After months of sometimes acrimonious debate, the Gillespie City Council on Monday night voted 4-3 to reject the Assembly of God Church’s offer to transfer ownership of the deteriorating Canna Theater to the city. Ald. Dona Rauzi cast the deciding vote, saying she was “torn” between accepting or rejecting the offer. Despite the vote, Mayor John Hicks left the door open a crack to possibly save the building from the wrecking ball.
Hicks said he favors “saving historic buildings” whenever possible and held out the possibility of striking some sort of deal with the church. One possibility, he said, could involve the church paying the city the estimated cost of razing the building as a condition for the city accepting ownership. If the council had tied on the vote, Hicks made it clear he would have broken the tie in favor of taking the building, noting he had hopes of seeing the building restored as an entertainment venue for live performances. The building has sat vacant for several years after being used as a church sanctuary for a short time. The building currently is owned by the Assembly of God Church of Illinois.
There was some indication that Rauzi mistakenly believed her vote would have resulted in a tie. After casting her vote, she looked to Hicks and said, “It’s a tie.” Upon being told the vote was 4-3, Rauzi seemed somewhat surprised.
The decision could be the final blow sealing the fate of the building, which has been in limbo at least since October. Former Peace Corps Fellow Ethan Fogg helped negotiate the deal with the church to donate the building to the city. Before his tenure in Gillespie ended in November, he strongly advocated for the city to take possession of the building, arguing that even if the ultimate outcome was to demolish the building, the donation would allow the city to avoid the legal costs of acquiring the building later. Ald. Wendy Rolando and Ald. Larry Greene were assigned to investigate the structural integrity of the building and potential uses for it if the city took possession. At a public meeting to discuss the issue, a number of city residents articulated a plan to establish a non-profit corporation to restore the building as a performing arts venue. At the time, proponents said a performing arts center could host concerts, plays, lectures and other events to draw out-of-town visitors to Gillespie, contributing to the local economy and increasing sales tax revenue for the city.
Rolando and Greene’s recommendation to the council was to accept the building and commit up to $175,000 in Tax Increment Finance funds to stabilize the building. Rolando said the commitment of TIF funds would not be a lump sum but would be paid out over several years as work progressed. During that time, volunteers with the non-profit group could begin work on the interior to create a viable performing arts space. Once the building was stabilized, Rolando said the city would turn the facility over to the non-profit group, which would then administer its operation. If restoring the building turned out to be impossible, Rolando and Greene pointed out, the city would have ownership of the building and would not have to sue the Assembly of God for possession in order to tear it down.
Several opponents on the council had voiced their objection to spending TIF money on a building that, in their view, was destined for demolition.
While interested citizens had enlisted a report from a Staunton architect on the structural soundness of the building, the council delayed action on the issue until it could get a report from an independent structural architect hired by the city. With that new report in hand, Ald. Bill Hayes on Monday night strongly opposed taking possession of the building.
“It’s going to cost a lot more money than we thought to do this,” Hayes said. “Everything about the building is bad.”
Hayes said the new report identifies issues with the building—including a new roof and work needed on exterior walls—that would cost far more than $175,000. Meanwhile, he said, the city already has invested thousands of dollars in TIF funds in the Illinois Coal Mining Museum. Additionally, the city is looking at $40,000 for a new roof on the Civic Center, the cost of demolishing the former Street Department Building and the cost of condemning and razing a number of derelict homes.
“We don’t need another building,” he said.
Ald. Bob Fritz said he spoke with James Spouse, who prepared the city’s report.
“I asked him what it would cost to put that building in shape,” Fritz said, “and he said, his words, ‘several million dollars’.” Fritz said Spouse told him the roof replacement and exterior work alone would run about $200,000.
“We’ve been upfront about the condition of that building all along,” Rolando said. “That’s why we put a cap on the TIF funds.” She said the new report identifies six major issues, which are the same six issues identified by the original report. Volunteers are committed to providing labor for the necessary work, she said, meaning the city would be responsible for materials only. “There are one to three things that are immediate needs,” she said. Once those needs are addressed, the non-profit would seek grants and sponsor fund-raising activities to pay for interior work.
Ald. Greene offered the evening’s most impassioned plea for salvaging the theater. Reading from a statement, Greene said he and his wife moved to Gillespie three and a half years ago and were troubled by the lack of opportunities for new residents to meet neighbors and made new friends. Being an “outsider,” he said, gave him the advantage of looking at the issue with a “fresh set of eyes and ears.”
Greene said he took advantage of an invitation from Jim Allan, a local musician who spearheaded the movement to save the Canna, to inspect the building in person. “I saw an opportunity for a project that could draw people together,” he said. “I see the Lyric (the theater’s original name) as the centerpiece draw for our town, to bring people to downtown Gillespie where they can visit the Coal Museum, eat at one of our restaurants, shop and buy gas. It offers a thrilling opportunity that we have right now to revitalize downtown.”
Greene said a public meeting in October convinced him that citizens are in favor of the city accepting the building. In regard to the structural needs, he said those in favor of taking the building have been aware of needed repairs from the beginning of the discussion.
“It seems to me that some of the naysayers on the council had their minds made up from the start,” he said.
He likened the project to recent initiatives by the council to make improvements at the lake and to make improvements to Big Brick Park, both aimed at increasing the quality and availability of recreational opportunities. Revitalizing the theater, he said, could be another key toward development that would tie in with the city’s upcoming streetscape project in downtown Gillespie. A 10 percent loss in population since the last census, he said, translates into a $350,000 annual loss in tax revenue for the city, he said. The theater and similar projects could be steps toward recovering those lost tax dollars, he said.
