Tom's #Mailbag, April 29, 2016


Tom's #Mailbag, April 29, 2016

Got a question for Tom? Ask it here

Wow, you people made me earn my gruel this week. Questions about Portillo's, White Castle, Tumble Inn, comparative property tax rates, the Kickapoo Rail Trail, the Obama war on coal, a mystery statue and a mystery old school.

Plus, narrow streets, weedy parks, Champaign County's history of swamps, planting prairie along the Interstate, Champaign's form of government, why Bloomington-Normal gets restaurants before Champaign-Urbana and what's going on at the old Manpower office on Springfield Avenue.

Oh yeah, finally a mention of those pesky St. Louis Blues.

Pricey prairie

"How much would it cost to plant prairie along the Interstates in Illinois? Along half?"

Kensil Garnett, deputy director of the Illinois Department of Transportation and region 3 engineer, notes that some prairie has been planted along the Interstate 74 corridor between Mahomet and Interstate 57.

But doing so along the entire interstate right of way in Illinois would cost about $1.6 billion.

"309,000 Acres x $5100/acre equals $1,575,900,000," he wrote. "The total budget for IDOT is only about $2 billion a year."

Bloomington-Normal supremacy

"How does Bloomington-Normal land so many more new restaurants than Champaign-Urbana? From Logan's Roadhouse, Pizza Ranch, Portillo's to the great independents like Jim's Steakhouse and Avanti's; it seems like we always miss out to Bloomington-Normal."

This one is easy. There's more money in Bloomington-Normal.

It's a "company town" for State Farm Insurance and its army of actuaries, accountants, financial managers, computer network administrators, information security specialists and other well-paid workers.

Champaign-Urbana is a "company town" for a state university (currently without much state funding) and 42,000 students, many of whom live at or near poverty.

Median household income in Champaign County (2014 dollars) was $46,680, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Per capita income (2014 dollars) was $26,087. Both figures are below the national average.

Median household income in McLean County (2014 dollars) was $61,955, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Per capital income (2014 dollars) was $30,728. The McLean County figures are above the national average.

Kickapoo Trail update

"Any update on the Urbana-St. Joseph segment of the bike trail?"

Work on clearing trees and brush along phase one (6.7 miles) of the Kickapoo Rail Trail with a large machine already has begun, said Dan Olson, executive director of the Champaign County Forest Preserve District. Construction of the trail will take place throughout the summer.

And the forest preserve board Thursday night took the first step toward moving into phase two of the trail (the St. Joseph to Vermilion County line segment), with approval of a grant application for design engineering work.

Here's the story from that meeting ...

Mystery house

"Heading east out of Urbana on Curtis Road about a half mile past Route 130, the road takes a sharp right hand turn. At that location on the left hand side of the road there is an old brick building that has 'District 114' etched in stone above the door. What was this building?"

That building, which has been a private home for more than 60 years, is the old Silver School. It was built around 1916 and closed in the late 1930s or early 1940s.

Obama "war on coal"

"Is Barack Obama really killing the Illinois coal industry, as Republicans have charged, or was it already in trouble?"

The statistics don't fit the narrative, at least not yet.

The Illinois Coal Association reports that in 1970 64 million tons of coal was mined in the state (the all-time high was 74 million in 1944) and the industry employed 10,214 persons.

But by 2000 production was down by half (33.5 million tons) and employment had dropped to 3,461.

The numbers stayed depressed until 2012 when production increased to 48.4 million tons. Employment rose slightly as well to 4,068.

In 2015, according to the association, production was 56 million tons, but employment was 3,728.

Much of the coal produced in Illinois, though, is going overseas.

Nationally the sales of coal mined for domestic use is down about 30 percent over the last nine years, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

It reports that price and availability of fuels other than coal — natural gas, wind and solar power, especially — have had a major effect on coal consumption since 2007.

Building remodel

"What's with the fenced-in commercial building at the corner of West Springfield and Van Doren?"

That's the local Manpower office and the existing building apparently will be demolished — a demolition permit has been filed for the building at 810 W. Springfield Ave., C, although it hasn't been approved yet — and a permit for a new structure — also not approved — is being sought.

For now Manpower's office is at 1822 Glenn Park Drive, Champaign.


"I have read in several places that the natural landscape of Champaign was swampy. Is this true? If so, what did they do to get all of the water out of the area?"

Yes, indeed, this was a swampy place.

