Newsmakers 2012 - Top local stories of the year

2012-12-30T23:00:00Z 2013-01-05T13:30:47Z Newsmakers 2012 - Top local stories of the yearH&R Staff Report Herald-Review.com
December 30, 2012 11:00 pm  • 

The hot summer sun burned bright, dried up Lake Decatur, inconvenienced water users and diverted attention from other matters. Fall brought respite from drought and we were able to focus on the many changes that are brewing.

Downtown Decatur's transformation has revitalized the city's core. The lakefront evolution continues. While industries such as Caterpillar Inc. and ADM hit valleys, there is optimism that 2013 will bring better days.

On this page we review the year that was and look ahead.

Borer endangers ash trees

The emerald ash borer, an insect City Forester Randy Callison said is “not good for anything,” moved into Macon County in the spring with confirmed captures in traps.

Native to Asia, the exotic beetle was first spotted in North America in June 2002 and first found in Illinois in 2006. As its name says, it bores into every ash tree variety, disrupts the trees’ ability to absorb water and nutrition, and the trees slowly die over the course of a few years.

Treatments are available but only about 80 percent effective.

“People who have live ash trees and want to treat them need to treat every spring,” Callison said.

If you don’t know whether you have ash trees or whether they’re affected, Callison is willing to come and look for you. Chemicals to do the treatment are readily available and you can do the job yourself, or hire someone to do it for you.

Researchers have found three species of parasitic wasps in China that are the emerald ash borers’ natural enemy and are trying some limited releases of those wasps in this country to combat the beetles. The problem is that releasing nonnative species is often more of a problem than a solution.


New legislative faces

Central Illinoisans chose to send several new faces to Washington, D.C., and Springfield in the November election.

Republican Rodney Davis of Taylorville was able to pull away from Democratic challenger David Gill of Bloomington in the new 13th Congressional District which includes Decatur, Bloomington and Springfield. Davis was a late replacement for longtime incumbent Tim Johnson who announced he would not seek re-election shortly after he won the March primary. Davis defeated Gill by 1,002 votes.

The loss was Gill’s fourth as he lost to Johnson in three previous attempts to win the old 15th District seat.

The newly drawn maps also brought challengers for seats in the Illinois House and Senate. While several lawmakers were unopposed in November, but the 96th House District saw a battle between schoolteacher Sue Scherer, a Decatur Democrat, and Dennis Shackelford, a Springfield Republican. Scherer handily defeated Shackelford while Decatur Mayor Mike McElroy, a Republican, was not able to overcome Democrat Andy Manar, who had served as chairman of the Macoupin County Board and mayor of Bunker Hill.

In Macon County, Democrat Jay Scott was able to hold off Republican Dan Hassinger in the race to replace Jack Ahola as state’s attorney. The races in the seven Macon County board districts saw the GOP take the majority for the first time in more than a decade.

Scott and new board members were sworn in this month, while those who won statewide and national positions will be sworn in early next year.


Transition center is history

After nearly a year of arguments, legal fights and grandstanding, multiple prisons, youth centers and transition centers have begun to close their doors.

The closure of these facilities, including the adult transition center in Decatur, began less than a week before Christmas after an Alexander County judge lifted an injunction that has barred Gov. Pat Quinn from closing prison facilities for months.

While a lawsuit by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union will continue, the judge’s decision allowed Quinn to move forward with his plan to close the facilities which his office hopes will save an estimated $100 million annually.

While the adult transition centers in Decatur, Carbondale and Chicago were closed late December, the closing of the super-max Tamms Correctional Center in Southern Illinois and the all-female prison in Dwight are expected to happen in early January.

There is some hope for the future of the facilities though as some lawmakers hope the facilities will become bargaining chips in the ongoing contract talks between Quinn and AFSCME.


Pension fight set to resume

Possibly the best chance for Illinois to pass a comprehensive pension reform package will be in early January.

Whether it happens remains to be seen.

Gov. Pat Quinn has eyed the lame-duck session, where 35 lawmakers across the state will vote on bills before they leave office Jan. 9, as the best time to pass pension reform. Lawmakers can make unpopular votes at this time without worry of voter backlash. The 67 percent increase in the income tax rate was passed during the 2010 lame-duck session.

But lawmakers have yet to come to a consensus on a plan to fix the pension mess which has an unfunded liability of $95 billion, the worst in the nation. Both lawmakers and the unions have come up with several plans but questions linger about solutions that include raising the retirement age and cutting cost of living increases.

