Tom's #Mailbag, Jan. 22, 2016

Tom's #Mailbag, Jan. 22, 2016

Ask Tom your question here

Questions and answers this week about the new Red Robin in Champaign, who the new Illinois athletic director should be, the gigantic impact of the Powerball lottery, clearing of snow from city streets, the uncertain future of the 56-year-old Country Fair Shopping Center, a truly forgotten Champaign movie theater, Mark Shelden, Big Small All, books for prisoners, the worst intersection in town, a Buttitta's recipe and Kacich's ethnicity.

Country Fair future

"I have noticed the Country Fair Shopping Center is getting more and more vacant. Karen's Kloset is moving out soon. It seems the absentee landlords don't mind this growing eyesore in Champaign, and now with Taffies old building dormant, the site looks just awful. Is this historically a bad location? Are there any plans by developers or the city to do anything with this large, mostly vacant land?"

I left a message with the Country Fair management and haven't heard back. And no one ever answered the phone at the office of the property's owner.

But Bruce Knight, Champaign's planning and development director, notes that the 56-year-old shopping center is owned by GMS Management of Illinois, a Cleveland, Ohio, company.

"They bought it for a relatively low price and appear to be taking a strategy of renting it to lower budget commercial uses while investing little in the property. The exception to that rule was when True Value Hardware moved there and the owners did help upgrade the space," he said. "The City had a market study done pre-recession that showed there was much more retail square footage at this location than the demographics of the area support.

"That said, it is a private property rights issue. In Illinois the state Supreme Court has ruled that economic development can't be used as a public purpose for eminent domain. Without the cooperation of the property owner the city has few tools to promote the improvement of the property."

He added, though, that the newly adopted city council goals include the following: to develop a strategy to promote the reinvestment of the commercial area at Country Fair.

"Staff has not begun to work on this goal yet but will be looking for creative ways to promote reinvestment in this property," he said.

Huge Powerball numbers

"How many tickets were sold in the Power Ball in order to make all the payments? Does Illinois get a flat rate or a percentage from tickets sold in the state?"

Here's some spectacular scary figures about Powerball sales in Illinois, and our collective interest in sucker gambling (of which I too am guilty).

This information comes from Stephen Rossi, communications director for the Illinois Lottery.

"For the recent Powerball run (Nov. 5, 2015 to Jan. 13, 2016), the Illinois Lottery sold 52,854,063 tickets," he said.

That is 52.8 million tickets, an average of more than four per Illinois resident.

"In the build up to the $1.5 billion jackpot (Jan. 9, 2016 to Jan. 13, 2016), 30,508,969 Powerball tickets were sold in Illinois," said Rossi.

That's 30.5 million tickets in five days, which translates to 2.3 tickets per Illinoisan, or more than 6 million Powerball tickets sold every day in Illinois.

"Illinois' contribution to the Powerball grand prize jackpot is roughly 3.31 percent of the total or about $32.5 million contributed," he said. Finally, from Nov. 5 through Jan. 13, Powerball sales were approximately $110 million in Illinois.

"The estimated total to the Common School Fund, from this Powerball jackpot run, is estimated to be between $28 to $30 million," Rossi said. "The Illinois Lottery makes transfers to the Common School Fund based on a legislative formula and is not necessarily affected by big jackpot runs."

Another downtown Champaign movie theater?

"What was the name of the theater in downtown Champaign on Washington Street between Neil and Walnut in the 1950s? It was north of the Orpheum Theater."

Either you are mistaken, or you have stumped our local experts. I consulted with local theater historian Perry Morris and with Champaign city planner T.J. Blakeman and neither is familiar with a theater located north of the old Orpheum on Washington Street. I'm not either.

The only possible explanation is — and this is a long shot — that a building known as the Coliseum once stood at the corner of Hickory and Washington, where the Complete Care Pharmacy is now. But the Coliseum building has been gone for about 100 years.

"I have never heard anything about any other theatre on Washington," said Morris. "I suppose it is possible that there was some short-lived storefront venture, but again I have never come across anything about it. I'd be interested to know if your correspondent has any other clues."

