Tom's #Mailbag, Jan. 29, 2016

Tom's #Mailbag, Jan. 29, 2016

Got a question for Tom? Ask it here

Another fine week for mailbag questions. I've always said our readers are a curious group, and I mean that as a compliment.

This week: the end of an era in the Illinois horse racing industry, how much was Bob Woodward paid, defining a buzzer-beater, downtown Champaign post offices, the N-G search engine, an "energy farm" in Champaign County, rape prosecutions, the Target cafe, Little Caesars, bad-tasting water, Champaign County Democrats and state lawmakers on the budget impasse.

Energy farm

"Can you find out what has been planted on the southeast corner of Curtis Road and Race Street by the UI ... maybe new apple orchards to replace the obsolete one at Windsor and Philo roads? Thanks for your research."

How cool is this? It is what University of Illinois researchers informally call the "energy farm."

"The energy farm is what we called that area when we were getting (British Petroleum) funding for the energy biosciences institute," said Tom Voigt, a professor and extension specialist in the UI's Department of Crop Sciences. "It borders with Race Street on the west and Curtis Road on the north and Philo Road on the east and it goes about a half-mile south from Curtis Road."

"It's where we grew miscanthus and a number of other crops and native grasses such as switchgrass and big bluestem and Indian grass and core grass and a number of woody crops as well as a number of environmental studies related to renewable energy production," he said. "There are still a lot of those studies going on there, as well as some additional studies."

And yes, there are some fruit plants on the farm, Voigt said, although they're not intended as a replacement for the old pomology area along Windsor Road.

Sarah Lovell, an associate professor who also is in the crop sciences department, is the principal investigator on what is called the "Multifunctional Woody Polyculture."

She sent along some web links, including one in which she states, "My team is studying an alternative option for agriculture in the Midwest, initially targeting areas that are not best suited for row crops. We are comparing a variety of systems — mixtures of trees, shrubs, and forage or hay — that yield multiple food (and fuel) products including fruits and nuts.

"We call them 'Multifunctional Woody Polycultures' because of the potential benefits of a more complex mix of permanent species. In addition to providing harvestable products in abundance, these alternative systems could offer environmental benefits such as permanent wildlife habitat, efficient use of nutrients and storage of carbon — all of which we will measure."

Here are those links:

Illinois' dying horse racing industry

"I noticed that the OTB at Jupiter's at the Crossing has closed. It has to be the first time no facility exists locally to wager on horses since about 1992 in Champaign/Urbana. Horse racing is truly dead in the state of Illinois. Any idea what happened here?"

The facility at Jupiter's closed Wednesday, Jan. 20.

That ended a 25-year run of off-track betting in East Central Illinois that began Jan. 24, 1991 with the opening of the Winner's Circle in Danville. An OTB opened in Champaign on April 29, 1992.

The OTB that operated at Jupiter's was owned by Balmoral Park, the 89-year-old racetrack in suburban Crete that is in bankruptcy court in northern Illinois.

And today is the day that both Balmoral and 70-year-old Maywood Park, in suburban Melrose Park, are closing for good. Although racing ended at the tracks last year, up to today they've offered wagering on races at other tracks.

A notice on the Maywood Park web site ( says: "Unfortunately, due to the bankruptcy of Maywood and Balmoral race tracks, the following locations will be closing or have been closed." It listed both tracks as well as seven off-track betting parlors.

"Maywood and Balmoral operate nine OTBs and they've been in bankruptcy through 2015 and finally they had to go out of business, including their OTBs" said Mickey Ezzo, projects manager for the Illinois Racing Board. "Seven of their nine OTBs have closed. Two remain open, Crestwood and Oakbrook."

The state has authorized 43 off track betting parlors but only 20 are operating, Ezzo said. An OTB in Normal closed this week.