The union has shot down several bipartisan proposals and introduced their own plan in December that would increase the amount employees paid into pensions, but would also raise taxes and end numerous corporate tax benefits.

Even if lawmakers are able to reform pensions this year, it is expected any changes would lead to a court battle as the Illinois Constitution guarantees pension benefits to workers.


Schools in a building mode

Decatur and Meridian school districts broke ground this year on major building projects.

The renovations began in Decatur in May at Eisenhower High School. Students moved to the Stephen Decatur Middle School building while the middle school students moved to the former Decatur Area Technical Academy. When Eisenhower is finished, projected for January 2014, MacArthur High School will move to Stephen Decatur while that building is renovated. The entire project is expected to be complete in January 2015.

The board also plans to reorganize the district beginning with the closure of Brush College School in May 2013, the possible expansion of the Montessori program to a second building and changes to the Hope Academy program.

Phase I of Meridian’s building project includes a new gymnasium, locker room, weight room, kitchen and offices at the high school.

Superintendent Frank Meyer said the projected completion date is May and he hopes they’ll be able to start using the addition immediately. Phase II of the project, a two-story addition to the building that will become the new high school, while the current high school will become the middle school, is on hold until the state of Illinois comes through with promised capital development money.


CeCe a factor on ‘X-Factor’

Former pharmacy worker and Mount Zion High School graduate CeCe Frey made national headlines this year with an extended appearance on Fox’s “The X-Factor,” where she ultimately was eliminated and placed sixth.

Frey battled hard from her first appearance and rallied to make the show in a televised audition after the panel of judges was unimpressed with her first effort. Her subsequent performance of Christina Aguilera’s “Ain’t No Other Man” was one of the show’s most popular moments on social media.

Residents of the Decatur area may have previously seen the 21-year-old performing with her band VolHolla, which had a well-received set on the Decatur Celebration’s Spotlight Stage in 2011. VolHolla also performed around Decatur before CeCe set her eyes on a national spotlight.

As the show progressed, Frey emerged as one of its most divisive contestants, gaining vocal supporters and detractors. Her mentor on the show, pop singer Demi Lovato, called her “unlikable” on multiple occasions, and she eventually underwent a full makeover physically and emotionally, trading in her brown hair for platinum blonde locks and abandoning her trademark leopard face paint.

Ultimately, it wasn’t enough to save Frey from elimination, but her future as a performer appears to be bright. During her time in the contest, she amassed more than 300,000 Twitter followers, and she plans to pick up her music career in Los Angeles.


Mount Zion’s spirit sparked

Nearly eight months after a fire ravaged the Mount Zion firehouse May 5, destroying the department’s north truck bay, ladder truck, fire engine, a suburban command vehicle and a pickup truck, things are returning to normal.

“We got a new ladder truck Oct. 5,” Chief Don Wright said, “and on Dec. 13, we brought our new fire engine home. It’s brought us back to full strength and it feels great.”

The blaze, which began at 4:18 a.m., started in the cab of the department’s ladder truck, later breaking through the roof of the department’s truck bay.

Mount Zion firefighters received help fighting the fire from eight area fire departments and the Mid-Illinois Chapter of the American Red Cross. That assistance continued through the recovery process. Warrensburg Fire Department loaned the department a pumper truck, while the Decatur Fire Department offered a ladder truck and command vehicle.

In terms of rebuilding and repairs, crew members from S.A. Lewis Construction Inc. helped replace the north truck bay’s roof and frame.

Community members helped pitch in as well, forming the community group Help Our Heroes Mount Zion Fire Department and raising $85,000 for the department through a July 14 fundraiser and a firefighters’ ball in September.

“Everything’s settled down, and we just want to thank everyone who helped us get back on our feet,” Wright said.


Sequestration projects boom

Richland Community College’s National Sequestration and Education Center was unveiled in September and after more than two months of being open, the center is still garnering national and worldwide attention.

“We’ve had lots of tours since the center opened,” including 50 people from Germany and some high school students from Iowa, said David Larrick, director of the sequestration center and Richland’s sequestration program. He estimated the center has seen nearly 350 visitors since its Sept. 19 ribbon-cutting.

