Members of the Benld City Council on Monday night learned details about a cultural heritage project spearheaded by the University of Illinois that ultimately could bring visitors to Benld and surrounding communities as part of a larger, regional effort. The council also took formal action to approve a maintenance contract for the city’s sewer system lift stations and approved a resolution to beef up enforcement of city ordinances related to property maintenance.
The Mythic Mississippi project is a project of the University of Illinois’ CHAMP program (Collaborative for Cultural Heritage Management and Policy) supported by a two-year grant from the Presidential Initiative for the Celebration of the Arts and Humanities, Devin Hunter, director of the Public History Program at University of Illinois-Springfield, told the council. The project aims to use Cahokia Mounds, which the project identifies as an “underexploited” tourism site, as the impetus for developing regional tourism trails linking communities according to various cultural themes. A proposed route through Virden, Gillespie, Benld, Mount Olive, Staunton, and on to West Frankfort and Herrin will focus on those communities’ coal mining heritage.
Hunter said a preliminary objective of the project is to work with local residents and leaders to determine what aspects of the community’s cultural heritage the community would like to promote and “find out how we can collaborate” to promote that heritage.
More than a dozen faculty members, graduate students and undergraduate students from the University’s Springfield and Urbana-Champaign campuses are working on the project. Additionally, the project has recruited a number of individual collaborators including Ken Snider, owner of the No. 5 Mine Winery in Benld, School Supt. Joe Tieman, Dave Tucker of the Gillespie Coal Museum, and Dorchester native Layne Knoche, a landscape architect with the U of I Extension.
Helaine Silverman, CHAMP director and anthropologist on the Urbana-Champaign campus, said project participants want to help Benld “tell the remarkable story of the people who built a community here.”
She said CHAMP collaborators have already met with representatives of the Italian-American Club and have talked extensively with Mary Newman with the Benld Public Library. She said she was excited about the potential to use a wall at the library to mount an exhibit focusing on Benld history and cultural heritage. Snider was an early contact for the project, she said, noting that they are trying to determine if a vacant lot adjacent to the No. 5 Mine Winery was the once the site of a pharmacy in the community’s early years. If that can be documented, she said, it could become an archaeological site for excavation by U of I faculty and students.
“We became interested in this area because of the association with coal mining,” she said. Additionally, the area’s legends and myths about the Prohibition era “really caught our attention.” The Route 66 Blue Corridor’s slogan “Mines, Mobsters and the Mother Road,” could easily become a slogan for Benld, she suggested, that could be featured on street banners similar to the way Mount Olive promotes its association with Mother Jones. The city could further exploit the theme by renaming a few streets after known mobsters from the 1920s and 1930s. “That would all be a decision the community would have to make,” she said.
Holy Dormition Russian Orthodox Church has the potential to be a site for enthusiasts of architecture, art and history to visit. Additionally, the community has a wealth of ethnic cultural resources to draw the interest of visitors.
“We think this is a very interesting story to tell,” she said.
Going forward, Silverman said the group wants to meet with the Build Benld group and members of the Coal Country Chamber of Commerce to discuss ideas.
“Rather than our ideas, which could be completely off the mark, we want to find out what you want,” she said.
LIFT STATION MAINTENANCE CONTRACT
On a motion by Ald. Dustin Fletcher, the council voted unanimously to accept a three-year contract from Vandeventer Engineering, Fenton, Mo., to perform annual maintenance inspections on the city’s five sanitary sewer lift stations. The city will pay $3,746 per year for 2019 and 2020 for an 11-point inspection that is expected to catch and identify issues before they evolve into bigger (and more expensive) problems. As part of the contract, Vandeventer will offer the city a six percent discount on needed parts to make repairs discovered during the inspections. For the third and final year of the contract, the city will pay $3,933.30.
“I think it will save us money in the long run,” Fletcher said.
NUISANCE ORDINANCE RESOLUTION
The council also was unanimous in approving a resolution to beef up enforcement of city ordinances dealing with tall grass, weeds and accumulations of debris. City Attorney Rick Verticchio said he was asked by Mayor Jim Kelly to draft a resolution to deal with repeat offenders. Past practice has been to withdraw the complaint and collect no fines if the property owner cleans up the property within a specified period of time. The problem, he said, is that those offenders often allow the situation to reoccur, resulting in another citation which also gets withdrawn after the property owner cleans up the problem.
“The problem is that it’s repetitive,” Verticchio said.
Under the resolution approved Monday night, first-time offenders will still have the opportunity to have the complaint dismissed if they clean up their property within a specified period of time. Upon the second offense, the city will request a court hearing and will ask the court to impose the maximum fine of $500, which will be reduced to $150 if the property owner abates the nuisance within the specified period of time. Upon the third and subsequent offenses, the city will ask the court to impose the maximum fine of $500 with no opportunity for the property owner to have the fine reduced.
Facing an impending deadline, the council agreed to renew its policy with Blue Cross-Blue Shield to provide employee health care coverage. The action means the council can take formal action on the policy during its next regular meeting in September and avoid the necessity of convening a special meeting to deal with insurance.
“If we stick with Blue Cross-Blue Shield, we can do it at the next meeting,” said City Clerk Terri Koyne. “But if we’re going to change carriers, we need to do it by the end of the month.”
“I did not know until today that we would have to notify him (the city’s insurance broker) by the end of the month,” Mayor Kelly said.
On a motion by Ald. Lance Cooper, seconded by Ald. Fletcher, the council voted to accept “with regret” the resignation of Dennis Gardner, maintenance worker, effective Friday, Aug. 30. Gardner was hired as a part-time employee in April 2013 and became a full-time worker in March the following year.
“I have received an offer to work full-time with Kravanya Funeral Home, and after careful consideration, I realize that this opportunity is too exciting to me to decline,” Gardner wrote in his letter of resignation. “It has been a pleasure working with the City of Benld. I appreciate all the support and training I received during my time working with the Maintenance Department.”
In other action, the council:
- Announced that the annual oil and chip program is scheduled to take place on Sept. 9, pending weather conditions on that day. Residents are advised to have cars parked off the street that day whether or not their street is scheduled for resurfacing. “If we have extra oil, we will go onto another street,” Mayor Kelly said.
- Announced that the annual City-wide Clean-Up Day will be Saturday, Oct. 12. Residents are advised to have rubbish on the curb by Saturday morning. Ald. Fletcher said refuse can be on the curb as early as Thursday.
- Approved the prevailing wage ordinance, which is required by state law, binding the city to hire only contractors who pay their employees prevailing wages as determined by the Department of Labor.
- Voted to close the first block of South Main Street from 1:30 to 4 p.m. for a Trunk or Treat event hosted by the Benld Public Library from 2:30 to 3:30 that afternoon.