Once upon a time there was a place in Central Illinois; a county with two towns.
One had the university, and perhaps all the respect, and the other had flat ground gifted to it by a glacier, streets that weren’t all one way, and the Interstate.
But then there was the one year they had that thing called “FutureGen.” Around 12 months later they all still had the “Welcome FutureGen” yard signs, but there was no FutureGen and everyone watched their newfound notoriety begin its slow walk into the maw of time.
I can’t remember a thing about the moment I first heard about FutureGen. At that age I wasn’t paying attention to much of anything and heard about it the way it was perhaps intended, by seeing the headlines in the JG-TC one morning that we had been deemed worthy of an experimental “clean” coal plant to be built out near the intersection of 121 and something called “The Dole Road.”
Quite why that one little stretch of country road bleeding tar under the hot sun gets to have a name remains a mystery. Consult your local dad or granddad.
What I do remember feeling was a sense of pride about our little accomplishment. Strange, since I never had before. But life in a small town is like that. Around the time you become a teenager, in the words of Lou Reed, you quickly learn that, “you hate it. You know you’ll have to leave.”
But sometimes, after you put a few more miles on the tires, you start to get a bit protective of your little piece of ground, and occasionally maybe even a little proud of it, as perhaps we all did during FutureGen-Mania. And how could we not be proud? We beat Tuscola after all.
I tease Tuscola, mostly because I’m sure they had quite a hearty laugh over the course of the ensuing year as, one by one, things started to go wrong. I’m sure we all remember how every day we’d open the paper to a little more hemmin’ and hawing from lands far away where important men in conference rooms of glass and steel dwell until, as rural legend goes, some old man whose name no one remembers, put in a position of power by a politician from an administration that now seems like a distant memory, groused about the Mattoon location being swampland compared to the lush beauty that is Texas. Before we knew it, that was that.
FutureGen moved the planned site to some town in Illinois called Meredosia, in one of those counties that’s so far west from here you wouldn’t even hear Judy Frasier say its name when the tornadoes would begin to graze the viewing area.
Our consolation prize was being a deemed a suitable sequestration site for whatever ungodly waste material that plant was going to pump out. What a depressing image that is; a concrete slab out on 121 covering a big pit in the ground being guarded by a skeleton crew in jumpsuits like that scene in “The Day After” where the army guys stood around the empty missile site out in the cornfield arguing about just how long they had to protect something that was about to get blown up anyway.
I do remember that after Mattoon told the folks at (ahem) “FutureGen 2.0” that they couldn’t fire us because we quit, there had settled a certain feeling around town which amounted to “Well, that seems about right, doesn’t it?” almost as if that’s kind of how we knew everything was going to shake out in the end. Hard work is its own reward, we’re taught. And for the most part that’s true. But anyone trying to find their place in a small town who ever lost out on that promotion, raise or job opportunity knows that sometimes it wasn’t because they didn’t work hard enough. It was because someone somewhere farther up the ladder just changed their mind.
Maybe I’m wrong here, but I’ve always felt like there was never a sufficient requiem, or perhaps reckoning, for the whole FutureGen experience. Sure there were the expected post-mortem editorials I found in the JG-TC archives, and again, we still all have plenty of yard signs in our garages I’m sure. But I get the feeling we just wanted to move on. In places like Mattoon, we know the score: we get stuff, we lose stuff. And we may very well get more and lose more as time goes on.
In 2018 we ran a story about how the Dole Road site was still under consideration for some type of coal plant. I suppose that’s something, I guess. Even though I can’t help but shake the feeling like that’s the equivalent of standing out in a field on a cloudy day holding a metal rod up in the air and expecting lightning to strike twice, even though you know it won’t.
Maybe it’s the part of me who listens to too much Bob Seger, but I’ve always wondered if there was someone in Mattoon who, at the time, was down on their luck and just looking for that one thing to get the ball rolling again. Who sat down and opened up the paper that morning to see that picture of the “We Got It” marquee on the Time Theater and took a moment to picture themselves applying for a job at FutureGen or maybe any of the other opportunities that were supposed to spring up around it like a coral reef. I wonder if the FutureGen people, wherever they are now, ever thought about it that way.
If such a person ever did exist, know this: This was a story about Central Illinois. About a patch of ground just off to our west that was deemed worthy of being a thing until it wasn’t, and a story about anyone who in that year took a moment to think about what you could have been, what you became, and about what you will be.