Gillespie’s Black Diamond Days festival could return to the downtown commercial district if the city council approves a resolution seeking permission from the Illinois Department of Transportation to close a section of Illinois Route 4 to accommodate the struggling festival.
Ald. Landon Pettit, who also serves as a member of the Black Diamond Days Committee, said bringing the festival back downtown was a possibility during the regular monthly meeting of the city council Monday night.
“We were told that once we lost our permit to close Macoupin Street, we could never come back,” Pettit said. “It turns out that that is not true.” To return to the downtown area, he said, would only require the city council to seek IDOT’s permission to close a section of Illinois Route 4, which coincides with Macoupin Street.
“I’m dead set against it,” said Ald. Dave Link, who owns Lumpy’s Bar and Grill downtown. “For all the years it was downtown, we were basically shut down for the weekend.” He suggested contracting downtown merchants to see whether or not they favor bringing the festival back.
“Don’t do that,” City Attorney Rick Verticchio counseled. “Have a public meeting. That way, if they want to come up and talk to us, they can.”
Mayor John Hicks said he would set a date for a public meeting in October, official notice of which will be published in local news outlets.
City Treasurer Dan Fisher said another issue could be the start of construction on a long-anticipated Streetscape Project to improve downtown aesthetics. Fisher was confident, however, the festival could be worked around any construction that might be underway.
Promoted as “Macoupin County’s Original Festival of Coal,” the festival began as an annual summertime ritual more than 40 years ago. It was canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, a group of volunteers attempted to revive the festival, relocating it to Old Gillespie Lake. A last-minute cancellation forced the festival to open without a carnival for the first time this year. Organizers brought in inflatable “bounce houses” to entertain younger festival-goers as an alternative to traditional carnival rides.
“Being out at the lake, we’ve lost substantial amounts of money every year, trying to keep it going,” Pettit said. “Every year we hear that people want it back downtown.”
He said the committee has been bolstered by several new members who “have stepped up to help us.”
Council members voted unanimously, with Ald. Pettit voting “present,” to waive the vendor permit fee for vendors participating in Spooky Halloween Fright at Gillespie Lake in October. Teresa Pettit told the council that the organizing committee would ask vendors to voluntarily donate $20 to be given to the Lake Fund. She also notified the council that the group is securing a $1 million liability insurance policy as required by the city.
The event is set for Friday evening, Oct. 20, and all day on Saturday, Oct. 21, and Saturday, Oct. 28. In addition to vendors, the event will feature bounce houses, games and crafts for kids, a chili cook-off, a wings cook-off, a fishing tournament, bonfires, and a “haunted” trail. There will be a cakewalk, best costume contests and a best decorated campsite contest. Additional activities include a scavenger hunt, pumpkin decorating, raffles, 50/50 drawings, a trunk or treat event and a costumed Halloween parade.
Pettit said she wasn’t previously aware that the organizers needed city permission for the event.
“Like so many things, it comes down to communication,” Verticchio said, advising Pettit to approach the city in advance for future events on city property. “You come up here and tell them what you want to do and chances are is no one is going to say ‘no,’ because this looks like a very nice event that is going to make the community better.”
The council met in executive session for 35 minutes before addressing the agenda. The closed-door session officially was called to discuss personnel, litigation, real estate and collective bargaining, but may have focused on the status of litigation against several nuisance properties.
Upon returning to open session, resident Ellen Collman complained about her property being declared a public nuisance without prior notice. She said she has been making progress toward cleaning up the property and said she would like to have the declaration withdrawn.
“Not one person sitting at this table has spoken to me about this,” Collman said.
Ald. Link, who asked for the nuisance declaration originally, said the property owners had cut grass and weeds in the back and removed most of a dilapidated fence, but there was still trash and debris that remained to be removed. He said he had talked with neighbors who told him the property had been in a state of poor maintenance for as long as nine years.
Verticchio told Collman there was no reason to withdraw the nuisance declaration, describing it essentially as an incentive for property owners to clean up their property to avoid litigation. While the notice gives the property owners 30 days to comply, he said it was common practice to give the owners more time if they are actively working to abate the nuisance.
“My experience is that when the city issues a formal notice, the property owner goes out and fixes it,” Verticchio said. “If you do that, that’s it. When it’s cleaned up, you’ll get a letter telling you the property is no longer a nuisance. I guarantee you that as long as you keep working on it, this group is not going to have me file an action in court because they don’t want to spend any more money on me to do that.”
In other action, the council declared property at 411 West Chestnut and 503 West Chestnut as public nuisances.
