Tom's Mailbag Jan. 9, 2015

Tom's Mailbag Jan. 9, 2015

Questions for Tom? Ask them here

Let’s start with some good news: so far this year temperatures are running 8 degrees below normal. 

That’s still better than last year when the warmest temperature in the first nine days of January was 37 degrees, the coldest was minus 14 (along with three other subzero days) and we’d already had 8.9 inches of snow. And the worst was yet to come in February.

The Climate Prediction Center says we have a good chance of above average temperatures through at least Jan. 22.

Now onto the mailbag where there are more questions about ice skating, the weather, the new Champaign Central High School, more development on University Avenue and another reminder of the effects of the great recession.

Outdoor ice skating

“Tom, After reading in the ‘History’ feature about the park district freezing ponds for skating 50 years ago I’m curious to know why the stopped that practice, when they stopped it, and if there’s any chance it could be resumed. After growing up in Chicago’s south suburbs and skating and playing hockey on park district ponds every winter I was very disappointed when I moved down here in 1974 that it was not an option and was even further saddened knowing my children would grow up not knowing the joy of outdoor skating.”

It appears your hopes for outdoor skating in Champaign-Urbana are on ice. 

Champaign Park District Executive Director Joe DeLuce said that Kaufman Lake, where ice skating and ice fishing once was permitted, is now closed to those activities.  

We have not had any requests since the question was raised last year.  

“Our biggest concern is safety for the patrons ice skating on an open lake and for our staff who would have to measure the ice thickness. Kaufman Lake also has several natural springs running into the lake, where the ice could be unsafe in these areas,” DeLuce said.

Although the park district once did create skating rinks at area parks — Hessel, Centennial, Garden Hills and Beardsley parks got the treatment 50 years ago — it’s been at least 20 years since that was done, DeLuce said.

“We are not planning to flood any areas for ice skating,” he added.

In Urbana, where ice skating on Crystal Lake was a ritual for decades, the immediate future is dim.

Tim Bartlett, executive director of the park district, said that the lake doesn’t freeze over like it once did, partly because there’s more salt and other chemicals in the water and partly because the “lake” moves more swiftly than it once did with more inflows and two outflows.

There also are safety and liability concerns, he said.

The park district is staff is “working at capacity and we would need to shift what we do to move into a new area of intense maintenance to ensure ongoing safety, assuming we could create the necessary ice conditions/recreate it somewhere else,” he said. “This would include the staff and equipment/infrastructure/ongoing capital investments to maintain a safe facility.”

Bartlett noted that liability concerns have become so extreme that some park districts have banned sledding.

http://www.govexec.com/state-local/2015/01/cities-are-looking-ban-sledding-because-it-could-be-way-too-expensive-not/102273/

Skating is allowed at Champaign County Forest Preserve District facilities like Homer Lake and Lake of the Woods Park, but it’s at your own risk. No one from the forest preserve staff patrols the lakes, ponds and rivers, nor tests the ice for adequate thickness. 

According to local weather statistics, however, temperatures have been below freezing for five consecutive days and the forecast is for at least six more days of subfreezing weather. That ice ought to be solid pretty soon.

New apartment complex

“Wondering what is planned for the land between 2nd and 3rd streets on the south side of University Avenue. The buildings there have recently been razed. Did I miss the story?”

A building permit application came to the city of Champaign this week for a four-story $12.5 million project on the site, said city planner T.J. Blakeman.

Chinese investors, long rumored to be interested in a housing project for the rapidly growing international student population at the University of Illinois, are behind the development, according to News-Gazette writer Don Dodson, who has a report on all the details in Sunday’s paper.

Blakeman said the ground floor of the project would be commercial, with 160 apartment units above.

I-57/Curtis Road development?

“Any information on development at I-57 and Curtis Road? That area seems so ripe for development, maybe more so with Tuscola project on tap.”

Champaign planning and development director Bruce Knight called the possible development of the area “a very complex issue” that is evolving.

“The City adopted a master plan for the development of this interchange in 2007 (http://ci.champaign.il.us/departments/planning/long-range-planning/curti...) and subsequently adopted a series of new zoning districts designed to carry out the recommendations of the plan. That said, the land is in the county so no city zoning is in place at this time. However, to develop it a connection to the sanitary sewer would be required which would trigger negotiation of an annexation agreement and as part of that the appropriate zoning would be put in place.  

“As you know the economy tanked in 2008 and the demand for fringe development in general, and retail development specifically was dramatically altered. The closest we came to a development approval was for the northwest quadrant of the interchange for a project called Wellness at Prairie Village in 2010 that included a proposed new Christie Clinic facility. Ultimately Christie pulled out and the development died. Since that time we have had discussions with different development interests but none have become serious.”

With the change in the development market, Knight said, “it is one of our goals for the coming year to undertake a revision to the Curtis Road Interchange Master Plan to have it better reflect today’s economy while still establishing a clear expectation for high quality development.”  

Weather statistics and local Democrats

“Seems to me that the East Central Illinois statistics on the back page of Section A very frequently lacks precipitation info about Champaign-Urbana (N/A) while Danville rarely is missing these figures. What’s going on? On another note, I guess Laurie Bonnett’s good position (to succeed Mike Frerichs as 52nd District state senator) is not surprising, but why no comments on Laurel Prussing? I hear Al Klein is indebted to her for his chair position of the party. Thanks for your writing.”

