MATTOON — A change in a longstanding economic development tool in Coles County will mean retail and other types of businesses will now be able to benefit from its incentives.
The renewal of the county's enterprise zone included the changes that expanded the benefits from beyond only industrial operations. The renewal went into place with the start of the new year.
The county successfully applied to the state to renew the enterprise zone, which had been in place for 29 years. The program offers some sales tax exemptions and temporary property tax abatements for businesses in the zone's territory.
Angela Griffin, president of the Coles Together, the county economic development organization, said the renewal and changes will put the county on “equal footing” with other areas.
“It's a significant accomplishment because if our application had not been approved, this county would be in a severely detrimental position trying to recruit new businesses,” she said.
As before, the enterprise zone covers a total of 15 square miles, mostly the cities of Charleston and Mattoon but also the Illinois Route 16 corridor and some other areas.
A map of the enterprise zone is available on the county's website at https://coles.maps.arcgis.com/home/index.html.
Changes were made, however, and Griffin said that was mostly removal of what are now residential areas. Areas replacing those were the courthouse square in Charleston, south Lake Land Boulevard in Mattoon and the city square and nearby areas in Oakland.
Griffin said state law always allowed the retail, commercial and services businesses in enterprise zones but those weren't included when the program was first put in place in the county.
She credited the cities and other county governments for “having the foresight” to include those businesses as other communities do.
“As communities grow and evolve, it made sense to add those,” she said.
To qualify for enterprise zone incentives, businesses have to locate, expand or conduct renovations and be located in the zone's territory.
The businesses receive an exemption on sales tax on building materials for the projects and abatements on property taxes for the new construction. The abatements don't apply to previously existing property and they vary for the different types of businesses.
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Those in the new categories receive a full abatement the first year, a 75% abatement the second year and a 50% in the third, the final year for those abatements. Industrial operations receive 100% abatements for 10 years.
Griffin said the idea is to temporarily abate the property taxes in exchange for a larger tax base after the abatements expire. All the county's taxing bodies have approved the abatements.
Eligible projects have to be designed to add or retain jobs, though there's no set number of jobs to qualify, Griffin said.
She said Coles Together worked with the county's cities to help determine areas where businesses in the new categories might locate.
In Charleston, that covers the “vast majority” of the city's commercially zoned areas, said city Planner Steve Pamperin . The enterprise zone changes could mean prospects for locations such as the courthouse square and along Lincoln Avenue and the rest of Illinois Route 16, he said.
City officials regularly get questions about locations and incentives from businesses that area considering Charleston, Pamperin also said.
“Cities are always looking to grow and increase their tax base,” he said. “Including all our corridors should do that.”
The new incentives could be “just enough” to get a business to decide to locate in Mattoon, city Administrator Kyle Gill said.
“It's going to help growth altogether,” he said. “It's just another tool that's needed to help.”
Gill said the area at the intersection of Illinois Route 16 and Lerna Road could be attractive for development, and others include Charleston Avenue/Route 16, the Interstate 57 access at County Road 1000N and Lake Land Boulevard.
Oakland Mayor Bob Michaels said that city has been able to keep many of its businesses but help's welcome to draw more, mostly to the city's square.
“Everybody wants to see the square come back,” he said.
Enterprise zone incentives could be the “shot in the arm” needed to help make Oakland and the county more competitive, Michaels also said.
For Coles Together, the enterprise zone's new provisions will mean the organization will work on attracting retail and other businesses in addition to the the industrial and manufacturing operations its traditionally recruited, Griffin said.
She said she has no specific prospects or expectations for that yet but Coles Together has been in conversation with some businesses.
'It's hard to value Lincoln land': Coles County farm land that Abraham Lincoln owned to be sold
CHARLESTON -- Ron Best has a love of history and understands the interest there might be in property that Abraham Lincoln once owned.
Best's family ties to Coles County date back about as far as that of Lincoln's. They're bound by 30 acres of farm land that are part of a long and somewhat complicated bit of the county's history.
Now, Best is ready to part with that farm ground, along with more land, which his family's owned for 30 years. He knows many people might think of a use based on its historical significance but it's been farmed the entire time.
"It's not like Lincoln's stove pipe hat that you can put on a shelf and say this was Lincoln's," he said.