Later in the meeting, the board authorized payment of Tax Increment Financing Funds in the amount of $1,385 to Netemeyer Engineering, Aviation, for completing engineering evaluations for buildings at 109 South Macoupin and 300 South Macouipin. Both buildings have previously been declared public nuisances. The owner of 109 South Macoupin reportedly offered to donate the building to the city but city officials wanted to confirm what it would cost to stabilize the building before accepting it.
Ald. Dona Rauzi reported that the tax-buyer that acquired a nuisance property at 508 Park Avenue is exploring the feasibility of razing the structure.
Council members also briefly discussed the status of the former Canna Theater, recently acquired by a private party who has plans to renovate the building as a performance venue. Fisher reported that he talked to the new owner and learned she expects to first repair the roof and a water damaged wall to stabilize the building, and is in the process of cleaning out the interior.
GOLF CART RULES
After several minutes of discussion the council voted unanimously on separate motions to require golf courts operated in the city limits to be fitted with seatbelts, and to reduce the minimum age for golf court operators from 18 to 16, with the provision that the operator has a valid driver’s license. Both provisions will take effect on Jan. 1 when golf court permits are renewed.
Ald. Landon Pettit questioned whether or not young children riding a passengers in golf courts should be secured in a car seat. He said he had observed young children riding in golf carts who were simply strapped in with a seatbelt. He said he worried about a child slipping out from under the belt and being injured.
Verticchio advised that city police charged with enforcing such an ordinance could not be certified to determine whether the seat is properly installed because golf cart seats are not designed to accommodate a child safety seat.
Fritz asked if the city could be held liable for a child’s injury or death if it did not require child safety seats.
“You’d have greater liability if you require car seats and some kid gets bounced out,” Verticchio said. “Some smart lawyer would say, ‘Hey, the kid would have been fine if the city hadn’t said they had to be in a car seat’,”
PARKING ON LJ AVENUE
On the direction of the council, Verticchio said he would prepare an ordinance which, if approved, would ban parking on LJ Avenue during sporting events.
Ald. Janet Odell-Mueller initially asked for new No Parking signs to replace faded signs on LJ Avenue, but asked that the new signs to ban parking at all times rather than during school hours. The street runs between the Gillespie High School campus and the football field, and becomes congested with parked cars during football games.
“People park on both sides and it basically becomes a one-way street,” she said. “I don’t know how many times I’ve had a kid run out in front of me from between parked cars.”
Verticchio said he would prepare a draft ordinance for the council’s consideration in October. In the meantime, Mayor Hicks said he would contact the school to see if they would agree to barricade the street during sporting events.
Ald. Fritz also suggested approaching the school district to see if it would consider donating a couple of half-lots on Park Avenue, previously listed as surplus, to the City of Gillespie. The district apparently received no bids from private buyers to acquire the half-lots. Having them, Fritz said, would give the city access to Bear Creek to cut brush and otherwise maintain the waterway. Verticchio said the school district could transfer the properties via an intergovernmental agreement if it so chooses.
MFT BID LETTING
An announcement by City Treasurer Fisher that the Illinois Department of Transportation is letting bids for the Motor Fuel Tax program on Oct. 21 sparked a brief discussion about the type of rock used for the city’s street maintenance program. Fisher said IDOT will open bids for furnace slag to be used on city streets because it causes less dust than traditional rock chips.
Ald. Pettit, however, said he had seen a product called “purple rock” in use and deemed it equal to or superior to slag. Purple rock, also called Iron Mountain Track Rock, is considered an alternative for slag since sources for furnace slag are dwindling.
Fisher said the bidding specifications approved by the council earlier call for slag and that it might be possible to seek bids for purple rock next year.
The council referred to the Street Department a request to install a new culvert at Chestnut and Handy streets for correct a water flow issue that arose after the construction of a public housing complex in the area.
Ald. Pettit said the new intake is above the level of the water flow, causing rain water to back up into neighboring yards. He said it may take as many as four culverts to correct the issue. Mayor Hicks asked the Street Department to assess the issue and determine the best and most cost-effective way to address it.
In other action, the council:
- Agreed to set the standard fee for business licenses at $25 per year to streamline bookkeeping. The city formerly had a schedule of fees ranging from $12 to $25 depending upon the type of business.
- Accepted a new lease agreement for a cellular tower at Gillespie Lake under which the tower owner wills pay $1,000 per month, an increase of $250 from the previous contract.
- Accepted a bid of $300 to repaint pedestrian striping on Kelly Street at BenGil Elementary School.
- Agreed to donate an old communications tower at the former Gillespie Police Department to the Gillespie-Benld Area Ambulance Service.
- Gave the Mayor power to act on accepting bids for 21 surplus radio units previously used the Police Department.
- Agreed to pay an outstanding bill from TDI Concrete from Tax Increment Financing Funds, provided the contractor provides proof of paying its employees prevailing wages.