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Out with the old, in with the new

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By Dave Bell

As we close the door on 2009 and prepare to launch into 2010, it’s an appropriate time to take stock of what has happened in the past 12 months, and to look ahead to what the new year may hold.

For most of us, bidding goodbye to 2009 is a welcome relief. It’s been a tough year on several fronts. Yet, many of the year's clouds were not without silver linings. Better times lie ahead.

Following is a summary of the highlights.

The Economy

The economic slide that started in the fourth quarter of 2008 continued into 2009 – with the national and local economies faltering. Layoffs, furlough days and wage freezes were faced by workers at several Fayette County businesses. Some sectors were hit harder than others, but it was a rare business or industry that didn’t feel the pinch in some way.

Though we’re not out of the woods by any means, economic conditions appear to have bottomed out in recent months. We’re looking for brighter days ahead in 2010.

Motown – Big promises but no deliveries so far. After months of delays and missed deadlines, representatives of Motown Technology & Sports Facility Inc. and several potential subcontractors came to Vandalia in early December to report on their progress on the proposed $300 million sports and entertainment complex. Kenneth Bardwell, Motown CEO, told the city council that he was still working on putting the project’s financing together, and asked for a seven-month extension – until May 7, 2010. Financing has been the stumbling block in Motown's previous efforts to launch a similar facility, and we anticipate that will be the case here as well. Until Bardwell can "show us the money," Vandalia should limit its exposure in upfront costs.

Orgill – Though we’d known since late 2008 of the pending departure of the Orgill distribution center in Vandalia, the employment levels at the local facility began dwindling in the fall of 2009, as the company’s replacement facility in Sikeston, Mo., came on line. The facility now stands vacant, though city officials say that they are talking with a potential tenant.

VCC – State officials have begun a multi-front effort to diminish the viability of the Vandalia Correctional Center. The farming operation has been leased out, the work camp is doing very little – if any – work, many of the vocational programs have been curtailed and the inmate census is down significantly. We must be vigilant to make certain that corrections officials don't dismantle the center piece by piece and then try to close it. Those jobs are too valuable to the community to lose.

Agriculture

Just when farmers thought things couldn’t get any stranger than they were in 2008, things DID in 2009.

In one of the coolest and wettest years on record, many of the county’s farmers were unable to get into their fields until June or even July. If they had managed to plant earlier, their seed rotted in the ground as persistent rains flooded the area through the normal planting season.

The late planting delayed the harvest into November for much of the county’s soybean and corn crops. And, once again, the rains came – delaying or complicating the harvest efforts. Finally, by December, nearly all of the crops had been harvested.

Politics

After state Sen. Frank Watson (R-Greenville) suffered a stroke in the fall of 2008 and decided to step down from the position he’d held for the past two decades, he was replaced last spring by Kyle McCarter. The Lebanon businessman hit the ground running, and has been an active advocate of pro-business, conservative policies in Springfield. We need his voice and his passion for downstate issues to balance the Chicago lockstep policies of the majority Democratic party.

Though disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich still proclaims his innocence to anyone who is gullible enough to listen, his trial on corruption charges is looming ahead in 2010.

His replacement, Gov. Pat Quinn, now presides over a state in economic shambles. The state is months behind in its payments to schools and state agencies – causing chaos and uncertainty among those who depend on tax monies from the state in order to function. Quinn's task will be to find ways to restore funding to schools, social service agencies and government offices. More taxes are not the answer. We must improve the state’s economy by growth and by improving our attractiveness to businesses and industries who would consider moving here or expanding their current operations in the state.

Also on the political front, the St. Elmo mayoral election last spring has brought turmoil to that community. A confrontation between the new mayor, Larry Tish, and the chief of police, Ken Thomason, resulted in the mayor's dismissal of the chief in November. That conflict has divided the town and the city council, and threatens to derail progress on several fronts. The rift must be healed and cooperation restored if the community is to move forward.

Progress

On the positive side of the ledger, several hopeful signs of progress are visible in the area.

The most obvious is the renovation project in downtown Vandalia. By any measure, the work will be a significant improvement to the appearance and functionality of the area. In addition to the visible facelift that the new paving and streetscape elements will bring, the project also gave the downtown a major upgrade by installing new storm sewer, sanitary sewer, water and electrical lines below the surface. Those improvements will make the downtown district more attractive to businesses.

As the streetscape work has progressed, the Vandalia Main Street organization has taken a lead in the effort to help merchants weather the disruptions caused by the construction work. We urge shoppers to overlook the temporary inconveniences and continue to support the downtown businesses as the final stages of the project are completed.

The Main Street organization also has helped a number of businesses spruce up their buildings with a fresh coat of paint. Those storefronts will be a nice complement to the streetscape project when it's finished in the spring.

In spite of the challenging economy, the news is not all doom and gloom. Several new businesses have opened in Vandalia in recent months, and the Vandalia Chamber of Commerce has held ribbon cuttings to celebrate.

We are thankful for our resilient community and look forward to good things in the coming year. Together, we can survive and thrive.

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