The land Lincoln owned will be part of 590 total acres set to be sold at auction on Tuesday, Lincoln's birthday. The sale is scheduled for 10 a.m. that day at the Unique Suites Hotel in Charleston.
In all, the story dates to 1841, when Lincoln bought 40 acres of southern Coles County farm ground from his cash-strapped father, Thomas Lincoln. It's said to be the only farm land Abe ever owned, though he let his father continue to farm it.
While six acres became part of what's now Lincoln Log Cabin State Historic Site, the rest stayed in private ownership and was eventually inherited by Ray Phipps.
Phipps went through promotional plans and legal wranglings before eventually selling it. Best purchased the 30 acres at an auction in 1989 and the last four acres were sold to Rockford businessman Dan Arnold in 2007.
Arnold, the founder of the Road Ranger truck stop chain and who died in 2015, had a plan to raise money for charities using the land. He also wanted to develop the site with historical exhibits but his plans never came to fruition.
The person who answered a call to Arnold's office in Rockford said his family still owns the property, but attempts by the JG-TC to find out what plans they might have for the it weren't successful.
Sitting at his Charleston home recently, Best said Arnold once made an offer to buy his part of the farm land, and there was no interest when it was listed for sale four years ago.
He recalled that his wanting to buy the land was a "natural desire" because it was adjacent to 125 acres his family already owned.
He and his four siblings who make up the corporation that own the property are now older, he noted, and Best retired from farming four years ago.
Best said his brothers and sisters -- Brenda Stone of Lerna; Barbara Roberston of Dayton, Ohio; John Best of rural Charleston; and Gary Best of Ventura, Calif. -- have all agreed that it's time to sell the land.
The land has been fairly productive and, if it's used for farming, should bring a typical price, Best said. That's not really certain, though.
"It's hard to value Lincoln land," he said.
Best said he never thought of using the land for anything other than farming, and he has no preference for what the new owner does with it.
Still, if that's something connected to its history, Best will likely appreciate it. He has a copy of the original deed for the sale of the land to Abraham Lincoln along with other publications about Lincoln's link to Coles County.
He also grew up on a farm near the historic site and said his ancestors moved from northern Kentucky to the Coles County about the same time Thomas Lincoln arrived.
His great-grandfather was 12 years old when he was one of the children who got to meet Lincoln during his last visit to the county before leaving for Washington to become president.
"I've had a long long connection with history," he said.
Celebrating Lincoln: Abraham Lincoln in Mattoon archives
Land once owned by Abraham Lincoln being auctioned off to new owners.
Abraham Lincoln the Ideal American
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Union National Nominatoins
Letter written by Lincoln in '60 produced
Letter is delivered for Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln down in history among the truly great men
Repeat performance after 86 years
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Movement started by women to erect monument over grave
Max went from stray to house dog, but now the journey's over
The first time I saw him more than six years ago, it was mostly his pointy ears visible just above the grass, where he was resting the best he could.
The last time I saw him a few weeks ago, he was curled up on a cushion by a large window, relishing the comfort he'd finally attained.
Max the dog's somewhat mysterious journey eventually took him to a place he deserved. Now, though, the journey's over.
Dear friend and pet angel Sandy Amendt suggested in 2012 that I tell Max's story, one of how a small stray seemed perfectly content to live mostly outside a Charleston restaurant, relying on people to care for him but too leery to let anyone get too close.
Joe Evans, owner of Smoky's House BBQ, where Max lived most of the time, told me he didn't know where Max came from but he'd been there since the restaurant opened a couple of years earlier.
I found that the folks at Smoky's got help from those at the neighboring BP gas station and a small crew of others to make sure Max had food and a dog house.
As every try to catch the little guy didn't work, the conclusion of those looking after Max was that he was fine, or at least as fine as he could be.
So, a few years went by and the only time I gave Max much thought was when I drove past Smoky's. I'd look over and often see him sunning himself outside the restaurant and think that he was still OK, as much as he could be, anyway.
Things started to change a bit about four years after I first met Max. He disappeared from Smoky's for about a week, longer than he'd ever been gone before. He did return, but I'll admit I had my doubts about it.