"Because the riverboats won a nearly $80 million judgment (which claimed that Balmoral's and Maywood's president, John Johnston, bowed to former Gov. Rod Blagojevich's demand for a $100,000 campaign contribution to benefit the racing industry) obviously Maywood and Balmoral couldn't take care of it, they couldn't sell the property and they couldn't pay the judgment, they ended up closing," said Ezzo.

Ironically, that $100,000 campaign contribution to the now-imprisoned Blagojevich was never made.

Meanwhile, there doesn't appear to be any hope of maintaining the properties as racetracks, Ezzo said. Maywood is planning an auction of its assets in the next 60 to 90 days and the Balmoral property will be marketed for its real estate value, he said.

According to reports filed with the Illinois Racing Board, the Champaign OTB's average daily handle was $20,490 in 2009 but had dropped to $9,842 in 2014.

The horse racing industry may not be dead but it is in critical condition, and the spectacular growth of video gaming and the ongoing war between Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democratic-controlled Legislature aren't helping.

History of downtown Champaign post offices

"Over on the CU History Facebook group We've been discussing the old post office building at Randolph and Church. When was the building constructed, when was the western addition added, when did the PO at Neil and Columbia open and replace Church and Randolph PO?'

Construction of the post office building at Randolph and Church began in 1904 and was completed in 1905. According to a document nominating the building for the National Register of Historic Places, it got its first remodel with an addition to the west side in 1929. That was razed seven years later with a larger addition. The building was converted to a federal building in 1966, when the post office building on North Neil Street opened. In 1991 the Champaign Park District took over the Randolph and Church post office building.

Woodward and Will honoraria

"How much did Bob Woodward (and George Will, who is the next speaker in the series) get paid for their recent lectures at the UI campus? They don't do anything for less than substantial bucks. Just curious. How does this get funded?"

"Bob Woodward was not paid for his appearance at the University of Illinois. The College of Law covered his travel expenses, and he received a Cross pen as a thank you gift," said Melissa Englund, director of communications at the UI College of Law. "The same arrangements have made for George Will's lecture in March."

Former drivers examining station

"Does anyone know what is going into the space where the old DMV was located? Someone mentioned they thought it was going to be a gas station/convenience store. I sincerely hope not, as I live near that area and that would not do wonders for my property value."

Bruce Knight, Champaign's planning director, said that the property at 2401 W. Bradley Ave. was rezoned last March from commercial office to MF2 (Medium Density Multi Family) "so it will not be commercial at all."

It's owned by Chris Hartman who at the time "indicated that he planned to develop an apartment building" at the site. But Knight said he hasn't heard anything more recently about a time frame for construction.


"Was wondering if someone shoots a basketball from one end of the court to the other as the buzzer sounds, then bounces in after the buzzer, does it still count? And is it a 2 or 3? Go Illini."

For the answer to this one we went to Sam Banks, the chief executive officer of the Don Moyer Boys & Girls Club, and a former college basketball referee.

And the newsroom crew threw in a second question: what if the ball was heaved from the opposite end, bounced off the floor at the free throw line and then went in? Would it count and would it be a three or a two?

Here's Sam's take on question No. 1: "As long as the ball left the shooter's hand prior to the buzzer (light), the shot is not over until it misses the rim or backboard ... therefore in the situation you describe the basket would count and it would be a 3-point goal."

Regarding Question No. 2: "This is a crazy one that I'm glad never happened to me in 30 years of officiating! I found a source and it appears my initial reaction was wrong. In your 'heave' scenario the shot does count ... Kind of crazy but it would be a two-point goal."

Thanks much, Sam.

Urbana people miss Little Caesars

"What happened to the Little Caesars on Philo Road in Urbana? It was a popular place to buy cheap pizza and just disappeared."


"What is the reason for the very abrupt closing of the Little Caesar's Pizza on South Philo Road in Urbana? One day it was open and seemingly thriving, and the next day it was completely vacated with no explanation as to why."


"Little Caesars on South Philo Road, Urbana (next to Family Video) is closed. Sign is down and building is empty. Can you find out why they



"Why did the Little Caesar's Pizza on Philo Road in Urbana close so suddenly? One day they are open; the next, they are closed with no explanation."