New burger place

"What is being built west of Macy's?"


"Can you shed some light on the building project apparently taking place on the southwest corner of Market Place Mall's property? I've searched through building permits listed on N-G's website and can't seem to find any information there or anywhere else on it."

That's going to be the home of the long-rumored "Red Robin Gourmet Burgers and Brews" store, said Knight.

He said the restaurant at 2010 N. Neil St. started work "under what we call a footing and foundation permit" but that a full building permit submittal recently was approved.

Red Robin, based in Greenwood Village, Colo., operates 528 restaurants in 44 states, according to a recent presentation to investors.

"We also strive to provide our guests with exceptional dining value and the ability to customize their experience. In fiscal year 2014, we had an average check per guest of approximately $12.63 including beverages," the company said in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing last year. "We believe this price-to-value relationship, our innovative array of burgers ranging in price from $6.99 to $14.29 elevate us from our casual dining competitors and allow us to appeal to a broad base of consumers with a wide range of income levels.

"A low average guest check relative to other casual dining restaurants, combined with attentive and timely service, engaging team members, and a family-friendly atmosphere further differentiates us from our restaurant competitors."

Its nearest location is Normal, with other locations in Springfield, Peoria, Rockford, Edwardsville, Fairview Heights and the Chicago area.

Big, Small, All

"Whatever happened to all the information collected from the Big, Small, All project that I believe was led by the cities of Champaign and Urbana, maybe."

The information collected through the Big. Small. All. county "visioning" process led up to a report published in 2007 and titled "Our Future. Here," said Kathleen Oldrey, a planner with the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission.

It and other related documents are available as PDFs on the Our Future. Here. website, much of which is undergoing updates, she said.

"It's at ... We also have hard copies of the Our Future. Here. brochure here at CCRPC."

Pattsi Petrie, a planner and currently the chair of the Champaign County Board, rues that all the work of Big Small All seems to have been consigned to history's dustbin.

"That two years (2005-2007) and $500,000 and a lot of people's effort should not be forgotten, and those reports shouldn't be forgotten," she said.

"The biggest hitch is that nobody reflects back on it," said Petrie. "It's been forgotten in the mix of everything else" such as the local demand for criminal justice reform, jail planning, plus concerns about taxes and budgets.

Books for Prisoners drop-off sites

"Is there a drop off site for Books for Prisoners in Champaign-Urbana?"

Yes, several in fact:

The Independent Media Center, inside entrance on Broadway Avenue, 202 S. Broadway, Urbana

Common Ground Food Co-Op, Lincoln Square, Urbana

Parkland College Center, across from the library on the first floor, 2400 W. Bradley Ave, Champaign

Harmony Health Care, 2403 W. Springfield Ave., Champaign

McKinley Presbyterian Church and Foundation, 809 S. Fifth St., Champaign

Rose & Taylor Barber Shop, 124 N. First St., Champaign

Craig Tiley for AD, if not for president!

News-Gazette readers were asked who they wanted to see as the UI's next athletic director. It's unanimous ...

"Tiley's the gold standard. His organization skills and quest for excellence will finally take us to national prominence. He'll make us proud."


"I am a big fan of Craig Tiley. In addition to the absolutely remarkable job as head coach of men's tennis, his track record in Australia surpasses what he accomplished at UIUC. Style, substance, creative imagination, and an ability to think outside the box. Would be a terrific asset to UIUC if he could be persuaded to leave Australia."


"Craig Tiley. Because it's time we went with superior talent, beginning at the top. Craig is a difference maker (and we sorta need one of those)."

Mark Shelden backlash?

"I saw that Republican political operative, and candidate for Champaign County recorder, Mark Shelden, was listed as the media contact for Brad Halbrook's campaign for state representative in the 102nd District. I found this interesting because you had reported the Champaign County Republican Party recently endorsed James Acklin in the Republican primary for the 102nd, something the local party has done only rarely. Do you think this is going to cause a problem for Mark Shelden in his own contested primary in Champaign County? What other Republicans is Mark Shelden doing his political consulting for in contested primaries? Thanks in advance for your answers and the weekly mailbag feature!"