But about three months later, it was pretty clear that Max wasn't OK anymore. He wasn't eating and wasn't as active as he had been. Still, if there's such a thing as a miracle in disguise, that might have been one.
My friend Sandy and her husband, Jerry, along with fellow pet angels Betsy Miller and Courtney Garza were looking out for Max then, as were others I've not had the pleasure of meeting.
In Max's weakened condition, they were finally able to do something that no one could do for years, get him in a pet carrier and take him to a veterinarian for care.
They found that Max was in kidney failure. The outlook wasn't good at first, then it changed to the thinking he'd have "at least a few good months," as Betsy put it.
But a year later, I found myself at the office of veterinarian Cathy Hiser, where Max and his rescuers had an anniversary celebration of his rescue. "He's lived longer than he should have," was the blunt assessment from the vet.
At that stage of Max's journey, he was at Sandy's and Jerry's house, where he had a whole herd of cats and another dog to help him on his way from stray to house pet.
The leeriness was slow to wear off, and during most visits Max still wouldn't get anywhere near me, despite my reminding him that "I made you famous."
Still, he was in good spirits most of the time, toenails clicking on the floor as he followed Sandy around the house. "Max, are you cute?" she'd ask him and, in turn, he'd tilt back his head to say "Why, yes I am."
I did eventually get to pet that furry brown head a couple of times. Mostly, though, he'd end up on his cushion by the big bay window in the living room.
I like to think about Max resting there like a contented house pet, more than when he was lying on the grass during his time as a stray. That's something I'm grateful for, especially the last few weeks.
Unfortunately, while Max improved for a while, his kidney problems never fully went away, and the time came when it all caught up with him again. This time, I thought he might pull out of it, but I was wrong, again.
It was a simple, heartbreaking message I got from Sandy on Monday.
"Lost Max today."
So, there'll be no more toenail clicking on the floor or cushion curling by the window. Some solace comes from those things and how they replaced relying on scraps and food handouts, though.
And, when I drive by Smoky's, I'm sure I'll still remember the sight of a little dog, sunning himself on the grass, hoping he was happy then and feeling sure that he was happy later, until the end.
Curtain goes down on Charleston Alley Theatre after 28 years
CHARLESTON -- It's a small room, which was part of the appeal, that is now the scene of downed stage lights, used lumber and loose electrical cords.
There was a time when a half a hundred folks or more would gather to see and hear performances ranging from Christmas stories to beatnik poetry readings to "The Time Warp" from "The Rocky Horror Show."
The dream of a late Charleston icon and its fruition meant nearly three decades of theatrical performances in a venue so small it had to be authentic.
But time might have caught up with the Charleston Alley Theatre, a stalwart member of the production company concluded.
"There comes a time when it's just time," said theater director and board president Duke Bagger, who also likely has the record for appearing in the most performances there.
Located, literally, at the end of an alley on Monroe Avenue just east of Charleston's courthouse square, the "CAT," as it was affectionately known, had its last performance in May with "I Do I Do."
What began in March 1991 with "A Walk in the Woods" regularly saw crowds of about 30 people, and as many as around 65, squeeze into the building's tiny stage and seating area.
But the biggest crowd for the final show's run was 20, Bagger said, theorizing that, with home entertainment options, "people just aren't going out much."
Time's passing has also done what it does to many involved, he added, and such things as health issues and other commitments left some people with less time for the theater.
There's still a "Firestone" sign on a wall in one of the back rooms, a reminder that the building was a closed auto repair shop before it changed nearly three decades ago.
Bagger said it was December 1990 when he got a call from Tanya Wood, known in part for owning the Lincoln Book Shop in Charleston but also with a background as a professional actress.
Wood told Bagger to "meet me at the square," where he found himself peering through a window at the closed auto shop, "filled with junk," that Wood had bought.
He said he asked her what she was going to do with it, to which she replied "you'll figure it out," and that's how he became the theater's director.
What was first called simply the Alley Theatre soon had "Charleston" added to its name at Wood's daughter's suggestion, allowing the use of the "CAT" acronym and the feline design for its logo.
A couple of adjacent buildings were acquired over the years but the intimate atmosphere was always the best use, Bagger said. There was a lack of a dedicated community theater at the time, he said.
