Tom Kacich is a columnist and the author of Tom's Mailbag at The News-Gazette. His column appears Sundays. His email is, and you can follow him on Twitter (@tkacich).

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This week’s Mailbag is almost as diverse as the student body at the University of Illinois. We have questions about the sad-looking Sesquicentennial Garden near the UI President’s House, new apartment construction, whether Hy-Vee and/or Fresh Thyme are coming here, expansion of balanced calendar schools in C-U, the diversity of Cubs uniforms, farmland ownership in Champaign County, improved traffic flow on North Prospect Avenue and Champaign County’s websites.

Hy-Vee in C-U?

“A few years ago The News-Gazette had an article that Fresh Thyme would be building a store here in Champaign yet we have yet to see it come to fruition. Also, there is a serious rumor that Hy-Vee will be coming to town by 2021 somewhere out by the Curtis Ave./I-57. Any way to find out the status on these?”

Hy-Vee has no plans to come to the Champaign-Urbana market, said Tina Potthoff, the vice president of communications for the West Des Moines, Iowa-based supermarket chain. The employee-owned company has more than 240 stores in eight Midwestern states. The nearest stores are in Bloomington and Springfield.

“That area is not on our list of locations announced in the next two years,” she said. “But we’re always looking for new locations as we expand our efforts and our retail locations. That’s not to say it’s out of the question but right now as to our current plans for the next several years we do not have that location listed.”

Potthoff said “we do accept customer suggestions for where Hy-Vee is needed and wanted. So we appreciate your reader’s comment.”

Fresh Thyme has not returned repeated phone calls and email inquiries over the last year.

bag H Mart site

Asian grocery

“What’s going on with the lot just to the North of Sailfin Pet Store On Neil? I thought an Asian Market and Cafe was supposed to be built there.”

Nothing yet.

H Mart Companies of Lyndhurst, N.J., told us last year that it intended to open a new location at the site but did not have an opening date.

And Champaign building safety supervisor Randy Smith said this week that there is “no application or active permit for those addresses associated with that site in the 700 block of South Neil.”

More ‘balanced calendar’ schools?

“Given all of the research that shows their effectiveness, why are there not more balanced calendar schools in Champaign-Urbana? Champaign only has two at the elementary level, and Urbana has none. One would think the local school boards and parents would be more supportive of these.”

Don’t look for it to happen soon, say the presidents of the two local school boards.

“Several years ago, (District) 116 investigated balance calendar schools, but met with significant opposition from parents,” said John Dimit, president of the Urbana school board. “This community seems very comfortable with academic years since so many parents work on an academic calendar, whether teaching or providing support services.

“The neighborhood school concept in Urbana also creates conflict in settling on a balanced calendar for only one or two schools. The district remains open to parent input on this topic should there be interest in revisiting the concept.”

Amy Armstrong, president of the Champaign school district, added this: “Data can often provide mixed results depending on the research reviewed. The two balanced calendar elementary schools (Kenwood and Barkstall) are still popular choices for Champaign families and meet the community’s interest as viable options. There are no current plans to expand the balanced calendar beyond those two schools.”

WEB back-to-school traffic

Motorists travel on Prospect Avenue near the Interstate 74 bridge in late May 2019, when a sign warned of impending construction. By the start of school in August, the work had been reduced to one lane in each direction.

North Prospect traffic flow

“Since the bridge work began at North Prospect, the traffic lights are better synchronized than they ever have been. I know there isn’t as much traffic but, I’ve traveled the road during off hours with less traffic and I still had to stop at every stop light between Marketview Drive and Bloomington Road. Is there any way the lights can be better synchronized after the work is completed?”

It turns out that this section is controlled by the Illinois Department of Transportation, so we turned to Kensil Garnett, District 3 engineer, for the answer.

“The only signal timing modifications that were implemented for the Prospect Avenue bridge project involved a slight increase in ‘green time’ allowed for the interstate off ramps. Clearing traffic from the ramps was the priority to prevent traffic queues from extending to the mainline interstate,” he said. “No other modifications were made along Prospect Avenue.