Mike LePage of Michigan, the co-owner of the local Little Caesars shops, said the Urbana store closed because of a clause in his contract with Family Video.

"We actually had an agreement with them to re-up for another five years," he said. "But a clause that they had in there allowed them to get out with just short notice. And they exercised that option. We did our best to try to say, 'Hey, we had a deal,' but through the legal process we found out they had that option. You could say we misinterpreted it. We surely didn't expect that to happen, but that's the reason we had to move.

"There's not much we can do about it. We wanted to stay there."

LePage said he's "actively looking for another location" in Champaign-Urbana.

"It's possible that we would be back in that immediate area but we're not sure. There's a lot of open buildings in that area," he said.

Champaign County Democrats

"I'm confused, and sadly, this is fairly common for me these days, as I'm 84 years old. However, I encourage you to investigate the lack of transparency within our county's Democratic Party. Why? What's going on, or not happening with the ancient documentation on the Dems' local web site? Tom, really? I believe it's much more than laziness, it stinks! Is it a cover for what activity is occurring or not occurring? Who's behind this cloudy cover? And again why? Is it power? Is it Boss Klein? Or perhaps it's his 'younger' naive minions? Who is on the Democratic Central Committee? Who are they, how can they be contacted? Are the central committee by-laws being followed? How many folks are needed for a quorum when voting to endorse a candidate for the Democratic primary election? Is there a meeting secretary, where are the minutes to these meetings listed, are they accurate? What would Ms. Lillian Cade or Professor Harry Tiebout (both former heads of the local Democratic Party) say?"

The Democratic Party website is pretty out of date ( The people listed under "Candidates," for example, are from 2010 and include, ironically, David Gill who is running for Congress again this year, but as an independent and not as a Democrat.

Under "People" it lists Mike Frerichs as a state senator when he is the state Treasurer, and Tony Fabri as the county auditor when he is long gone from local politics.

But the Democratic Party isn't a government organization, but something more like a private club. And its activity and vibrancy is related to its leaders and members.

Al Klein, the head of the local party, emailed this response: "Regular meetings of the Champaign County Democrats occur on the fourth Wednesday of the month at 7 p.m. at 110 S. Neil, Champaign. Our meetings are open to the public, and a public participation period is always provided. Your correspondent is welcome to join us tonight or at any meeting, either in person, by surrogate, or by correspondence."

Klein said "we rarely make endorsements in primary elections ... but this would certainly provide an opportunity to suggest one."

The local Dems' office number is 359-3760, and its email address is

Target cafe

"The Target Cafe has always been iffy on hours (i.e., not open when they say). Last week they were closed and it seems employees didn't want to disclose why. Now a note on the cafe states it's closed until January 31. Can you find out why?"

Payroll constraints, said the store's sales floor manager, Anthony Windt. But it will reopen Feb. 1, he said.

Calling out legislators

"What will it take for Chapin Rose, Dale Righter, Bill Mitchell, Scott Bennett, Carol Ammons or Adam Brown to step up and demand that the lunacy in Springfield stop? Does Lutheran Social Services need to close completely statewide? Catholic Charities? Does (Eastern Illinois University) have to close? The U of I? All of the court decrees that have kept things open haven't had everyone feel the pinch of the state's lack of budget yet. It's coming, like a snowball down the hill and it's getting almost too close to stop it. So when you ask one of the local reps, also challenge them to answer without blaming the other party and Madigan or Rauner. Each side has plenty of blame in this mess."

I said my piece about this particular issue in last Sunday's column in The News-Gazette. I asked every one of the legislators you listed to respond, if they desired. I heard back only from Rep. Ammons, Sen. Bennett and Sen. Rose.

Ammons wrote: "As demonstrated in his State of the State address (Wednesday), passing a state budget is not the Governor's priority right now and until it is, there are limits to what individual legislators can do because the system is intentionally designed to require equal participation for all parties: House, Senate, and the Governor. It's not blame to state a fact. Please contact the Governor and express to him what you think his priorities should be right now."