The weather statistics often are missing because the Illinois State Water Survey — which is the keeper of official local weather data — is more sporadic in its reporting during university holidays. 

As to why I didn’t report Laurel Prussing’s comments in Thursday’s story about the public forum with the 12 candidates to succeed Frerichs, it’s because we’d already given her candidacy plenty of attention, including her reason for running. Some of the other candidates, including Bonnett, Scott Bennett, Jamar Brown and Don Crist, had been laying low and hadn’t said anything publicly about their interest until that night.

Prussing is indeed a Klein supporter and top official in the local Democratic party. Klein hasn’t indicated who he favors, but his relationship with her may be a factor in her favor. Other Democrats say privately, however, that Prussing’s decades-long record (not just votes but statements) is a liability and that Republicans would be gleeful if she was chosen the candidate. One Republican joked that the first thing he’d do if Prussing was chosen would be to head to Carle Hospital and Clinic to collect a bounty of campaign contributions.

Joe Petry and the new Champaign High School

“Joe Petry has made the high school location a centerpiece of his mayoral campaign. One site mentioned repeatedly is Dodds Park which would solve the infill problem and transportation costs. Do you think Joe Petry can show leadership and make Dodds Park happen for the high school?”

I don’t know that it’s a centerpiece of his campaign because we haven’t seen much of a campaign yet. But Petry — who heads the Champaign park board — did write a possibly ill-advised letter to the editor, calling on the Champaign school board “to lead the conversation in a new way,” an implication that it did not do it the right way last year.

“It is sometimes difficult to remember that true leadership is not about forcing the outcome you want; instead, true leadership is founded on humility, self-reflection and consensus building,” Petry wrote. “In that spirit, Unit 4 administrators and school board members must embrace a new process — one that engages our community in a respectful and honest dialogue and includes even the loudest voices of dissent.”

In any case I think it’s pretty clear the Dodds Park site isn’t going to happen. Personally I don’t think it’s a good site anyway, nor do I believe it’s the best option.

The new high school

“If possible indicate the demographics of the (Champaign school district) voters — those with NO KIDS may get out and vote in April. Also to be honest some information about the drop in home sales and/or property values might be helpful to voters.”

and

“My comment is this — please write about WHY and HOW Champaign got into this BIG PROBLEM! Hello? What the heck?  Who decided to build where it now is? Why did we wait until 2014 to cry wolf? We already bought the land with my money, right? And now we want more from ME? Hahahahahahahaha.”

That’s a lot of questions and topics to address, but here’s an attempt to touch on some of them.

As to the demographics of Champaign school district voters, consider this:

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that residents of Champaign (not the same boundaries as residents of the school district) have a median age of 26.7 years. The largest single age category is the 20-24 group that makes up 20.1 percent of the population. People 60 years and older make up just 12 percent. But as you may know they generally have a higher likelihood of voting. That probably will be the case in April, with city elections, school board elections, park board elections and a possible tax increase vote on the ballot.

Also, when the polling firm Patron Insight surveyed 400 school district residents last year (randomly selected head of household and frequent voters) they talked to 122 people with children in Champaign schools, five with both children and grandchildren, 49 with grandchildren and 224 with no children or grandchildren in the schools.

As to home sales and property values, the overall equalized assessed valuation of property in Champaign County dropped for three consecutive years but rebounded last year by an estimated 1.6 percent.

Also, year to year home sales were up about 3 percent through November, and the median price of home was up less than 1 percent.

As to how Champaign got into the predicament, my take is that school administrators and board members for decades were preoccupied with other issues and ignored their aging buildings and growing enrollments. Now that those issues have finally been addressed school leaders have taken note. 

And yes, they bought the land with your money and now they need to build something on it, also with your money. That’s the way it works in Illinois. It’s in the Constitution, thankfully. If you don’t like it, try Afghanistan.

From the Illinois Constitution:

SECTION 1.  GOAL - FREE SCHOOLS

A fundamental goal of the People of the State is the educational development of all persons to the limits of their capacities.

The State shall provide for an efficient system of high quality public educational institutions and services. Education in public schools through the secondary level shall

be free. There may be such other free education as the General Assembly provides by law.

The State has the primary responsibility for financing the system of public education.

Readers sound off ...

— On Carle posibly treating Ebola patients:

“Carle needs to quit trying to control everything. We don’t need Ebola patients here. They barely have a billing department that knows what they are doing. Thousands of dollars later and I have no diagnosis so I wouldn’t trust them trying to treat Ebola.”

— On The Hideout strip club west of Tuscola: 

“County people of rural Tuscola don’t want it either. When you have random people coming to your home at all hours asking how to get there. Hello, not a good thing. There in my driveway is a guy wasted on who knows what. I ask them to leave. Guy yells out (an obscenity) And more. Three more are pissing in my driveway. So whoever, take your strip place someplace else and leave our town. We want to keep it clean. We don’t need your kind here. Let’s make a deal. The next time cops get called you pack up and leave.”

Thanks for the questions. Big week coming up with the beginning of the Bruce Rauner administration in Illinois. Also, three local Democrats — Mike Frerichs, Carol Ammons and whoever replaces Frerichs in the state Senate — will get promotions.

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