"It was the only place that could offer what we had," he said.
Though there were a wide variety of performances at the CAT, Bagger said one thing that was constant was that the sets "had to be real" because the audience was close enough to see if they weren't.
The audience was able to see the cards during a game of bridge in one play, so they had to be stacked to ensure actual bridge hands in case someone who knew the game was watching.
Bagger said productions through the years featured an "entire mountain," a pool with water and a functioning beauty parlor.
"It was almost like peeking through a window," he said. "We couldn't get away with anything. We were too close."
For Charleston resident Bailey Young, the CAT made for a chance to not only take part in community theater but to be a fan, as well.
He said he performed in about a dozen plays but was more often a part of the audience, attending at least 40 productions.
"It was so warm and full of spontaneity," Young said. "They really brought a wonderful cultural dimension to Charleston."
Bagger recalled how the theater's crew was preparing for a show in 2004 when the news came that Tanya Wood and her husband Leonard, also a theater board member, were killed in a car accident.
"In true theater tradition, the show went on," he said.
The theater board soon acquired ownership and continued to operate as a non-profit company.
Now, though, the theater's contents--costumes, lighting, fixtures and more--are set to be sold during a rummage sale on the morning of Aug. 31 and the building's for sale as well.
Through it all, Bagger said the goal was reached, for the CAT to be "the only place that could offer what we did."
"It was demanding, but we did it in a way that was encouraging," he said. "It was home. We knew the house. As we went along, we realized there was nothing we couldn't do here."
From Charleston to California and back, 110 years later
CHARLESTON -- In 1909, someone named "Harry" took the time to type out greetings and an address and touch base with acquaintances two-thirds of a country away.
"How do you like California by this time?" Harry inquired from Charleston, also saying he received the message from those to whom he was writing, Mr. and Mrs. C.D. Linn of Pasadena, California.
Now, 110 years later, the postcard with those greetings and a picture of what was then the Charleston High School building has made its way back to where it started.
Charleston school district Superintendent Todd Vilardo said the district office received the card in the mail about a week ago, along with a letter from the sender, who does such things on a regular basis.
"I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that somebody would take the time to send this postcard from so long ago," Vilardo said.
Opening with the Shakespearean quote "time has come round," the letter and card came from Lowell Joerg of Stockton, California.
He said he turned 91 years old in June and is "still going strong as far as I know."
Joerg said he found the postcard in an antique shop and thought he'd "send it home where it can be appreciated."
Charleston hasn't been alone among Joerg's recipients. According to one account, he's been doing the same sort of thing with other postcards depicting other locations for nearly 30 years.
The building shown on the postcard was in the location of the current Jefferson Elementary School at 801 Jefferson Ave. It wasn't until 1954 that the high school opened where it is now, 1615 Lincoln Ave.
While the building on the postcard somewhat resembles the current Jefferson building with its arched doorway and multiple stories, it's not the same building that's there now.
Vilardo can tell you that because, after the postcard came, it motivated him to do a bit of research about history of the district's high school buildings.
"I was excited," he said. "It took me on this journey learning more about the various buildings."
So, as it goes, the building shown on the postcard wasn't the first one at that location. The first was built in 1868 but burned down in 1898 and was rebuilt two years later.
The second was the building the postcard shows and it stood until 1927, when it burned down as well. It was replaced a year later by the one there now; additions have been added since.
Another bit of Charleston history can be seen on the back of the postcard: Lindy's Racket Store is listed as where it was originally purchased.
Vilardo said it was "noteworthy" that Joerg saw the importance of heritage and how it should be preserved. He said he plans to respond to Joerg's letter and there are plans to display the postcard at either the school district office or CHS.
Tries at reaching Joerg to talk about his hobby didn't work out, but several reports of his efforts can be found with an online search.
A 2015 story from the Stockton, California, Record newspaper said Joerg also collects stamps. He found some of his stamps when they were still attached to postcards so his "unique hobby...just came to my mind," it said.
It said he started in 1990 and has sent cards all over the country, often receiving replies from the recipients.
The letter with the CHS postcard ended, as does many of his correspondences, with his calling his hobby "a re-distribution of happiness."
"Our world sure needs it," he said.
