Tom's #Mailbag, Nov. 4, 2016

Tom's #Mailbag, Nov. 4, 2016

Questions for Tom? CLICK HERE and he'll chase down your answer

Anything interesting happen to you this week? I had an 108-year monkey removed from my back. Whew, what a relief.

Meanwhile, back at Mailbag HQ, we dabbled in how Champaign school construction was financed decades ago, what those big cards are used for on the football sidelines, canine teams at local police agencies, road projects, updates on a couple local businesses, the "Pink Hat Guy" at Wrigley, the coming demolition of an office building on West Side Park and the eagerly anticipated Cronus plant in Douglas County.

Canine patrol

"How many police dogs do we have in the area? How often are they tested and what is an acceptable rate of false positives and false negatives?"

There are 10 police canines in the Champaign-Urbana area, according to Mike Cervantes, Urbana's canine officer.

Five local departments have dogs: Rantoul, the Champaign County Sheriff's Office, the University of Illinois, Champaign and Urbana.

"The narcotic detection canines certify annually through the Illinois Training and Standards Board. For successful certification, the canine shall achieve at least a 90 percent confirmed alert rate for certification, and a false alert rate not to exceed 10 percent, as defined and calculated in Scientific Working Group on Dog and Orthogonal detector Guidelines (SWSGDOG) general guidelines," said Cervantes. "Local canine handlers train monthly for upkeep."

Here's a bit about each department:

— Rantoul has a new dog, Wyatt, a German Shepherd/Malinois cross that will be a full service dog, i.e.: narcotic detection, tracking, article search, and apprehension. His handler is Officer Jerry King.

Wyatt and King will attend a training program at the Macon County Sheriff's K9 Training Academy that is more than 320 hours long. They'll be certified upon successful completion. After that they will certify on an annual basis. In addition to the annual certification, they'll train one workday each month.

— the sheriff's office has four dogs: one for explosive detection and three drug/tracking/"all purpose" dogs, said Sheriff Dan Walsh.

— the University of Illinois has two canine teams, one for explosive detection and the other for narcotics/cannabis detection that also does tracking and article search/evidence recovery.

Both dogs and handlers attended a six-week academy where they were certified in all aspects (where all graduated at 100 percent), said UI Police Chief Jeff Christensen.

— Champaign has two canines, said Chief Anthony Cobb. Solo is a 7-year-old Giant Schnauzer who is a single purpose dog trained in narcotics, tracking and article search, and Junior is a 4 1/2-year-old German Shepherd who is a dual purpose dog trained in narcotics, tracking, article search and apprehension.

— Urbana only has one dog and it is not considered full service, said Chief Patrick Connolly.

" Our dog (a Lab) is trained on the detection of controlled substances and cannabis and also tracks (typically for missing persons) and performs article searches (can look in a field of tall grass and locate a gun or keys or other articles," said Connolly.

Cronus update

"What's the latest on the Cronus fertilizer plant project outside Tuscola? Nothing has happened there yet. Rumor around Douglas County is that it will never happen."

In June The News-Gazette reported that the nitrogen-fertilizer plant near Tuscola now was expected to cost $1.9 billion — more than 30 percent above the original estimate — and that it would not be finished until the last quarter of 2019 — at least 30 months later than the initial estimate.

Originally the plan was to complete the plant in 2017.

Now that's when construction is going to start, said Cronus spokesman Dave Lundy.

"The project is absolutely on track," he said. "We continue to invest in the project. We are in the process of finalizing a variety of agreements that are necessary before we can officially break ground, but we are definitely moving forward."

Lundy added: "I think that last thing we said was that groundbreaking would be sometime in 2017 and that is still the case."

Fluid Event Center changes

"I heard something on the news about the Fluid Event Center (in Champaign) becoming a family fun center, and told a friend about it but I can't find anything anywhere about it. Is this true and if so who's going to run it and when will it be open?"

Yes, says Jeff Grant, the owner and CEO of the Fluid Events Center on Country Fair Drive in Champaign, changes are coming.

A family area with miniature golf and arcade games and such will open at the back of the building sometime toward the end of January.

The front of the building will become a restaurant and sports bar, he said, and it will open sometime this calendar year.

"Fluid Events will still own the facility," he said, but now will primarily focus on the Blues, Brews and BBQ Festival.

What was there?

"There used to be a business at the northwest corner of Neil & Kirby in Champaign, in front of what used to be the Ramada Inn. There is now a Walgreens at that corner but none of us can recall what the business was."