J.O. Cunningham, who wrote the definitive history of Champaign County, reported: "The broad sloughs, which became saturated in winter and spring with water held back by the great growth of natural grass, generated the poisonous miasma which permeated every dwelling, and as expressed by T.R. Webber, who knew the country, 'Pale men and women and ague-ridden (a type of malaria), pot-bellied children were the rule and healthy constituents the exception."

There was a reason that the East Central part of Illinois was among the last to be settled.

But drainage and drainage districts changed everything.

"For years the swamps and lowlands were considered as tracts which were worse than valueless; as so many pestilential breeders of malaria and other diseases," wrote J.R. Stewart in 1918. "But in the early (1850s) much Federal and State legislation was directed toward the policy of donating such overflowed lands to the various counties. The result was to direct the attention of the county authorities more particularly to the subject, and cause them to consider whether after all they should not attempt to reclaim the swamp lands to conditions of productiveness.

"In 1853 Benjamin Thrasher was appointed to examine all the unsold lands in the county coming within the definition of the Federal Act as 'swamp and overflowed lands,' and to submit a report thereof to the County Court. He reported that 85,000 acres in Champaign County answered to that description, and nearly 36,000 acres of such land was subsequently confirmed to the county. These lands were sold and the funds used, in part, for the erection of a court-house in 1860 and to increase the school fund.

"It was upon these lands that the great work of drainage was accomplished nearly 20 years thereafter. In 1878 the State Constitution was amended by the addition of the drainage section, which authorized the formation of drainage companies, the digging and tiling of ditches, and for purposes of regulation and systematic work it divided the submerged lands into districts, with supervising officials. Soon after the year 1880 the system and the work were in operation. Since then the cost of these improvements has been great, having been estimated at considerable over $1 million."

Fox Drive statue

"What's the story behind the statue on Fox Drive? There's no sign with it."

I don't have much to report. Heather Tucker, the vice president of operations for Fox Development, says that the piece was commissioned by Peter Fox and that it's been up for at least a dozen years. She doesn't know who the artist is, nor who the female figure represents.

There was some conjecture, though, that it was Peter Fox's wife, Kim. It isn't.

Weedy parks

"Does the Champaign Park District do any sort of weed/dandelion prevention? Turnberry Ridge Park is rife with them."

Joe DeLuce, the executive director of the park district, said parks are treated for weeds.

"The parks are treated on a rotating basis each year. Turnberry Ridge Park is on the schedule to be treated this year, but it has not been completed as yet," he said. "Whenever parks are treated for weeds, our staff posts signs in the parks and we have a list of people who have requested to be notified when we treat a specific park."

Narrow passage

"Scovill Street from Philo Road to Vine Street (in Urbana) allows parking on both sides of the street. However it doesn't appear to be wide enough to allow traffic flow. I frequently see cars having to stop behind parked cars to allow a driver come through from the opposite direction. Is it just due to bad parking jobs and the curves in the road, or should there really be 'No Parking' signs along one side?"

The width of Scovill Street meets the city code requirements for a local residential street, said Craig Shonkwiler, Urbana's assistant city engineer.

"Streets like this are intended to provide access to homes along them and are not meant to be wide enough for cars to park on both sides and allow two cars to pass unimpeded. Streets like this also have low traffic volumes and the amount of cars parked along them is usually not high," he said. "It is viewed that having to slow down and wait for a car in the opposite direction to come through is a good thing as it keeps vehicle speeds low.

"We do have a policy for the removal of parking on a street but from past experience residents usually don't want to concede to the loss of parking near their homes."

Tumble Inn work

"Is Tumble Inn expanding? Sure looks like it."

For now, says Tumble Inn owner Toby Herges, the work there is just expanded parking. But there's some flexibility to possibly host outdoor events (south of the existing structure) or possibly to add on to the building.

A small fire Nov. 14, 2015, at the business at 304 S. Neil St., Champaign, created the existing opportunity.

White Castle/Portillo's

"Tom, what do we have to do to get White Castle or Portillo's to come to the C-U area? I can't imagine this market can't support one or both, given that many people here, including myself, grew up on their product."

Your question prompted me to send emails to Portillo's (and White Castle). Portillo's responded almost immediately — with word that it is going to open a store in Normal next year and that Champaign-Urbana is on their radar.

I haven't heard from White Castle, but I suspect the response would be much different than what we heard from Portillo's.

A similar mailbag question more than two years ago got us this response from the company's president and chief operating officer, Elizabeth Ingram:

"In immediate response to your inquiry, however, White Castle prides itself on growing slowly. White Castle and all its subsidiaries are privately owned and operated. The company does not franchise or offer stock options, and finances its expansion solely through retained earnings. For these reasons, White Castle tends to operate within the existing Midwest and Northeast regions where all our support facilities (meat plants, bakeries, etc.) are located. We believe in this business practice so we can provide a stable company for the more than 12,000+ employees it supports."