Charleston native honors dad's legacy with west coast hike
CHARLESTON — Marlene Hild called it "quite selfish." A lot of people would probably disagree.
After her father, Glenn, died last year, Hild took solace along a 220-mile trek through wilderness in California.
The challenge of the John Muir Trail drew her to her first solo backpacking trip, something that was "always on my bucket list" but that also offered something else.
"I did that trip for myself to help with my personal feelings," the Charleston native said.
Soon, though, Hild realized she wanted to renew the effort but also to extend it, this time to also honor her father and his legacy.
Now more than four months into a hike of the 2,653-mile, three-state Pacific Crest Trail, Hild is using the trip to help the Eastern Illinois University Art & Design Department.
Her father was once the department's chairman and taught there for 36 years. Hild said there was a brief battle with pancreatic cancer before he died in April 2018.
"I wanted to make sure it was something bigger," Hild said. "I wanted to make sure it was about more than me."
Money she raised ahead of the trip and donations since already total more than goal of $15,000.
"That includes people I've never met," she said of the donations received. She said anything that exceeds her goal will be split between the EIU department and a stewardship group for the trail.
The student art gallery in EIU's Doudna Fine Arts Center, recently renovated thanks to another donation, will get new, better lighting with the money Hild raises.
Hild's effort is a "fantastic thing" for the gallery, current department Chairman Chris Kahler said. When Hild contacted him about the fundraiser, it became obvious how important her father and his work were to her, he said.
"What she's done is a tremendous personal sacrifice to memorialize her father," Kahler said. "She turned something sad into an amazing, positive thing."
Kahler described Glenn Hild as a "monumental" department chairman who was willing to stay on in administrative roles past retirement age and at a time of difficulties for the university.
"He really cared about people," he said.
There are plans to name the gallery in Glenn Hild's honor, and the effort includes raising money to establish a scholarship in his name, Kahler also said.
As her trip continues and Hild finishes her trek, donations can still be made. She has a GoFundMe page, www.gofundme.com/f/the-art-of-hiking-2653-miles.
There's also Hild's personal website, www.marlfox.com, with a link for donations but that also tells much of her story since graduating from Charleston High School in 2006.
She received a degree in religious studies from the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, the only school that "felt right." Her draw to the west coast continued and she stayed, taking a variety of jobs, most recently in California helping organic farmers with their projects.
"I like to be learning constantly," she said. "I like to be moving constantly."
Now, Hild said she's at ease with the decision to leave her job and give up her apartment in order to make the Pacific Crest Trail hike.
"I don't actually know what I'm going to do when I finish but I wanted to change," she said.
The trail runs from the Canadian border to the Mexican border through Washington, Oregon and California.
Experiencing isolation and the lack of modern conveniences such as limited cellphone reception, Hild said she also took what many hikers believe is the toughest way to travel the trail.
She started in the mountains of Washington but said beginning at the southern end of the trail makes it easier to adjust to the terrain changes. She admitted to knee and foot pain, but said it's something most hikers experience and "you get used to it."
Still, Hild described seeing a field of wildflowers in bloom in view of Mount Rainier in Goat Rocks Wilderness in Washington and the "massive blue water" of Crater Lake in Oregon, which isn't visible until you get to the edge.
She also wanted to ensure that she got through the Sierra Nevada mountains of California before Oct. 1 and the risk of winter weather, skipping another part of the trail to make sure she was able to hike through the region.
Through it all, Hild said she's "grateful for the opportunities" and for donors' generosity and people's faith in her effort.
Hild is now in Southern California and said the last two weeks and 200 miles of her trip are what she expects to be the most "mentally difficult." She'll be traveling through the desert with its harsh conditions and where "everything starts to look the same," she said.
"It's all about the mental challenge," Hild said. "It's about if you can finish."
Along the way, Hild has seen three bears and a mountain lion and expects to see rattlesnakes in the desert. But she has no misgivings about being a woman alone on her trek.
"Ive never been afraid," she said. "It's definitely been a very independent, solo journey for me. It's a test of strength."
Hild said she believes her father, who was also a backpacker, would have been "quietly supportive" of her effort and made sure she was as prepared as she could be. She also said she carries his good luck charm with her.
"In a lot of ways, he's out here walking with me," she said.