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What's next for the campaign to save the historic Lake Decatur pump house

What's next for the campaign to save the historic Lake Decatur pump house

Pump house

Workers could be seen on site at the pump house last month as plans to tear down the structure moved ahead. 

DECATUR — Supporters battling to save the historic A.E. Staley Mfg. Co pump house celebrated an 11th hour reprieve for the doomed building at a public meeting in Decatur on Monday night.

The “Save the Pump House” organization formed to protect the century-old building from the wrecking ball trumpeted a letter from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that said the organization will be given a chance to try and negotiate a deal to buy the place.

The pump house, disused for decades, has been scheduled for demolition by its current owners, Tate & Lyle. But a permit for the demolition is needed from the Corps of Engineers Rock Island District, which has now granted Save the Pump House “consulting party status” while it considers the permit. That means, said a letter from the Corps, that the permit will now be withheld to give the group a chance to strike a deal with Tate & Lyle to buy the pump house.

The letter said the Corps has already “requested Tate & Lyle to determine if they would be willing to sell the Staley pump house structure.” If the company says yes, then the pump house supporters will have 30 days from that date to try and work out the details. Brant Vollman, an archaeologist working with the Corps, said if no deal is struck, the Corps will proceed with the paperwork necessary for the demolition.

But it’s far from a watertight salvation. Vollman’s letter said the effort could fail if both sides can’t reach an agreement or Tate & Lyle simply decides that it is “not interested in selling the structure.”

But speaking to a crowd of more than 50 who showed up for Monday’s meeting hosted at Richland Community College, Bret Robertson, who is heading efforts to save the pump house, was clearly pleased. “I think that is a tremendous asset for us,” he said of the consulting party status.

“It gives us a seat at the table and it will require a formal response from Tate & Lyle.”

PumphouseMeeting 2

Bret Robertson, who helped create the Save the Pump House organization, addresses Monday evening's meeting hosted at Richland Community College.  

A spokesperson for England-based Tate & Lyle, given the time zone difference, did not immediately respond when emailed by the Herald & Review seeking comment. The company has said the structure is dilapidated, and that it has spoken over the years with parties who were interested in buying the building but never followed through. 

Robertson told the meeting he was also waiting for a response from them. And he hopes the Decatur City Council will also encourage the company to cooperate. The city had previously issued its own permit allowing demolition but Councilman David Horn, present at the meeting, said the chance to save the pump house was worth consideration.

PumphouseMeeting 1

Part of the crowd for Monday's meeting of supporters looking to save the historic Lake Decatur Staley pump house. 

“I think we should absolutely explore that and have dialogue about that,” he added. 

The building off U.S. 36 was constructed in 1919 and was used to deliver water to Staley plants. Its clubhouse hosted numerous social events over the years, and serves as the background of fond memories for many Decatur residents. 

Robertson introduced a seven-phase plan at the meeting as a road map for pump house salvation. It ranged from basic repairs, weather-proofing of the structure and creating access all the way up what Robertson describes as “the return to grandeur,” fully restoring the interior and exterior.

The aim would be to recreate the pump house as it was in its glory days when it housed water pumping machines for the former A.E. Staley Mfg. Co processing plant, with elaborately-furnished meeting space and events rooms above.

Robertson said each phase of the work could be funded separately and proceed as the money becomes available. Many big questions remain, however, including: How much is the total price tag? And who is going to foot the bill?

Pump house

Workers evaluate the Staley Pump House on Lake Decatur last month. 

Robertson said he hoped community fundraising, donations and gifts of work in-kind would go a long way to getting it done. He said a phased plan meant work could stop at any stage. He said the concrete pump house is equipped to wait for better times.

“Left alone, it will still be there 500 years from now,” he added.

Tate & Lyle is meanwhile in the process of stripping hazardous materials like lead paint out of the pump house, which Robertson said happens to be a necessary part of its restoration. The problem for those who want to save the building, however, is that Tate & Lyle’s contractors are carrying out the work as the first steps in a demolition process.

Reaction from the audience at Monday’s meeting included some skepticism about the cost and getting the fundraising done. But the vast majority there said it was worth a try.

“If we lose this, we lose some of our heritage,” said Bruce Sims, 71, a Decatur resident who visited the pump house in its heyday. “And we have lost enough of it already.”

PHOTOS: Staley pump house through the years

Contact Tony Reid at (217) 421-7977. Follow him on Twitter: @TonyJReid


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