White Castle operates in only a dozen markets: Chicago, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Detroit, Louisville, Nashville, Cincinnati, Columbus, Northeast Ohio, New Jersey and metro New York City.

And there's this, from the website Small Business: "Surprisingly, the reason White Castle doesn't expand (and use the franchise model to do so) isn't so much that they hope to keep their restaurants as elusive as the famous Harold & Kumar buddy movie would suggest. It's actually that White Castle's core offering of quality food and semi-localized menu options at low cost demands that its restaurants be located near its supply facilities. And guess what? Building out or sourcing new facilities to support dramatic expansion across the country would require a huge investment (and, most likely, external capital and investor scrutiny)."

Comparative property tax rates

"You listed tax rates for towns in Champaign County. I'd like to see comparison rates for those in nearby counties like Paxton, Gibson City, Monticello. It would be revealing."

The website SmartAsset put together a list of the average effective property tax rates by county, which were pretty eye-popping: Champaign County was 24th of Illinois 102 counties, but Ford County was 19th, McLean County 14th and Iroquois County — ironically one of the most politically conservative counties in Illinois — was 13th. The counties with the three highest effective tax rates were 1) Kendall, 2) Winnebago and 3) DeKalb.

Here's another measure: the Illinois Department of Revenue reports the following 2014 average property tax rates by county:

Champaign $8.45 per $100 of assessed valuation

Coles $8.48

DeWitt $7.75

Douglas $8.19

Edgar $8.17

Ford $9.51

Iroquois $9.54

McLean $8.25

Macon $8.59

Moultrie $8.35

Piatt $6.96

Vermilion $9.53

Finally I checked with a few county clerks and got the following rates for a few communities:

Champaign $8.41 per $100 of assessed valuation

Urbana $10.75

Rantoul $11.66

Gibson City $7.93

Paxton $12.41

Monticello $6.27

Champaign government

"I was looking at some historical information on Champaign's municipal government and found out that it had changed into a city manager form of government in the late 1950s. I am assuming it had a strong mayoral structure prior to this. I was curious to know when exactly this change occurred and for what reason? I appreciate it!"

Thanks for your question. Champaign had a commission form of government (city council members headed various departments: public property, finance, health & safety, and streets) until a 1955 referendum when voters mandated that the city adopt a council-manager form of government by 1959. The council began taking applications for the first city manager in 1957 — saying that it intended to pay him (or her) about $10,000 a year — but didn't hire its first manager (Robert Oldland) until 1958. Oldland lasted four years, which is about one-seventh as long as Champaign's most successful city manager, Steve Carter, who led the city from Feb. 18, 1985 to March 29, 2013.

Those pesky Blues

"How about them Blues?"

One down, three to go. Being a fan of both the Blues and the Cubs, I know not to get too excited about these early-playoff series triumphs. But finally beating the Blackhawks was a thrill, and I feel good about the series, beginning tonight, with Dallas.

Looking much farther ahead than I should, Washington looks very difficult — a bigger, faster, better skating version of the Blues. But playing hockey in May is a good thing.


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wayward wrote on April 29, 2016 at 2:04 pm

As far as restaurants, both B-N and C-U have a lot.  B-N is more corporate and it seems like they have more chain restaurants.  Because of UI, C-U seems more cosmopolitan.  No, we don't have a Pizza Ranch, but we've got Golden Harbor, Black Dog, Big Grove, etc.  I kind of like Avanti's but for the most part, I prefer the food choices here.

RonaldJerome wrote on April 29, 2016 at 4:04 pm

Regarding the "War on Coal" response, we are primarily replacing coal with another fossil fuel--natural gas--as opposed to wind or solar. The sizable wind and solar fields that are constructed come with natural gas powerplants, purported to be backups, but which end up providing a lion's share of the operating capacity. Despite the gov't PR message we're not really working towards a primarily renewable energy future--it just can't provide the reliability or capacity necessary. We're just changing fossil-fuel horses in the race. The best solution to provide more than enough energy with low environmental impact is modern nuclear power. 

thinks wrote on April 29, 2016 at 5:04 pm

Thank you for the restaurant updates. We're originally from Ohio. We'd love to see Skyline or Goldstar (Cincinnati chili places) expand out here. The closest to CU is a Skyline in Indy.