Tom's #Mailbag, Dec. 29, 2017

Tom's #Mailbag, Dec. 29, 2017

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We close the mailbag for 2017 with a nod to the National Hockey League's great, 80-year-old tradition of naming the Three Stars of the Game. After every game the three best players are recognized, and are supposed to come back onto the ice for some applause.

So here are my nominees for Three Star Mailbag Questions of 2017, three questions from which I learned something and that were fun to answer ...

3. "For as long as I can remember, that area of East University in Urbana, beyond the Armory, was known as 'Criminal Hill.' Why?"

2. "On the south side of Old Church Road as you head west from Savoy there is a large tree in the farm field on the airport property. Why is that tree still there? Does it have a historical significance? I'd think it'd be a lot easier to farm without that tree being in the way."

1. "Inquiring minds (or at least mine) want to know the story behind the 5-foot-tall squirrel happily munching on an acorn in the 600 block of West Church Street. Any info?"

Meanwhile, this week's 'bag includes questions about a property sale in downtown Champaign; missing Christmas lights at a park in east Urbana; illumination needed at an interstate rest area; railroad quiet zones; donations of used medical equipment; old University of Illinois emblems around town; an update on the Champaign Charter Fitness; a mention, of course, of chain restaurants; and some neat remembrances of the former Magnavox plant in Urbana.

Downtown Champaign lot sold

"A longtime vacant lot at the corner of Neil and Columbia streets, east side, in downtown Champaign has been posted as sale pending. Also the 'for sale' sign on the lot right next to it has been taken down and the two buildings on that block are now empty. Did someone purchase the entire block? If so what major development is being planned for that area?"

The two lots at 520 and 518 N. Neil St. were sold on Dec. 21 for $860,000, according to documents at the Champaign County Recorder's office.

Their most recent use was as the site of a Busey Bank ATM.

Champaign County Recorder Mark Shelden said the new owner is recorded as 520 Neil Street LLC, which is based in Morton, IL. The manager listed is Element Construction LLC, of the same address in Morton.

We called Element Construction and were promised that their CEO would call back but so far we've heard nothing.

Ambucs Park decorations

"What happened to the Christmas decorations at Ambucs Park this year? I realized a couple weeks ago they weren't lit up when I drove by and it appears they never put them up? I always enjoyed them."

"This is certainly not the first time our Ambucs club has been asked why the Ambucs Park did not get lit up this Christmas. While we all appreciate the beauty of all the lights and displays, it comes down to all the time and effort to put it all up," said Keith Jamieson, a member of the Ambucs Park Committee.

A key member in the club who took responsibility for putting up the lights was unable to do so this year, said Jamieson.

"The subject has come up many times within our club and there was no member willing to step up and take over the management of the park lighting," he said. "So we are very sad that the park lighting did not occur this year, but we are quite hopeful that we will get it done next year. I think the level of response we received about the appreciation for the decorating will help to keep the effort alive.

"We are an all-volunteer organization, so sometimes projects don't get executed as well. But there are times we stand back in awe of what we can get done!"Jamieson said club members usually would begin early in November to start the decorations, and they'd spend a couple weeks of evenings and weekends getting everything set up.

More stories of Magnavox

Last week's question about an ordnance test area behind the old Magnavox plant in Urbana (now the Dart/Solo Cup Co. plant) prompted several intriguing recollections from readers. Magnavox operated in east Urbana from 1956 to 1972, at first making consumer products but later moving primarily into Defense Department components during the Vietnam War.

"I worked on that Magnavox project. In addition to making field radios, there was a 'secret' project called LAD. You had to have a security clearance to work on this project. Of course security at that time meant a tent around the area within the plant and someone sitting at the door to look at your badge and in your purse. It made Impulse Detectors that were dropped in Vietnam to detect the number of troops, etc in the area.

"The area you are speaking about is where these were field-tested by the government. I actually worked the testing unit called 'Go, No Go' (true name). It was last indoor test before being sent out to a testing area to be field-tested. During this time of so many anti-war protests on (the University of Illinois) campus, there were a lot a threats made to Magnavox by these anti-war groups."

and this one from Jacquie Berkman of Urbana:

"Not a question but I just wanted to tell you that years ago we dug up a huge live artillery shell in our back yard (at 403 E. California Ave., Urbana). We had a friend working at Magnavox. He took the shell there and they detonated it in the back area," she said.

It was a rental house, she said, and the shell was found, not buried but beneath a pile of vines and weeds. She said she didn't know where the shell had come from but that neighbors said the yard had been overgrown with vegetation for about 20 years (this was in 1972).

"Our eldest son was 8 and thought it was cool, and wanted to show it to everyone," she said.

She remembers transporting the shell to Magnavox "in our 1967 Mustang, surrounded by bed pillows. We probably should have called the fire or police department to transport, but we were young and naive."

and another tale:

"My friend worked at Magnavox building land mines. He has a few stories about that place including one about a supervisor who, when news of the shutdown was announced, locked himself in a secure bunker and was in there for a few days until he was talked out."

Dim rest area

"I've been driving the local interstates recently before and after dark, and came to the rest stop on I-74 eastbound near Farmer City, only to realize that the facility looked closed. The lobby area was very dimly lit. I doubt the light level met any minimum established in building by codes. The rest stops between Bloomington and Peoria on I-74 are lit much better (brighter). They feel safe, whereas the darker lit facilities near Farmer City feels unsafe. Why are the facilities near Farmer City so poorly lit?"

