Tom's #Mailbag, June 15, 2018

Tom's #Mailbag, June 15, 2018

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A lot of infrastructure questions this week, including one about a homemade "spigot" that appeared for a while on an interstate highway sign, a missing traffic sign in Champaign, work under way at Memorial Stadium, raised ponds in Urbana and work on the steam tunnels at the University of Illinois.

Also, questions about whether there is a shortage of songbirds locally, an influx of migrant workers, and whether anyone has died from a tornado within Champaign-Urbana.

Finally, a question for you. The first person to answer it correctly wins four tickets to next Thursday night's CUBS night game featuring the Danville Dans vs. Hannibal Hoots, 6:30 p.m. at Danville Stadium. Email your answer to:

The question: What former Chicago Cubs infielder later was head coach of the University of Arizona Wildcats?

And now we return to your regularly scheduled Mailbag ...


Tornado fatalities

"A follow-up to this weekend's weather: has a tornado ever claimed a life in Champaign-Urbana?"

This cannot be considered a definitive answer, but it appears that there hasn't been a tornado-related fatality in Champaign-Urbana since 1900.

The great staff at the Champaign County Historical Archives (at the Urbana Free Library), as well as our staff, researched the question and came up empty. That's a good thing.

Archives assistant Breaden Belcher found stories about tornado fatalities in Ogden, St. Joseph, Savoy and Tolono. And we found a few other tornado-related deaths, but none within the city limits.

April 18, 1922 — The News-Gazette reported one casualty in Ogden. Mrs. Albert G. Anderson was killed and her husband was seriously injured when a tornado hit their farm.

March 16, 1942 — The Courier reported four fatalities from tornadoes that day: a mother and her two children in St. Joseph, and one man in Savoy.

April 4, 1974 — Lonnie Huffman of Tolono was killed when his home was struck by a tornado. That same storm system destroyed 155 homes in Decatur earlier that day.

News-Gazette librarian Carolyn Vance found the 1996 tornado-related death of Mary Laird of La Plata, Mo., who was killed when she was thrown from the sleeping compartment of a tractor-trailer truck on Interstate 74 near Ogden.

There's also a nice report ( at the National Weather Service site of all tornadoes in Champaign County between 1950 and 2016.


Interstate sign addition

"What exactly is the reason for the plastic PVC 'water' spigot on the sign for the origin of the Kaskaskia River between Mahomet and Champaign on I-74? There are two signs. One on the north and one on the south side of 74. It is only on the sign on the south side of the road."

It wasn't authorized.

"Your reader is indeed correct that someone added the PVC spigot to the 'Origin of the Kaskaskia River' sign, said Kensil Garnett, Region 3 engineer for the Illinois Department of Transportation "The spigot was removed from the sign on June 11."


Kickapoo Trail expansion westward

"Are there plans to extend the Kickapoo trail west from Wal-Mart between Main Street and University to Smith Road?"

It's a source of ongoing study, said Tim Bartlett, executive director of the Urbana Park Distroct.

"Since the KRT opened in the fall of 2017, several of our local agencies have been working collaboratively to provide better connectivity to Urbana via our new regional trail network. The Urbana Park District, city of Urbana and the Champaign

County Forest Preserve District collaborated with Champaign County Regional Planning Commission on a transportation analysis to study future connection points to extend the KRT further into Urbana," he said. "Today, the former CSX rail line — which is now the KRT — ends at a point between Main Street/Rt. 150 and Smith Road. This point represents the limits of ownership of the railbanked line. Thus, further analysis will be needed to create more user-friendly points of connection to reach the park district's and city's trail networks."The study identified multiple options — based on user input stemming from two public meetings — to further connectivity into Urbana. All of the future options will require additional analysis to determine the most suitable connection(s)."

The best options to connect with the trail now are at the Wal-Mart on U.S. 150 and High Cross Road and at Weaver Park on East Main Street, Bartlett said. Last month the Urbana Park District board and the Urbana Parks Foundation dedicated the trailhead on the north side of Weaver Park.


Golden Goat

"In the early '80s, when I was a kid, Jerry's IGA on Philo Road in Urbana had an aluminum can crusher in the parking lot. You would insert a can and it would crush it and give you money. I think it even had a TV screen in it. I seem to remember a lot of hubbub about the machine when it was installed. What was it called? P.S., as kids we would sometimes take the aluminum cans from the recycling bins in Lincoln Square over to Jerry's to get money for sodas."