“We have been monitoring the performance and agree that traffic is moving well across the bridge section from Marketview Drive to Bloomington Road. Counterintuitively, this is a result of the reduced capacity of that section during construction. Not as many vehicles can get across during a signal cycle, but those that do can do so more easily.”

Atsa Trust properties

“Tom’s Mailbag has, on many occasions, identified the owner of area land as Atsa Trust One (Dr. Albert Lo). Can you or one of the unpaid interns on the Mailbag staff generate a map that shows the parcels of land in our area owned by Dr. Lo and associated entities? Also, are there any plans for any of the parcels of land, or are they just permanently withheld from the real estate market?”

Atsa Trust, Atsa Trust Number One and Alexander Lo, Trustee own 43 different farmland parcels in Champaign County, totalling more than 4,200 acres. All of the farmland is in central Champaign County, close to Champaign-Urbana. Here are the acreage totals by township, based on a parcel search report by the county supervisor of assessments: Scott Township 1,536; Champaign Township 1,266; Somer Township 405; Hensley Township 394; Urbana Township 360; Philo Township 201 and Sidney Township 122.

We asked about plans for the parcels but did not hear back.

Cubs unis

“I’m a huge fan of the Chicago Cubs. They seem to be wearing a different uniform for almost every game series. Does Major League Baseball decide what uniforms they are wearing? And just how many different uniforms does a team have per season?"

We heard back from Connor Olson of the Cubs staff who thanked you for your question.

“This is an awesome question. The link below is a cohesive guide I found that shows all the different uniform combinations we’ve had this year. Some of our uniform combinations are in accordance with the MLB’s ‘Holiday’ themes as well as the ‘Players Weekend’ uniforms,” Olson said.

Here’s the link ...

By my count the Cubs have worn 13 different uniform combinations this season.

The same web site reports that the St. Louis Cardinals have worn 14 different uniform combinations this season and the Chicago White Sox have had 11.

County website

“I just searched for property tax information and found that the property tax lookup is now at Is this a Champaign County site?

“ is a suspicious domain for an official government service. It looks illegitimate for anyone at a job that does regular cybersecurity training. is not a URL that looks like a place for people to interact with an official government agency. If you need IRS information, you would trust that pages on are official but be suspicious of or

“Several other elected officials have websites that are not on an official government domain: the county recorder (, county clerk (, and circuit clerk ( Those are well established but would look more official on a government domain.

“Others like the treasurer and auditor use the government domain. Champaign uses and Urbana uses These domains are all reasonable for government bodies.”

County Executive Darlene Kloeppel said the county recently moved to a new software called Devnet that is locally hosted but for which the county contracts for providing web services, just like the circuit clerk contracts with JANO for the web-based court case lookup.

The system, she said, allows for township assessors to enter information directly into a database that will not have to be re-entered by the county assessor. All townships except Cunningham (which recently purchased another product) are partners in the new system.

“As separate elected county officials, the county clerk, county recorder and county circuit clerk have kept and named their own websites, but county administration offers links from the county’s website — — so it is easy for the public to find them from the county’s page.

Sixty-four other counties in Illinois are using Devnet, including McLean, Piatt, Logan, Vermilion and Douglas.

Parking woes

“The parking lot at Broadway Food Hall was re-striped and painted a few months ago (there is a N-G article about the Urbana City Council discussion on this lot), but people regularly park in the exit or double-park in the lot causing all kinds of chaos. Why doesn’t Urbana Parking Enforcement ticket those vehicles? There is street parking right there on the other side of the tracks and yet people still brick in the parking lot. The staff are busy inside with the lunch rush so I don’t fault them for inconsiderate customers, but the city could easily fix this by ticketing improperly parked cars. Do they not ticket on private property?”