A change is coming, said Kensil Garnett, the Region 3 engineer for the Illinois Department of Transportation.

"We just completed our monthly inspection at the Farmland Rest Area this past Wednesday and have placed in a work order for light bulb replacement. Lighting upgrades and conversions to LED both internally and externally are being investigated for this facility," he said. "The department is in the process of upgrading rest areas statewide, including lighting. This facility will be improved in the future as funding allows."

Railroad quiet zone

"What would be the process for requesting a quiet zone along the Canadian National tracks through Savoy and Champaign, even if just during the overnight hours? Obviously those tracks were placed long before any houses were around, so homeowners realistically have no right or expectation to demand anything of the railroad. But if a request was to be made in the spirit of cooperation, how might one get that processes started?"

Quiet zones are established by the Federal Railroad Administration.

But first a local public agency, such as the Savoy Village Board or the Champaign City Council, would have to make the request of the FRA, in consultation with the affected railroad.

The town of Normal has established a quiet zone that will go into effect Jan. 8 on the Union Pacific line that also carries Amtrak trains. According to Normal, a quiet zone is a segment of a rail line at which locomotive horns are not routinely sounded. But train horns are not prohibited and can be sounded for numerous reasons including as a warning to animals or pedestrians, to alert passengers standing too close to an incoming train on the platform, or to warn railroad workers or contract employees working on or near the tracks.

Donating used medical equipment

"I'm looking for a way to pass on medical equipment that is no longer needed but still fully functional: for example, a nebulizer for dispensing asthma medication to a child, and a CPAP machine. I realize liability concerns could be an issue, but any outlets for such equipment? It pains me to just dispose of it."

Sue McMillan, international logistics and partner coordinator with the Hospital Sisters Mission Outreach in Springfield, said they can accept "a working nebulizer but our recipients in developing countries do not have any use for a CPAP machine."

She said, though, that The Reggie White Foundation in West Allis, Wisc., accepts CPAP donations as long as the unit is not over 5 years old. Their website is:

The nebulizer can be sent to Hospital Sisters Mission Outreach; 4930 LaVerna Road; Springfield, IL 62707.

"If the donor would like a receipt please include contact information in the package," she added.

More on UI emblem at Curtis Road interchange

"Regarding the U of I emblem on the Curtis Road interchange, whose responsibility is it then to update it with the new block I logo campus has adopted? And on that note, what is the university's plan to change all the roadside building signage and at whose expense? A small few have been updated (Gies College of Business for example) but blue signs with brown frame is not a good combination."

There are no plans to change the logo now or in the future, said Champaign planning director Bruce Knight.

"I'm sure there are other U of I logos in stone on buildings around campus that reflect old brands. That's what happens when they are used as an architectural feature," he said.

Indeed, the old UI emblems on Memorial Stadium have never changed and there's no confusion about what they represent.

Odd mailbox practice

"What do the stickers on mailboxes mean? I've noticed black tape is used when someone's away. Isn't that a security risk?"

I talked to a manager at the Champaign Post Office who declined to give her name because she is not authorized to talk to the news media. She said she was unaware of the practice and said it is nothing the postal service encouraged. She advised homeowners against taping over mailboxes.

Charter Fitness Champaign

"Charter workout gym recently closed off Windsor Road; are there real plans to reopen or are they closed for good?"

A manager at the Urbana Charter Fitness who did not want his name used (there seems to be some of that going around) said that the Champaign center at 2414 Galen Drive, which closed in early November, would not reopen.

But he said the owners are speaking with brokers and are looking for a new location in Champaign, but that there's no timeline.

Old batteries

"In perusing our box of batteries for post-Christmas needs, it got me to thinking, we have AA, AAApt, C and D size batteries. Whatever happened to B size batteries?"

According to the website Battery University, the B cell battery was introduced in 1900 for portable lighting, including bicycle lights in Europe. But it was discontinued in North America in 2001.

Chain restaurants

"I know, I know, yet another restaurant question ... sorry. A few years back Boston Market built a restaurant on Prospect. It seems like it was there for maybe a couple of months and then it was torn down. What in the world happened or was it really there longer than I thought? Also, can you find out why Cheddars closed? That place was always packed and I loved their varied menu. Looking forward to your findings ..... Well, at least I didn't ask about Golden Corral and I couldn't wait for them to open up here."

No one can recall a Boston Market in Champaign. Perhaps you are thinking of the Baker's Square on Neil Street, suggested Larry Happ, who is Champaign's building safety supervisor.

Cheddar's (2101 N. Prospect) closed as of early April 2011. The location was sold and became the Longhorn Steakhouse. They're both members of the Darden Restaurants brand.

Street closures listing

"Who curates The News-Gazette's online street closures listings? There seem to be an awful lot of outdated listings every week. Example: McKinley in Champaign is listed as closed '10/26-?' It was indeed closed on 10/26, and open again on 10/27."

Thanks for bringing that to our attention. The listing has been updated and the obsolete reports were culled.

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GimmeAbreak wrote on January 02, 2018 at 3:01 pm

I believe the reader who asked about a Boston Market on north Prospect was confusing that with Boston's Restaurant and Sports Bar, which is what was actually used to be there.

It was not torn down - rather, it closed sometime in the early '00s and was eventually sold and became what is now Oishi Hibachi Steakhouse.