Bennett wrote: "I have been lobbying the Governor and my colleagues in the Senate to continue to negotiate a prompt resolution to the budget impasse. Last fall, when it was learned that the Governor had not met with all the leaders in months, I co-sponsored a bill that would require the Governor and the legislative leaders to meet every week until a resolution is reached. I am now introducing a bill in the Senate that prohibits legislators from receiving their pay until a budget is approved — and I am trying to lead by example by having voluntarily not accepted my salary during the entire length of this impasse, since July 2015. 

"In the meantime, I am trying to build a statewide coalition around the portion of the budget that most directly affects my district, the funding for universities and community colleges. I am hoping that in doing so we can push for a debate and larger conversation about higher education's vital role in Illinois's future success."

Rose wrote: "Lawmakers of both parties are initiating their own proposals on a whole host of issues. For example, I have filed a bill to fund higher education using reforms to the state's procurement code valued at upwards of a half-billion dollars to pay for it — those reforms are something the universities have been asking for — so hopefully it will receive bipartisan support. For social services myself and Senator Pam Althoff will be introducing legislation based on meetings with local development disability and mental health providers. These are the areas that I can work on with other 'rank and file' members of the Legislature, but a global resolution to the entire budget takes the leaders and the Governor — so you simply cannot ignore them despite your request to do so in this answer.

"The fact is that the Governor has been more than able to work with the Senate Democrat President (John Cullerton) over the last year on a whole host of issues — including an agreement two weeks ago with the president on the very significant issue of pensions. However, Madigan won't say where he stands other than he doesn't like the governor's ideas. This is par for the course, the Senate President has been fairly constructive in his response to the governor's ideas over the last year — finding common ground on key issues important to both sides of the aisle, then Madigan refuses to call them for a vote. It's as if, after 12 years of unfettered, complete control of our state, the Speaker is now 'taking his toys and going home' because someone dared to suggest that there might be a better way! Madigan even held up road salt funding and 911 funding until after the first snowfall of the year because he was irritated that rank and file legislators of both parties rose up and went around him and struck a deal with the governor.

"Leave it at this: there have been a grand total of three leaders' meetings since last May — the Speaker, despite the title, didn't say a word at the first meeting and missed the last meeting. How do you possibly negotiate with someone who won't negotiate?"

Distasteful water in Champaign?

"I recently moved to Champaign, and it seems like everywhere I go in town, the water is horribly chlorinated. It's like I'm drinking from a swimming pool. Is this just a temporary thing? Is there something wrong with the water supply here? Should I look into bringing bottled water with me everywhere?

This is a pretty unusual complaint, since most locals consider Champaign-Urbana water to be superior since it comes from the Mahomet Aquifer.

Karen Cotton, manager of external affairs for Illinois American Water Co., explained what may have happened.

"Chlorine is commonly used in public water systems as a disinfectant and is monitored closely by our water quality experts. In the Champaign County service area, we use a form of chlorine known as 'free chlorine.' It does not contain ammonia, which is naturally occurring in the local water source. This treatment is critical to ensuring safe drinking water," she said.

"It is possible that some customers may be able to notice a chlorine taste or odor, particularly if they have not experienced 'free chlorine' treatment in the past. There is no reason for concern. If customers experience a chlorine taste or odor, they can pour water into a pitcher and let it set for a few hours. The chlorine taste-odor will dissipate on its own."

She noted that Champaign County's water has been twice voted "Best Tasting" in the U.S.

Rape prosecutions in Champaign County



Oh my, wake up on the smug side of the bed today? It's wrong to publicize an event that helps infants and needy families?

"We received 65 sexual assault reports in 2015. We declined charges on 18 of them," said Champaign County State's Attorney Julia Rietz.