Urbana City Administrator Carol Mitten (who also is the interim public works director) has your answer:

“The city shares the writer’s concern about illegal parking in front of 401 N. Broadway. If anyone sees illegal parking there — or anywhere in the city, please contact us using the non-emergency number (217-384-2320).

“We have parking enforcement personnel in the field during the day, but they can’t be everywhere. To further enhance the safety of the parking arrangement at 401 N. Broadway, the city will be extending the curb at the southern driveway to clarify where the driveway is and where the parking begins. That curb extension will be installed before the paving season is over.”

New apartment construction

“Did all the new apartments under construction on campus that were expected to be habitable this fall get finished in time? The one on 4th & John, and the new one on White Street didn’t look ready on the outside just a couple weeks ago.”

For the most part, yes, said Randy Smith, Champaign’s building safety supervisor.

“Despite the unusually wet winter and spring, the apartment housing in the University district did finish on a positive note. Contractors were able to finish nearly all the units before the students were scheduled to move in,” Smith said. “There were some instances where all the amenities were not ready on move-in day, like a fitness center, but overall the students had a place to call home. For the building safety division, this tends to be a busy time of year with inspectors diligently meeting the needs of the community, ensuring safe, sustainable homes and buildings for the residents and visitors to Champaign.”

Unkempt garden

“I strolled through the UI Sesquicentennial Garden (behind the President’s House on Florida Avenue) yesterday and was distressed by its unkempt appearance. Entire sections of plants had died since the garden’s dedication in 2017, and had been replaced by rampant weeds. Many of the shrubs and small trees were also dead. A stylized garden such as this requires perfect maintenance and plant care. So my question: What’s the plan for maintaining the UI Sesquicentennial Garden and how has it been allowed to look this abandoned so quickly? When the garden was established were any funds allocated for ongoing care?”The University of Illinois Sesquicentennial Garden was a gift form alumna Jo Downey, ’65, and was conceived to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the founding of the University of Illinois in 1867 and as a tribute to her family. The elliptical garden showcases native flowering trees with an understory planting of flowering perennials and ornamental grasses, said Kevin McSweeney, director of the University of Illinois Arboretum.

The garden got off to a bad start, he said.

“Plants were selected based on broad suitability for our region to provide a range of color and form throughout the seasons. It was acknowledged by the landscape architects that it would take about 3 to 5 years before the garden achieved a composition of plants well adapted to the local site conditions. The site is located on a somewhat poorly to poorly drained soil with a large amount of organic matter in the topsoil.

“We have established an ongoing plant performance monitoring protocol to evaluate suitability of the diverse collection of plants in the garden. Data from the assessment conducted during the late summer of 2018 (the first full growing season) demonstrated that a number of plants were performing very poorly or were dead. Collectively, this accounted for about one-eighth of the garden area.

“This year’s wet cold spring with recurrent freezing and thawing tested the integrity of the garden. The weather took a heavy toll on many of the perennials and some of the grasses and trees. By late spring, about one-third of the garden was adversely affected by poorly performing or dead plants, reflecting an 80 percent increase over 2018.

“This was followed by a progressive weed invasion, which was very difficult to control. The initial application of pre-emergence herbicide was ineffective, likely because of inactivation under cold temperatures. Subsequent chemical control was used sparingly for various reasons, notably for environmental reasons and the need to protect desirable plants that might be adversely impacted.

“This summer’s high temperatures posed an acute risk of chemical volatilization and drift onto desirable plants. Now that many of the perennials are starting to die back and we have clearer access within the garden, we have started an aggressive program of weed control. This consists of selective chemical treatment of noxious weeds and hand weeding followed by mulching to tackle other weedy areas. We also plan to add more perennial plants later this fall and in early spring to infill bare areas once the weeds have been suppressed. One of our goals for next year is to eliminate bare soil patches by establishing a continuous canopy cover of plants throughout the garden, which should help reduce weeds.

“We have also consulted broadly with experts in the green industry and at other Arboreta and public gardens to develop a new selection of perennials that are judged to perform well under the wet site condition in the garden. A plan for ‘winterization’ of the garden has been developed that provides plant specific protocols for mulching, fertilization, pruning/cutback and dividing, which we anticipate will reduce winter/spring kill appreciably.

