contribution from the group.
"Kristin really embodies a lot of the principles and beliefs that we believe are good for business," Goss said.
Repeating a line frequently mentioned by local Republicans, Goss said the group believes the 103rd District race presents an opportunity for the GOP to make inroads in the big Democratic majority in the Illinois House.
Meanwhile, the Ammons campaign is getting help from the Illinois Federation of Teachers, the pro-choice Personal PAC group and the Democratic Majority organization, chaired by House Speaker Michael Madigan.
"We are hiring five part-time voter registration people, and they are being paid for by the Democratic Majority," said campaign spokeswoman Stephanie Seawell. "It's for Carol's campaign, but it's also for voter registration for the entire Democratic ticket. They're just for voter registration. They're not involved in campaign decisions or anything like that."
The distinction is significant because Madigan supported Ammons' opponent, Sam Rosenberg, in the primary election last March — the Democratic Majority spent nearly $50,000 on Rosenberg's behalf — and Ammons has professed her independence, stating she is "not beholden to Speaker Madigan."
"Their primary focus is registering students at the University of Illinois and Parkland" College, Seawell said. "This is a definite focus of the campaign, getting everybody but especially young people registered at their local address. We're registering anybody who we come across who wants to register. Obviously, we're talking to them about Carol, but we're not asking whether they are Democrats. We want as many people as possible to be involved in the voting process."
The next step, she admitted, will be getting the newly registered people to vote.
"At that point, our volunteer organization will be kicking in to get the voter turnout," Seawell said of the group that she said includes almost 250 people.
Chicago-based Personal PAC is providing a full-time staff member to the Ammons campaign, focused on voter registration, as well as a half-time staff member who will be doing canvassing and other field work.
It's unclear what the IFT support means, Seawell said, but "I do believe they'll be doing some door-knocking for us and some phone calls. But there will be future support, for sure."
Next month, Ammons will hold two "listening sessions," or town-hall meetings, in the legislative district that includes virtually all of Champaign-Urbana. The first, on environmental and "green jobs" issues, will be from 6 to 8 p.m. Sept. 16 at the Urbana Civic Center. The second will be from 4 to 6:30 p.m. Sept. 23 at the Champaign Public Library, and will be focused on pensions and taxes.
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Wednesdays and Sundays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at email@example.com.