The center is part of two sequestration projects under way on the Richland campus including the Illinois Basin Decatur project and the Illinois Industrial Carbon Capture and Sequestration project, led by Archer Daniels Midland Co.

Doug Brauer, Richland’s vice president of economic development and innovative workforce solutions, said drilling of an observation well for the Industrial Carbon Capture and Sequestration project was completed about Thanksgiving and noted that carbon dioxide injection will likely begin in late 2013. He said injection for the Illinois Basin Decatur Project is scheduled to be completed by 2014 when 1 million metric tons are expected to be captured.

Larrick said the college’s first carbon capture and sequestration course was completed in December and that students have begun expressing more interest in advanced courses and the college’s two degree programs related to sequestration training.

Jack Adwell, dean of business and technology, said the center will also allow the college to offer heating, ventilation and air conditioning classes for alternative fuels and equipment in January.


Show Bus a hit for Decatur

Ridership for the Decatur area’s new rural transportation service has been growing slowly but surely since Chenoa-based Show Bus hit the road in Macon County on July 3.

After 20 rides in July, the total shot up to 117 for August before moving up to 123 in September, 163 in October and 208 in November.

“Our biggest barrier is fear,” Show Bus Director Laura Dick said. “Once people use our service, they use it over and over.”

Because a bus cannot compete with a car, Dick said most of the initial riders in Macon County have mobility problems but anyone living outside the Decatur metropolitan area is eligible for the low-cost service. The largest numbers of requests for rides have come from residents of Niantic and Maroa so far.

Yet to be determined is who will provide public transportation in the suburban areas of Decatur that Decatur Public Transit does not serve.

This includes Forsyth and parts of Harristown, Long Creek, Mount Zion and Oreana. Incidental, or “on the way” service, is all Show Bus can do in these areas now.

Macon County Engineer Bruce Bird said the Macon County Rural Transportation Advisory Committee is looking for data on how much incidental service Show Bus is providing and to meet with Decatur Public Transit officials after Jan. 1 to discuss how a suburban contract could be awarded.


Bridge work brings cheers

The reopening of Baltimore Avenue on July 16 after nine months to replace two aging bridges was a highlight for the people who could once again combine to drive an estimated 6,500 vehicles along the thoroughfare daily.

No longer did motorists have to spend extra time and gasoline trying to get to Decatur from Mount Zion or vice versa.

Otto Baum Co. of Decatur replaced Fisherman’s Bridge, built in 1969 over Big Creek at Cannon Park, for about $1.3 million. Schmidt Construction of Mount Zion replaced the Finley Creek Bridge, built in 1971, at a cost of $985,000.

“Everybody I’ve talked to said it was worth the wait,” Macon County Engineer Bruce Bird said.

Up next, Bird said, is to add on to the bike path segments each bridge contains so that the path ties Mount Zion’s bike system to one along Baltimore all the way north to U.S. 36 East.

“Unfortunately, that’s a matter of when funds become available, and we don’t know for sure when that’s going to happen,” Bird said. “You won’t see any more construction in that area in 2013.”


Grow Decatur looks ahead

The Grow Decatur initiative was launched in February with ongoing discussions taking place to create a strategic plan for future enhancements to the city.

Group leaders including Bruce Nims want to identify projects to begin working on in early 2013 in each of eight strategic areas of focus. The areas include creating a vibrant and attractive community, the 20 to 40 age group, jobs and careers, lakefront development, growing the middle, city housing, transportation, and community marketing and rebranding.

Discussions have been held to identify what is already taking place in those areas along with potential gaps that might need to be addressed.

“We want to create greater expectations for the city of Decatur,” said Larry Altenbaumer, one of the initiative’s founders.

None of the areas stand uniquely on its own and should be addressed together, Altenbaumer said.

The group has strived to include input and ideas from as broad a section of the community as possible. Its plans are intended to be long term in nature with work taking place over the next five to ten years.

Other similar citizen-driven efforts are underway in smaller Macon County communities. The Fall in Love With Maroa group held several events throughout the year to begin work to enhance the quality of life there with hopes of encouraging additional business development in the years ahead.


StarTek loss a tough blow

After continually being a highlight of efforts to add jobs in Decatur since it opened in 2003, calling center StarTek shut its facility at 1505 W. King St. in April.

The closure left more than 350 people without jobs and delivered a blow to local economic development efforts.

While it was open, StarTek became known for consistently looking to add workers and had as recently as August 2011 conducted a drive-through job fair in the Decatur Civic Center parking lot seeking applications.