How far back do you want to go? How about 1964? That's when the Pines restaurant was at 1509 S. Neil St., Champaign.

In the years since what was a one-story building in front of the Ramada hosted several businesses: a beauty shop, gift shop, Budget Rent A Car, Franklin Travel, Ramada Barber Shop, Busey Travel, The Finish Point, Computer Support Specialists, Carlson Travel, and Brya Insurance among others.

The Pink Hat Guy at Wrigley

"There is a man who has been sitting in the first row behind home plate at Wrigley all year. I call him Mister pink hat. Do you have any idea who he might be?"

His name is Jim Anixter and he's 71, a Highland Park resident, a Cubs season ticket-holder since 1967 and president of A-Z Wire & Cable, a distributor of industrial, commercial and specialty wire and cable.

He's a big celebrity in Chicago, and has been interviewed by radio, TV and newspapers.

His pink hat says "The Pink Hat Guy" and he started wearing it, he said, to become more visible on TV. He joked that he wanted to prove to his wife that he really was at Cubs games.

Here's one:

How were schools built 50, 60 years ago?

"Thinking about the upcoming (Champaign) Unit 4 referendum, I realized that by my count, there were seven new elementary schools, two middle schools (then junior highs), and a high school built during the early 50s through the mid-60s which is a little over half of the current schools in Unit 4. My question is, how was all that building paid for back then? I don't doubt the need because of the baby boom but that doesn't answer where the money came from. Were there referendums back then? Even though Champaign was growing, I wouldn't think that property tax revenues could grow fast enough for all that building."

There was a time, until the imposition of consolidated elections in 1982, that school districts — not the local county clerk or election authority — ran their own tax increase votes.

And they could schedule them at virtually any time, and they frequently would hold them on Saturdays. Often they'd be the only issue to be voted on, the idea being that supporters would come out to vote on a tax increase for schools, but that most people couldn't be bothered to go to the polls to vote on one issue.

For example in November 1966 the Champaign school board scheduled a vote on a $990,000 bond issue for Tuesday, Dec. 6.

Voting was held at 13 locations from noon to 7 p.m. The bond issue was approved by a more than 2-to-1 margin.

The money was to pay for construction of a new elementary school (which turned out to be Robeson School), an addition to the district's administrative office and a central warehouse.

That bond issue vote was a followup to one that had occurred in December 1965, raising $440,000 on the first phase of the new elementary school.Overall school construction in Champaign (and Urbana) was done on a piecemeal basis throughout the 1950s and '60s.

Big cards

"In this picture below (taken at Saturday's football game, my wife) asked why they always hold the big cards up while on offense. At first I thought it was for play-calling to the players on the field, but they don't have anything on them but the Illini logos. I tried to pacify (my wife) by telling her that they were shading the coaches on a hot day, but she didn't buy that. Can you explain?"

Nope, those aren't cheerleaders either, said Illinois cheerleading coach Stephanie Record.

Illinois Associate Director of Athletics (and super Cubs fan) Kent Brown said those are "student equipment managers holding up cards so that the signals being relayed to the players on the field are blocked from the opposing coaches in the press box.

"It's a way of stopping 'signal stealing' by opposing coaching staffs."

Fleetwood Building

"As someone who spends a lot of time walking my dog in West Side Park, I'd love to know what is going on with the Fleetwood Building at the corner of Elm and Church. In the last few days it's been surrounded by an orange construction fence."

The city of Champaign issued a demolition permit for the Fleetwood Building, 501 W. Church St., C, on Oct. 26.

The permit is good until April 24, 2017.

Until last fall the Fleetwood Building, built in the late 1950s, was home to the O'Byrne, Stanko, Kepley, and Jefferson law firm. The firm sold the building last year and wasn't certain what plans the new owner had for it, said Brett Kepley, although there had been talk in the past about condominiums or apartments on the lot.

We left messages but were unable to talk to the new owner of the property.

Road striping

"Michael Kiser quotes an Urbana engineer as saying there's only one contractor who stripes roads in all of downstate Illinois. How can that be and if true, who is this busy fella?"

Varsity Striping in Champaign does most of the road striping in East Central Illinois, said owner Bonnie Kemper, but it's not the only contractor operating downstate or around here for that matter.

"Most of the road striping companies are in Cook and the collar counties, but there also are some in the East St. Louis area," she said. "We get most of the work in this area although not all of it."

And yes, it has been a busy year, said Kemper.

"We've had a very good year, yes," she said.

But no, she's not a "busy fella."

