LINCOLN — As a young man, Bruce Huskins went from job to job. They never lasted long, so he knew about getting laid off before Lincoln Developmental Center closed in 2002 and left 500 people out of work.
“I kept trying to get a job, trying to get a job, and every time I got a job, I would get laid off,” Huskins said. “My income went up and down like a yo-yo.”
He was 50 when LDC shut down and was offered another state facility job in Jacksonville, 90 minutes away. He opted instead to work part time as a school bus driver until he could pick up his pension, five years later.
On the city’s southern edge, the sprawling Developmental Center campus opened in 1877 and once was home to thousands of developmentally disabled patients and several hundred employees from in and around Lincoln. Historic photographs show idyllic grounds with uniformed staff, spick-and-span dormitories, and shared recreational activities and picnics.
Born and raised in Lincoln, Karren Boward was 17 when she started as a service worker at LDC, spending 28 years helping to prepare food, taking residents to shop for clothes and to attend movies.
“When it closed it was traumatic, for us and for the individuals (who lived there),” said Boward, now a teacher’s aide with Lincoln Grade School District 27. “A lot of people had worked with them for 20 years. They were family, and you had to see them moving away from you.”
John Guzzardo, owner of Guzzardo’s Italian Villa, was the city’s mayor from 1989 to 1997. He said LDC drove the community’s employment and was a community partner.
One year, he recalled, “I brought in Mickey Mouse and we had a Christmas party for the folks who lived (there) and they absolutely loved it. … It was a great time just to go out there and watch those folks laugh.”
‘There were good people’
Gov. George Ryan closed LDC in 2002 amidst reports of abuse, neglect and “preventable” deaths. It had been decades since advocates had called for more inclusionary facilities for those with developmental disabilities, and the population at LDC and similar state facilities had dropped precipitously.
Boward never saw abuse, but Huskins’ wife Billie, who also worked at LDC, said such behavior was isolated and that many caring and attentive staff members worked hard to serve the facility’s patients.
“There were good people that took care of them,” Billie Huskins said. “Some of them just went there for the job, but some of them went there for the kids.”
The outright loss of jobs wasn’t the only sign of LDC’s hold on the community. Retired Superintendent Bob Kidd said the grade school district saw a spike in the number of kids who qualified for free and reduced-priced lunches, a number that now sits at more than 50 percent.
When he started 18 years ago, that number was closer to 40 percent.
“It really spiked after the closure at LDC,” Kidd said. “The other thing we noticed, whenever a support staff position we had opened up, the number of applicants really increased.”
The closing of the PPG Industries factory and national economic downturn also contributed to Lincoln’s hardships, but LDC was a definite hit.
“You see people (from LDC) everywhere now, in different places, working different jobs,” Bruce Huskins said. “The population of Lincoln, Illinois, has gone down. There are a lot of houses around here for sale.”
Lincoln’s population, about 14,500 at the last census, has decreased 5.6 percent since 2000. Real estate data, though, seems to indicate that house sales have remained fairly steady.
“We discussed it and so forth, and there was a little scare, but as far as much coming around on it, it really didn’t materialize that much,” Realtor Gordon Johnson said. “You had some people moving out, and others got into other types of jobs.”
‘Quite a blow’
The LDC losses were undercut with the addition of food producer Sysco in 2005 and a FedEx hub about the same time, said Tyler Kirk, from the Lincoln-Logan Development Partnership. The food producer and delivery service added jobs to the community.
Mayor Keith Snyder, who grew up a few blocks from LDC, said the closure rippled throughout Logan County.
“It’s taken a while to get over it and I don’t know that we’ve necessarily fully recovered economically,” Snyder said. “Dog groomers, babysitters, childcare facilities, those types of things, when you talk about the ripple effect, it’s pervasive in a smaller community. It’s not just the home base, if you will, of the state facilities, but all the neighboring communities that are going to feel the ripple effect as well.”
Today, the state spends almost $1 million each year to maintain and guard the empty LDC campus. It is used occasionally for police training and to store materials for a prison manufacturing program.
“I think beyond (economic repercussions), there was quite a blow to the town’s psyche,” Snyder said. “Lincoln was proud of the fact that for well over 100 years, we were taking care of people out at the state school, what they called it when I was growing up. It wasn’t just a place where people worked; it was an integrated part of the community.”