That was called the Golden Goat. A 2013 story by former News-Gazette reporter Don Dodson detailed some of the history of the machines.

"The machines were formerly owned by Ted Roberts, but they were recently acquired by (Chris) Greenwold, Rich Jarboe and Travis Heath. Now they're scouting for locations for two more machines. Greenwold said he would prefer spots outside businesses in Urbana, Savoy, Mahomet and Rantoul," Dodson wrote. "Greenwold said he believed the machines were first put into operation in 1991 and one was still operating in 2010.

"He said he and his partners consider the Golden Goats 'more of a service than a business.' He added he has great childhood memories of getting money for his cans from the machines."


South Neil property owner

"Who owns the empty lot at the corner of South Neil and Fox Drive? That lot has been empty for many years. A Colorado Steakhouse was once at that location. It's in a prime location for development. Are there any plans to sell or develop it? What a waste of a high-profile corner lot."

The property is owned by the Liautaud Development Group, a firm headed by Jimmy John's founder Jimmy John Liataud.

Jimmy John's officials told Don Dodson in 2013 that there were no plans for the site, and that's still the case, said Jimmy John's spokesman Nathan Louer.

Most recently, Dodson wrote five years ago, the site was home to the Fiesta Ranchero restaurant. Before that the building hosted El Toro 2 from 2004 to '11; Colorado Steakhouse from 1994 to 2000; and Snak's Fifth Avenue/Snak's Park Avenue from 1981 to '94. It originally was a Red Wheel restaurant.


Vacant Champaign home (again)

"What is the status on the property at 2613 W. Kirby Ave, Champaign? I see it is still boarded up."

The owners did not comply with the provisions of the vacant nuisance residential building ordinance and the case was referred to the city legal department for enforcement, said David Oliver, Champaign's code compliance manager.

"The case is currently in litigation. The city and the owner have entered into a stipulated agreement through the court for the rehabilitation of the structure. If the owner fails to comply with the stipulated agreement, the city will pursue an order of summary judgment for demolition of the structure," he said.


Memorial Stadium work

"I was driving by the Stadium today and noticed some sections of brick that look white. What is going on there? Is that permanent or something related to maintenance?"

It's just regularly scheduled tuck-pointing of the brick, said Kent Brown, the UI's associate director of athletics.

"We schedule sections of the stadium just about each summer as normal upkeep of this historic building. It will look normal once they complete the process," he said.


Football traffic signs

"Today I once again noticed that as you approach First Street driving east on Springfield Avenue, you see two prominent football traffic signs indicating that you should turn right for the west side of the Stadium and go straight for the east side. There is no similar sign at Fourth Street, however, indicating that is where the east side crowd should turn right. Are the DIA leaders hoping that ignorant Iowa fans will end up in St. Joseph or Danville?"

Here's Kent Brown again: "Great question! Our current staff was not aware that we may be responsible for directional signs. Our operations staff will reach out to the city of Champaign and coordinate some updates."


Graduation rentals

"Do the local high schools pay for the use of the Krannert Center and State Farm Center to hold their graduations? Also, people attending Centennial's graduation at the State Farm Center had to pay to park. Is that charged by the U of I Parking Department, or the high school?"

"Both Krannert Center and State Farm Center see hosting graduation ceremonies for community high schools as part of their educational outreach missions," said UI spokeswoman Robin Kaler. "Krannert Center charges standard rental rates for external groups that want to use the facility for graduations and offers free parking after 5 p.m. and on the weekends. State Farm Center offers a deeply discounted rate to cover the basic expenses of graduation events with parking fees sometimes added as a way to recoup money lost on the lower fees."


Raised ponds in Urbana

"What are the raised ponds on the southwest corner of Lincoln and Bradley?"

That property is owned by the American Water Co., of which Illinois American Water is a subsidiary.

The purpose of the property is solids storage for the now decommissioned Lincoln Avenue water treatment plant, said David Farrar, senior manager at Illinois American Water.

"The plant was a lime softening plant and the spent lime was collected during the treatment process and pumped to the lagoons for storage," he said. "We are in the process of removing the remaining lime solids and anticipate resuming removal this fall after the crops are out of the local fields."


Migrant workers

"A recent article said 4,000 migrant workers and their families are expected this year in Champaign County with people staying through October. I am curious whether the school districts see an enrollment surge early in the year followed by a drop as people move somewhere else? Also, they expect three times as many people this year because there is more work in the fields. Why is that? I assume roughly the same number of acres are planted with a similar mix of crops from year to year. Can you help the non-farmers understand?"