"The buck stops with me," said Kemper, who called herself the firm's "major stockholder."

Meanwhile Craig Shonkwiler, the Urbana assistant city engineer who talked to Michael Kiser at WDWS, said that his reference to road striping was in regard to the Windsor Road project in Urbana.

"For this particular project, modified urethane is specified for the road striping since it lasts longer than paint when used on concrete pavements. Contractors working on the Windsor Road project are required to be prequalified with the Illinois Department of Transportation to install modified urethane," he said. "All of the qualified modified urethane contractors are either located in the Chicagoland area or across the river in St. Louis, with the exception of (Varsity)."

Road construction barrels

"With all the road construction going on I have noticed that every 10th barrel or barricade there will be a double barrel or barricade. What does that mean to the construction crew? I assume it is some kind of signal."

Kensil Garnett, the deputy director of highways for the Illinois Department of Transportation and Region 3 engineer, said that "IDOT's Standard Specifications for Road and Bridge Construction requires the contractor to place a 'check barricade' every 1000 feet.

"During longer lane closures, a 'check barricade' is placed to delineate which lane is closed and to alert drivers that may be in the closed lane when they encounter the barricade. It is an added safety feature placed to protect workers and drivers of any hazards in the closed lane."

MCORE project update

"What is the status of the Green Street reconstruction from Fourth Street to Neil Street? I thought construction was to begin this year."

What a coincidence. Bids for the huge MCORE (Multimodal Corridor Enhancement) project are scheduled to be opened today in Springfield. Whether it will move forward depends on the dollar amounts in the bids received.

At a July 29 letting, the bids that were submitted for MCORE were over the engineer's cost estimates by more than 10 percent. Based on those amounts, the bids were rejected and the project went back to today's letting.

There are actually two segments on Green Street up for bid today — in Urbana from Wright Street to Busey Avenue and in Champaign from Neil Street to Fourth Street. The latter part also includes work on Whiter and Wright streets.

If today's bid letting is successful, work on the project will begin in the spring.

I-74 questions

"Tom, with the construction on I-74 around Mahomet winding down, can IDOT comment on the cost of the camera and temporary digital message boards that were used during construction? I understood that the project had been bid originally for the 2015 construction season, to be completed as overnight construction, but was delayed due to the higher than expected cost, and rebid as daytime work this year. As someone who drives one to two roundtrips daily, I am not sure that the message boards were very effective, and wondered how much more it might have cost to do the work overnight.

"Also, when will the bridge surface of eastbound I-74 over Illinois 47 be replaced? It is very rough and bumpy."

It is almost impossible to quantify how much more the project would have cost if it were constructed at night because of the changes made to bring the costs down, said Kensil Garnett of IDOT.

"A generic comparison between the original April 2015 letting bid (nighttime with reduce lane closure lengths) vs. the awarded March 2016 letting (daytime with longer closure lengths allowed) the numbers break down as follows:

" — 1st letting in April 2015 @ $13,104,600 vs. 3rd (Awarded) letting in March 2016 @ $9,976,600.

"The total cost for the Smart Work Zone System, Changeable, Changeable Message Signs, and Smart Traffic Control devices was $360,000. The project does not have cameras. The project has radar devices that are either standalone units or embedded in the message boards."

As for the bridge surface, Garnett said that too is up in today's IDOT bid letting.

The contract "will consist of bridge deck repairs, bridge joint repairs and thin concrete overlays on the structures over Illinois 47 and the Sangamon River at Mahomet and under Lindsey Road and Duncan Road northwest of Champaign. If the bids are considered awardable the work will take place in construction season 2017."

Best Wok

"Did the Best Wok on Marketview Drive change ownership? Did the old owners move or open a different restaurant?"

There has been an ownership change within the last few months, said a restaurant employee. He said he didn't know what the former longtime owner, Bo Yan, was doing.

Ross store (again)

"When does the new Ross store in Champaign plan to open?"

Don't hold your breath with anticipation. It looks like they're doing a lot of renovation on the interior of the former Dick's store on North Prospect. And Ross' corporate office isn't saying much.

"At this time, we can only confirm a lease has been signed at the Champaign location," said their spokeswoman, confirming something we already knew.

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Lostinspace wrote on November 05, 2016 at 4:11 pm

85 and you don't remember Mel Allen and Vin Scully calling the Series in the 50s (not to mention Diz and Pee Wee on Saturday afternoon)?  In its infancy indeed.

Lostinspace wrote on November 05, 2016 at 4:11 pm

Sorry, that was meant for Tate.