“Please, please join us in getting involved,” he concluded.
Hayes remained skeptical.
“If we can’t support a store, what makes you think we can support this,” he said, referring to last summer’s closure of Randy’s Market. He said several operators had attempted to run the Canna as a movie house and failed, indicating doubt that the facility could succeed as a live entertainment venue.
City Attorney Dan O’Brien advised the council that the city could accept the building only by ordinance, so Monday night’s vote would be only to have him draw up the ordinance, which would be formally voted upon later.
Brought to a vote, Hayes, Fritz, Rauzi, Landon Petitt and Rick Fulton voted against taking the building. Rolando, Greene and Frank Barrett voted to accept it.
“If it had come down to me to vote, when it comes to saving a historic building, I would have voted for it,” Hicks said after the vote. Whether the Canna is restored or torn down, Hicks said he is afraid it will be the responsibility of the city. “We’re going to end up with it one way or another.”
Additionally, he said the Canna is the first of several buildings the city will be called upon to deal with. The downtown building that once housed the Dollar General Store, he said, is on the radar as one the city may be asked to take over. In that case, Hicks said he would favor taking the building to preserve the architecture at the top of the building. “That’s the last of ‘old’ buildings in downtown Gillespie,” he said. “You can’t find that architecture anywhere else except downtown Staunton.”
Hicks asked aldermen to harbor “no hard feelings” over the vote and to continue “working together” on other issues.
“There may still be some options,” he said, regarding the Canna issue.
WATER RATE INCREASE
In other action, the council voted unanimously to adopt an ordinance increasing local water rates by five percent. According to City Treasurer Dan Fisher, the city plans to raise rates for its satellite customers by five percent. A provision in the contract between the city and the satellite customers, however, binds the city to increase satellite rates by no more than what it raises rates for city customers.
Fisher said the minimum bill for the first 1000 gallons of usage includes money dedicated to debt service and money earmarked for operations and maintenance. The five percent increase, applies only to the operations and maintenance portion of the bill, increasing the minimum charge from $18.53 to $18.86. The rate for additional usage up to 50,000 gallons will increase by 33 cents to $6.91 under the new ordinance.
The city plans to conduct a public hearing with the satellite customers in the near future to comply with contractual provisions to increase their rates.
Mayor Hicks noted that American Water Co., a private water supplier based in Alton, recently announced rate increases of $14 for 1,000 gallons of usage.
“Some people will say our rate is excessive,” he said. “We keep our rates as low as possible. This is not excessive at all, compared to other communities.”
In a related matter, Ald. Petitt announced that work has begun on a major upgrade at the Water Treatment Plant.
The council took under advisement comments from Kent Tarro, director of the Macoupin County Public Health Department, regarding pedestrian crossings on Macoupin Street in the area of Maple Street Clinic. He asked for either signage or traffic control lights to slow or stop traffic for pedestrians crossing the street. He said a number of Maple Street employees park on the west side of Macoupin Street and have to cross the street to get to work. Several have reported near misses with vehicles that fail to slow down or stop for pedestrians. Several years ago, he said, a dentist employed at the clinic was hospitalized after being struck while crossing the street.
Tarro said he was among those who lobbied for traffic lights on West Main Street in Carlinville after students attending Carlinville schools were hit by vehicles.
“The first kid got hit and nothing happened. The second kid was hit and that still didn’t do it. The third kid was hit and that was enough to get traffic lights,” he said. “I’m very protective of my staff and I don’t want to get to three here.”
Police Chief Jared DePoppe said the issue is being worked on. One issue, he said, is that Macoupin Street is a state route and the city cannot erect lights or signage without permission from the Illinois Department of Transportation. Tarro was told he would be given contact names at IDOT. In the meantime, the city may place temporary sandwich boards during peak traffic periods.
The council also heard from Jeremy Anderson regarding plans for CTI Fiber Intenet-TV-Phone to bring fiber optic internet services to Gillespie. A franchise agreement is not needed, but Anderson said his company wanted the consent and cooperation of the city. He said fiber internet services offering more reliable service and greater speeds at less cost should be available this spring.
“We definitely need more options for internet in this town,” Ald. Pettit said.
Dave Tucker of the Illinois Coal Mining Museum said the museum was able to raise enough money on its own to pay for a facade improvement project and would be returning a facade improvement grant awarded by the city.
Ald. Rauzi announced the city is beginning contract negotiations with the Fraternal Order of Police this week, will soon begin negotiations with the Village of Mt. Clare to provide police protection services and will begin negotiations in March on a new contract to provide dispatching services for the Gillespie-Benld Area Ambulance Service.
In other action, the council:
- Approved the hiring of Jake Lenhardt as a full-time police officer. Formerly employed as a part-time officer, DePoppe said Lenhardt recently completed academy training qualifying him for full-time status.
- Approved a facade improvement grant for up to $4,031.90 for Cee-Jos tavern on Macoupin Street. The facade grants, paid from TIF funds, typically cover half of a business’s facade improvement project.
- Voted to establish a separate bank account for funds associated with the Streetscape Program.
- Approved resolutions to pay $5,361 to Griffith Plumbing and Heating, Carlinville, and $2,400 to S & S Concrete from TIF funds for work completed at the Maintenance Shed.
- Approved payment of $1,401.66 to Curry & Associates Engineering for work completed in conjunction with establishing a new Tax Increment Financing District.