The Rev. Nelson Cuevas, director of Rantoul's Cultivadores Latino Center, was the source for last Saturday's story about the influx of migrant workers (

He said that recruiters for area seed companies told him to expect more workers.

"I don't deal with the seed companies. I deal with recruiters and they're the middlemen who do the hiring," he said. "The recruiters tell me. That way I can be ready to help feed them and provide child care and stuff like that."

The rush of migrant workers to Champaign County has begun and Cuevas said he expects the full complement to be here by July 1.


Store closings and gift cards

"With a number of stores and restaurants going bankrupt or closing lately, what is state law regarding unused gift cards for those establishments? Is there any recourse or protection for the consumer when that happens?"

Businesses that issue gift cards are required to honor them for at least five years after the gift card is issued; however, if the business closes due to financial hardship, they might be unable to provide a refund.

If the business files for bankruptcy protection, gift certificate holders are considered creditors and can take what other similarly situated creditors receive — anywhere from zero to 100 cents on the dollar, depending on the type of bankruptcy, the company's financial condition and the plan the bankruptcy court approves.

A bit of advice for consumers from the Illinois attorney general's office: People who have a gift certificate from a business that has closed can file a complaint with the office, and we will attempt to mediate by contacting the business. In some instances, business owners provide voluntary refunds or make arrangements for some sort of deal with a similar business.


— Consider the financial condition of the issuing restaurant or retailer. If they go out of business, you may not get the benefit of the gift certificate value;

— If you receive a gift certificate, you should redeem it as soon as possible to avoid expiration or the risk that a company may go out of business, or the risk of misplacing the certificate;

— Before buying a gift certificate, read the fine print and determine whether it is subject to an expiration date and any post-purchase fees;

— Buy from sources you know and trust; and— Give the recipient your receipt from the purchase to help verify the purchase if there are issues with redeeming the gift certificate.


News-Gazette curbside delivery

"Do you know why The News-Gazette has started putting up those orange boxes on poles for the newspaper? Will they be required to get The News-Gazette?"

Here's the word from John Reed, the CEO and Publisher at News-Gazette Media: "As we continue our migration from porch delivery to curbside delivery, we offer our subscribers three options for where they would like their newspaper to be placed: at the end of the driveway, in an existing mailbox with its own newspaper slot, or in an orange News-Gazette 'tube.' The latter may be mounted on an existing post (if available), or we can install a separate one."


MTD hauling

As a follow-up to last week's question about unusual items brought onto Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District buses, former MTD Managing Director Bill Volk adds this story: "I was on the old Orchard Downs line stopping at Pennsylvania and Dorner one Saturday afternoon when a couple tried to get on the bus with two living room chairs — they had just been shopping at Dump and Run at the Stock Pavilion. They were told to wait for the next bus since the bus was SRO."


Songbird shortage?

"Are there many fewer songbirds this season, or is it just my halitosis that drives them from our yard?"

"Bad breath probably does not affect songbirds," said Jeff Hoover, a researcher in the ecology of birds (particularly migratory songbirds) at the Ilinois Natural History Survey. "Kidding aside, I am not aware of a reduction in songbird numbers in East Central Illinois this year.

"It may be that your reader has noticed the effects of highly variable spring weather conditions (especially pronounced cold snaps and April snows) on spring migration of songbirds. A longer more drawn out spring migration where migratory songbirds

trickle into and through our area because of the weather can give the perception of fewer birds. There are usually large pulses of songbirds arriving and passing through during a 'typical' spring rather than a delayed and slow trickle like seen this year.

"If it is just your reader's yard or neighborhood where there seems to be fewer birds in general right now, then it may be that there are Cooper's Hawks frequenting the yard (they chase and try to catch and eat small birds), or a neighborhood cat(s) may have set up shop in the area which would also reduce use of their yard by birds. Just suggesting some possibilities."


Steam tunnel work

"On the UI campus north of the Stock Pavilion is a row of orange cones with 'UI LABOR SHOP' stencil. This row of more than 50 cones is bolted to pavement between pedestrian walk and bike path, extending east-west across the Quad. Is this just traffic separation or something else?"

The pylons are related to steam tunnel infrastructure repairs on campus, said Steve Breitwieser, a spokesman for the UI Facilities & Services.

"The markers were placed in the area to prevent vehicular traffic over this future work location. A project to address the structural issues, which requires the markers, is being bid at this time," he said.