At times, it had the need for so many employees that it had to look for ways to maximize its space in Fairview Park Plaza.

Denver-based StarTek had earlier in the year lost its contract with the mobile communications client it had served out of Decatur. The lost contract affected another facility in Jonesboro, Ark.

The company reported a reduction of $5.7 million in revenue from its domestic segment due primarily to the loss of business in Decatur and Jonesboro.

StarTek had been an anchor as Fairview Park Plaza was remodeled and other businesses moved in around it.

A replacement business has been sought for the site, but to date, no plans for its future have been announced.


ADM weathers a tough year

Archer Daniels Midland Co. continues to look for new business opportunities after facing a challenging 2012.

The company began the year by cutting more than 1,000 jobs with some employees taking early retirement offers. Many of the jobs were cut from its headquarters in Decatur, although the eliminated positions represented less than 4 percent of its work force in the city.

The work force reduction is expected to be part of about $150 million in annual savings for the company.

Despite a dip in its overall earnings from $2 billion in 2011 to $1.2 billion in 2012, ADM has remained active in the Decatur community by donating $2.6 million over the past year to educational initiatives in the area.

Its focus heading into the next year is managing its portfolio in key strategic areas in hopes of driving higher returns. In October, ADM began an attempt to acquire Australian company GrainCorp as a way to expand into but its offers were rejected as too low. That left ADM executives re-evaluating ways to free more cash to make a higher offer.

ADM will continue looking to manage through drought conditions across the Midwest, which has affected its business in ways such as raising concerns about shipping along the Mississippi River due to low water levels.


A new home for heroic boy

The boy with the scream heard round Central Illinois got to be home with his family just in time for Christmas.

Six-year-old Corwin Foley made headlines in June when he woke up and noticed fire was busily consuming the house he lived in the countryside near Moweaqua. His spirited yelling woke his parents, Ed and Abby, and his 8-year-old sister, Courtney, and everyone was able to escape unhurt as the two-story wood building was gutted by flames.

“I yelled for my dad,” said Corwin at the time. “I woke my sister up, and she yelled, too.”

His parents credited his quick thinking and lusty lungs with saving the day, and the Assumption Fire Department was so impressed they let him ride on one of their firetrucks in the Assumption Fest Parade.

Abby Foley said family and the kindness of strangers kept saving the day after the fire with donations of clothes, supplies, a place to live and organizing a benefit to help with expenses. In December, the Foleys signed papers on a new modular home on the site of their old one and got moved in just before Christmas.

“The kids each get a room of their own and the new home is very nice,” Foley, 28, said. “I just want to thank so many, many people — and people we never even knew — who helped us out. We would not have been home by Christmas without all the help we got.”


In like a lion, out like a lamb

Caterpillar Inc. roared through much of 2012 but was limping a little as the year came to a close.

After announcing record third-quarter results in October that saw sales and revenues top $16 billion, Peoria-based Caterpillar lowered overall 2012 projections as sales began to slow. The 4,000 workers at its Decatur plant experienced a rolling series of temporary layoffs and partial production shutdowns to trim output to meet demand.

Caterpillar had warned these cutbacks might continue into 2013 and corporate spokesman Jim Dugan said that picture hadn’t changed much. “We could see some more of that in the early part of 2013,” he said.

Caterpillar, however, is forecasting better business conditions in the second half of 2013 and recent worldwide sales reports from dealers showed buyers were spending again, if not always by much. “But upward numbers are always good,” Dugan said.

Caterpillar shareholders also ended the year with a nice surprise in their Christmas stockings as the company announced a 52 cent per share dividend that will be paid Dec. 31, earlier than usual. Dugan said worries about the tax implications of the country going over the fiscal cliff prompted the dividend disbursement this year.

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(1) Comments

  1. d-mama
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    d-mama - January 01, 2013 1:50 pm
    One notable local death of 2012 you missed was local jazz singer Rachael Lee originally of Macon, IL. She began singing at Dante's Italian Village at the age of 15. She sang with James Brown, opened for Ray Charles, performed at jazz festivals in Japan, many performances at the Chicago Art Institure, singing throughout Central Illinois, worked at Millikin University for five years in the music field all before semi retiring to be the resident manger at Tanglewood. Heaven has a beautiful voice from our angel, Rachael Lee.
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