Yes, Shelden is doing consulting work for Halbrook in his three-way GOP primary race in the 102nd House District, although Shelden hadn't been paid any money as of Dec. 31, according to Halbrook's campaign finance reports.

Shelden also is doing work for Urbana city council member Mike Madigan, who will challenge state Sen. Scott Bennett, D-Champaign, this fall.

"I anticipate work for some other candidates as well," Shelden said. "I've been involved in primaries before with little to no effect on my own elections so I don't anticipate it will be a problem this time."

He pointed out that two years ago, several local people endorsed U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis in a county where congressional challenger Erika Harold of Urbana got 70 percent of the vote.

"I never heard anyone suggest that it would hurt them politically," he said. "I know some local people didn't back Tim Johnson (for Congress) in 2000 against Bill Brady and Sam Ewing. I think Republican primary voters have much more on their mind when it comes to casting ballots than who a particular candidate endorsed in a primary."

Shelden also said he signed up with Halbrook, who lives in rural Shelbyville, after Acklin, who lives in Ogden, had announced.

Worst intersection in town?

"I'm new to the area and just wanted to say that I greatly appreciate your weekly Mailbag column! It's helped me discover new places and attain a much better understanding of the community.

"I am curious about the left-turn arrow lights on West Kirby Avenue at the intersection of 4th Street (I believe this is still within Champaign city limits): despite no pedestrians present and no vehicles in both the west and eastbound turning lanes I notice frequently that the green arrow lights up, consequently holding up traffic in both directions on Kirby for seemingly no reason. Is this intersection simply missing traffic sensors or are they malfunctioning? I did leave a message with Champaign Public Works a few weeks ago but did not hear back."

— Andi

Andi, I think you are a peach, and not just because you appreciate the mailbag.

You have identified what I contend is the worst intersection in Champaign-Urbana. Although Fourth and Kirby is in Champaign, the University of Illinois has jurisdiction over that fuel-wasting intersection.

The good news is this so-called "fixed time" traffic signal intersection — where regardless of whether there is traffic on any segment of the intersection it will always provide a fixed amount of "go" time — is scheduled to be upgraded by the University of Illinois in 2016. The bad news is that it didn't happen on Jan. 1, 2016.

Street clearing

"It always seems to me that Urbana does a better job of clearing snow from its streets than Champaign does. What's the difference between the two in terms of miles of streets?"

No contest. Champaign crews have 719 miles of streets to plow versus 144 in Urbana. That's almost a 5-to-1 ratio.

Buttitta's recipe?

"Hi Tom, can you find out where the head chef from Buttitta's is working these days? They had a delicious dijon salmon with pancetta over orzo rice. It was not the same after that chef left and then, of course, the restaurant closed. I would love to try his or her food again."

I've exhausted my sources on this question and am ready to turn this one over to readers. Anyone know who this might have been, and where he/she is now?


"Hello Tom Kacich, interesting name, whereabouts in Balkans is your family from? I was born in Aurora, IL, second generation Croatian-American."

— Connor Vlakancic

Same neighborhood. My father's side is Croatian. My mother's side is Irish. I've been to Ireland but not to Croatia.

And I am not related to John Kasich. He's too rich (investment banker, Lehman Brothers, presidential candidate) for our commoners' blood.


On that note, let's call it a week.

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alabaster jones 71 wrote on January 22, 2016 at 3:01 pm
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I always thought that the light at Green and Fourth was a trap to catch impaired or inattentive drivers.

Not the only stoplight in town that I have the same suspicion about.   The light on Mattis at Anthony Drive always seems to turn yellow once a car on Mattis gets within approximately 100 feet of it, especially at night.

Lostinspace wrote on January 22, 2016 at 8:01 pm

That light is very handy for people going to the U of I from the west.