Wednesday, November 12, 2003

Deeply Disappointed
I heard what I pretty much expected to hear earlier today at the governor's news conference in Carbondale. Despite talk about tourism and the area's history, good news on the region's mothballed historic sites and the Old Slave House in particular, was nowhere to be found.

The Old Slave House was going to be in the plan, but it was pulled when the governor's staff balked at the price tag suggested by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. They had apparently told the governor's staff nothing less than $3 million would get the site reopened.

I don't really blame the staff for balking.

Nonetheless, the problems are still there. While site security has improved, those improvements are just stop-gap temporary measures. Plus, no jobs are created when the site remains closed.

I asked the governor about historic sites at the news conference afterwards. He deflected the answer to Larry Woolard, who's now responsible for carrying out the governor's plan for Southern Illinois. Woolard stated that they did support the site and would not keep it "mothballed."

The trouble is that no one knows what is next. IHPA's position is all or nothing: "Give us all the money or we can't do this." It's a position the agency has perfected over the years of underfunding.

It's not enough though. Rod Blagojevich keeps saying he wants to change the way state government operates. Instead, he keeps listening to his agencies and their old ways of doing business.

There is no way on Earth that the governor is going to be able to find $3 million for the Old Slave House in the budget next year. He kept trying to put a happy face on the budget crisis today, but the bottom line is that every other story out of Springfield suggests that next year will be worse than this year.

Even if they could find the money that still doesn't address the larger problem with our state parks and historic sites. They are underfunded, understaffed, underdeveloped and some or just mothballed and closed to the public. The old way of just throwing money at the problem doesn't work.

IHPA has been underfunded since Day 1. When they were created some 20 or so years ago they inherited mothballed sites, some of which had staff, some didn't. The Department of Natural Resources is usually better off, but they have sites in the region without staff as well - Sahara Woods, Ohio River Recreation Area - for two examples.

The governor only announced three "action items" under the category of "promote regional tourism."
  • Tourism and Hospitality Education Consortium -- which is supposed develop the region's tourism potential by "nurturing a uniquely trained regional workforce." This will make the community colleges happy. It's more money for them, a total of $250,000.
  • Increase Use of the DuQuoin State Fairgrounds -- self explanatory. This is $3.2 million for various upgrades which probably includes the ones already announced last month.
  • Southern Illinois Golf Trail -- $50,000 to support "a new marketing approach to promote the region's courses to golfers across the nation."

    There are more tourism items under the category of supporting "value-added" agriculture" including a $25,000 grant to the Southernmost Illinois Tourism Bureau to promote agri-tourism activities, plus $250,000 for development of specialty crops such as grapes or pumpkins, and $25,000 for the Shawnee Hills Winery Cooperative.

    The agri-tourism proposals will actually have more positive impact in terms of attracting tourists than new telecommunications equipment at the DuQuoin State Fairgrounds or the job training for tourism-related jobs that to date mostly don't exist.

    The governor's plan today represents a disappointment. It's a collection of projects, most of which were already in the budget passed this spring, or actions the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity had already taken to help expanding industries.

    It's 5:05 and I'm sure the local news stations have already quoted smiling college presidents and public officials saying great things about the plan. Who wouldn't if the governor was giving you money.

    I'm disappointed because the governor said today "it's about time we try to do something."

    Open it NOW! Friends of the Old Slave House presented a plan of action to reopen the region's biggest mothballed historic in June. We were turned down once in August and told to resubmit it. We did, and heard nothing up until today, and still haven't heard back from the officials in Chicago to which we sent the proposal.

    It doesn't take $3 million to reopen the Old Slave House. It takes the governor's office yanking the site away from IHPA, giving it to DNR and telling them to lease it out. The state has to start looking at developing partnerships if we want to start developing tourist attractions at our state parks and historic sites. The current state of inaction can't continue. It's not sustainable, and it's not working.

    Governor if you want to change the way state government works, try starting down at Hickory Hill at a mansion called the Old Slave House located outside a place named Equality.