As to the number of sexual assaults, I asked for a response from the Urbana-based support group, Rape Advocacy, Counseling & Education Services. Here's what Stephanie Ames, a victim's advocate at the agency, had to say:

"Sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes in our nation. It's estimated that around 60 percent of survivors never report their assault to law enforcement. National statistics show one in six women and one in 33 men will experience an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime. These rates are at an increase during college-age years. Based on statistics, we know there are many more assaults in Champaign County than reports and prosecutions.

"RACES provides a myriad of services, whether or not a survivor reports the crime. We work with individuals and families to provide healing and justice, even if it isn't through the criminal justice system. While our crisis hotline, counseling and advocacy focus on the individual, we also have a larger community impact. We are dedicated to prevention education and training to improve the response victims receive when disclosing their assault or reporting to the police. RACES works with the Police Training Institute to provide trauma-informed education to new officers in an effort to decrease case attrition in our criminal justice system.

"We recognize that providing support for survivors in our community most often means support and healing outside of the criminal justice system. We will continue to work with our local law enforcement and state's attorney's offices to improve the response to survivors and the support they deserve throughout the process."

Cleaning up from last week

"No doubt Champaign has more miles of streets than Urbana and no doubt we do a pretty good job clearing our streets but the comparison of miles of streets (719 versus 144) seems off. For instance, Champaign has a land area of 22 square miles versus Urbana's 12 square miles. I wonder if the 719 miles in Champaign are "lane miles" whereas the 140 miles in Urbana are "centerline" miles. If so it's like comparing grapefruits to oranges. In Urbana we have about 350 lane miles. One lane mile is usually one lane 12 foot wide and 5,280 feet in length. One centerline mile is measured along the street center and doesn't take into account the number of lanes. — Craig Shonkwiler, Urbana assistant city engineer

Indeed, Champaign's are measured as "lane miles," so the more accurate comparison is 350 miles of streets in Urbana versus 719 in Champaign.

"I am the owner of Karen's Kloset and have been for 25 years. I recently signed a 2 1/2 year lease with GMS (owner of Country Fair Shopping Center) with another 2 1/2 year option. There are certainly no plans to move out soon. Yesterday we had three customers asking about your article and were we moving or closing."

You have my apologies for running the apparently inaccurate question last week without checking with you.

N-G search engine

"Why doesn't your news outlet website have a search engine so one could find past stories if they're looking?"

Right at the top of the main News-Gazette web page ( is a magnifying glass icon. Click on that and a blank box will appear beneath. Type in what you're looking for — "Rocky Harvey touchdown photo," for example — and you're all set.


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sweet caroline wrote on January 29, 2016 at 3:01 pm

Two comments and a correction.

“….David Gill who is running for Congress again this year, but not as an independent and not as a Democrat.”  Too many “nots, Tom.”  Gill IS running in 2016 as an independent. 

I love the water in C/U.  Occasionally,  though, they have to flush the system after a long stretch of heavy rain, which results in a strong chlorine taste and smell for just a couple of days.   I notice it in my coffee at those times, so I just add a drop or 2 of vanilla extract to the cup, and the chlorine taste goes away. 

The search function in the News-Gazette is not all that helpful.   It’s not organized in chronological order at all.   I still have to search through article after article for something about a person in a very recent story. 



Tom Kacich wrote on January 29, 2016 at 3:01 pm
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Great catch on the David Gill reference. You are correct and I fixed it. Thanks for reading so closely.

Joe American wrote on January 29, 2016 at 4:01 pm

The search IS organized chronologically if you search by "date".  Or you can search by relevancy, etc.

BART15 wrote on January 29, 2016 at 4:01 pm

Both King Madigan and King Cullerton have veto proof majorities and can end the budget debacle any time they wish. Must be an election year.

Ruth Ann wrote on January 29, 2016 at 6:01 pm

Little Caesars might be out due to Family Video's partnership with Marco's Pizza franchises. Check out Family Video .com about Marco's Pizza. Maybe they are planning a remodel.