“Within the southwest quadrant of the garden is a closed depression, which has resulted in partial death of a yew hedge and other plants. A tile drain is being installed beneath this area to improve drainage.

“The iterative process of monitoring of plant performance and evaluation of management practices will continue with the objective of progressively selecting a suitably diverse array of resilient plants that are compatible with the local site conditions. Although this year was very challenging and disappointing, we are optimistic that our adaptive management approach will lead to a diverse array of well-adapted plants in the garden providing beauty and interest throughout the year.”

Diane Anderson, the horticulturist in charge of the grounds at the Arboretum, said she and fulltime employee Iris Lee have been working in the garden for several weeks to get things under control and to assess every cultivar installed in 2017.

“Besides documenting those cultivars that performed poorly over the past two years and will most likely continue to do so, Iris and I are working to identify alternative cultivars of species that are more likely to perform well in our heavy soils. We are looking at plants not only for those cultural characteristics but also for how their habit, size, texture, color, flowering time, and so on can be utilized to fulfill the intent of the original design,” he said. “In other words, we are attempting to stay true to the original design but with appropriate plant material. We are also in consultation with the donor so that the ‘final’ product (if there is such a thing as ‘final’ in gardening) will be such that makes her happy with and proud of her contribution to the Arboretum.”

Motorcyclist sign?

“What is the hand sign that motorcyclists give each other when passing in opposite direction? Looks like some sort of peace sign.”

There’s a good deal of discussion about the two-finger wave on the internet with the most common explanation that it is just a way for the biker brotherhood (and sisterhood) to say hello.

“The wave is nothing more than a common practice among all motorcyclists because of the unique bond and camaraderie we share as riders,” wrote motorcyclist Jo Kelley in this piece ...

Tom Lockman update

“Could you please give us an update on Unit 4 employee Tom Lockman? Last I thought I read that Superintendent Susan Zola had recommended to the Board of Education that he be terminated, but they did not take that action, and he is still on leave. What’s next? Is the Board of Education doing their own investigation into Zola’s complaints against him? If Zola says she has lost confidence in him, does he remain on leave indefinitely?”

There’s not much to update.

“The Board of Education does not comment on personnel matters,” said board president Amy Armstrong.

Lyndsay Jones’ latest story on Lockman ( said that he remains on leave and that Zola had drafted a recommendation in July to fire him.

Lockman remains on administrative leave and is still being paid but not actively working for the district.

“Despite having been placed on leave by Dr. Zola more than two months ago, I still have not been provided with any explanation for this decision,” Lockman said in a statement to News-Gazette Media. “Further, despite the board having now met three times since Dr. Zola notified me she would be recommending termination of my employment, this recommendation has not been presented for action.”

Lockman said he believes his role in documenting, addressing and publicizing spending by Champaign district employees on district-issued purchasing cards is what prompted the decision to put him on leave.

Joe Petry case update

“With the recent report by ProPublica about sexual harassment by (University of Illinois) employees, what is the latest on the Joe Petry case? The U of I and Petry had such different perspectives on what they had agreed to. Which view was legally accurate? Since we haven’t heard anything more, was Petry’s perspective on the legality of what was agreed to correct?”

Likewise, nothing new here either yet.

The accusations against Petry, a onetime candidate for mayor and an economics professor at the UI, remain under investigation by the UI even though Petry announced his retirement from the university in April.

As News-Gazette reporter Juile Wurth wrote in May, Petry “admitted he used poor judgment by sharing photos and having ‘communications of a social nature’ online with a former student, but he insists it was consensual and he did not violate any UI policies.

“Petry is also denying more explosive allegations that he offered to improve a student’s grade in exchange for ‘sexual favors.’”

Here’s a link to that story ...

UI spokeswoman Robin Kaler said that the “review in question is ongoing.”