SPRINGFIELD — As a $15 million renovation of the Illinois governor's mansion nears completion, a fight over a piece of land across the street has taken Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner's long battle with organized labor to his front lawn.
At issue is nearly 2.5 acres owned by the city of Springfield that lies just north of the mansion's gated grounds. The block has sat vacant for more than a year after the city demolished a YWCA building there. Since then, a nonprofit group backed by Rauner was picked to turn the lot into a park, featuring mounded hills, a sidewalk cafe and pools of water that could feature light shows in the summer and ice skating in the winter.
"They are renovating the mansion and this would provide a Washington Mall-type vista in front of it," said Don Tracy, an attorney long involved in Republican politics who Rauner recruited to lead the effort. "We hope it would be a destination park to sort of help rejuvenate downtown Springfield, which needs lots more people."
Tracy said Rauner is serving as the group's "lead donor and chief fundraiser," with the goal of raising as much as $10 million in private money to make the park a reality. The governor has pledged to give $1 million to get the project going.
But it hit a snag this week, when a Springfield City Council committee tabled the proposal amid protests from a throng of union members who packed a meeting to oppose the proposal. That delay means moving it forward will take more votes, putting the park's future in question.
Labor groups want a project labor agreement, which would ensure workers hired to build the park would come from local unions and be paid a "prevailing wage" — the salary level set for public works projects by the Illinois Department of Labor. It's based on average pay in a county and designed to prevent nonunion employers from placing low bids by paying employees below union rates.
Springfield Mayor Jim Langfelder said he asked for the labor agreement in an initial version of the proposal, but Rauner's development group took it out.
Union leaders frame the conflict as a continuation of Rauner's attacks on organized labor. He's called the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the state's largest union, "Af-Scammy" and has said public sector unions pose a "conflict of interest" because they give campaign contributions to politicians who grant raises and set benefits. Last month, Rauner attended arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court for a case his administration sparked by trying to ban public employee unions from collecting fees from workers who declined to join, and he's cited potential legal wins over labor as something that would make a second term in office different.
"The governor has shown to be essentially driven by the sole goal of breaking men and women of organized labor," Brad Schaive, business manager for Laborers' International Union of North America Local 477, said.
Schaive also sits on an economic development commission and said he opposes the space being used as a park because it will do little to bring in tax money for a city struggling to make ends meet. He said local leaders are bending to the wishes of "the person who lives closest to where the park would be," saying governors come and go and decisions should be made for the long-term benefit of Springfield, not an individual.
Tracy countered that the development agency he leads is "not anti-union," and said the hope is to mirror what was done for mansion renovations, which uses a mix of union and non-union workers.
"We didn't ask for a fight with labor, it'll mainly be a union contract," Tracy said. "But the project labor agreement basically is less competitive and cedes a lot of control to the union. It's not about using union labor, it's about union control."
For his part, Langfelder said he chose the Rauner-backed park proposal because it would require the smallest financial commitment from the city, leaving money for other projects. He said visitors would be able to walk unobstructed from the governor's mansion to the Lincoln Home National Historic Site a few blocks away, which he said will drive people to the city's center and help spur more development.
Most of the funding for the proposed park will come from private fundraising, though the city spent more than $2 million to buy the land from the state and tear down an empty building. It'll also be on the hook for millions in related infrastructure costs, and work has already begun on the site to build underground water retention tanks to alleviate flooding.
Langfelder said he has only had one direct conversation with Rauner about the park, which he said happened shortly before he asked those bidding on the project if they wanted to submit updated proposals. Langfelder said the governor indicated he didn't want to be involved in day-to-day decisions, saying "he views himself as a lightning rod, and that's unfortunately what it's turned out to be, rather than debating the project on its merits."
"What holds Springfield back is we are a comfortable community, and it's time that we raised the bar," Langfelder said. "My personal opinion is that a great motivating factor for elected officials is right before an election, so if you want to get something done, now is the time to strike and see if we can get a project everybody is happy with."
The governor is expected to move back into Springfield's governor's mansion sometime in May, with public tours scheduled to resume in July. It took a little less than two years for a group led by first lady Diana Rauner to raise $15 million to renovate the mansion, which was built in 1855. On Friday, the governor issued an order officially renaming the Executive Mansion the Governor's Mansion.
Tracy said $2.5 million has been pledged for the park project thus far, but fundraising is on hold pending a final agreement with the city of Springfield.
"I didn't realize it was this hard to give away money, that's what we are trying to do, and every time we turn around there is some new obstacle or objection," said Tracy, who also works as Rauner's Illinois Gaming Board chairman. "But that's Springfield, and that's Illinois."