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President project up in the air in St. Elmo

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By Rich Bauer, Managing Editor

Even though the St. Elmo City Council voted to continue its support for The President riverboat project, the boat’s future in that community is still up in the air.

The council voted 4-2 to reinforce to developer David Campbell of Effingham the city’s support for the project at the conclusion of a two-hour special meeting.

However, council members learned four days later, by mail, that new Mayor Larry Tish had vetoed that vote.

And, prior to last Thursday’s vote, Campbell said that he and local investors in the project were ready to move The President to another community.

The special meeting, which was moved from city hall to the Phillips Building because of the size of the crowd, was called at the request of Campbell.

The developer told city officials that he wanted confirmation that the new mayor and city council were still behind the project that includes rebuilding The President just south of St. Elmo and creating a hotel and entertainment facility.

At the start of Thursday’s meeting, Tish announced that he had received a petition from resident Lucas Watson that was signed by 42 residents. Of those, 17 support the project, 17 want to discontinue the city’s support and eight are undecided.

That, Tish said, shows that there is a division among residents on the support for the project.

A good part of that meeting had new Alderman Mike McCall challenging financial information provided by Campbell, with the discussion between the two sometimes becoming a little heated.

McCall said based on the estimated payroll figure of $502, 247 prepared for Campbell by Leisure Entertainment, he figures that Campbell would have roughly 15 employees.

“I’ve got serious questions” about operating a hotel, restaurant and bar with 15 employees, McCall said, also questioning whether many of the workers would be local.

“That’s not a lot of money in payroll … and jobs,” he said, explaining that he and his wife had 7 employees when operating the Chuckwagon Restaurant in Vandalia several years ago.

With Campbell’s figures, McCall said, “You’re seeing red ink … big time.”

Campbell said the figures include a lot of part-time employees, and that if there are people interested in jobs on the boat – including management positions – Kaskaskia College would provide the necessary training.

“We would rather have people from here,” Campbell said. “That’s why we came here.”

When asked whether he has sufficient funding to keep the project going, Campbell said he has enough right now to re-assemble the boat. And, he said, it will be tough to get more financial support, including loans, until that phase is completed.

“There’s not a bank around that will loan the money until that boat is built,” Campbell said.

McCall said he had trouble getting Campbell’s projected income figures to add up like they did on his financial statements. “And I tried my durndest,” he said.

At that point, resident Kathy Miller said, “But if we’re not going to allow it, why tear it down and bring it here?

To that, McCall said, “That’s a good question.”

Right now, Miller said, the disassembled boat “looks like nothing but a trash mill.”

Campbell told city officials that he was presenting solid financial figures that were backed up by a CPA, but McCall disagreed with that assessment. “No, they’re not looking good,” McCall said.

“You’re trying to throw figures in that that don’t add up,” McCall said.

At that point, Alderman Jayson Porter, who was St. Elmo’s mayor when the city signed agreements with Campbell, said, “I’m kind of embarrassed to see somebody trying to bring jobs to town being treated like this.

“I think it’s just disgusting to see people acting like this,” Porter said.

McCall said his questioning was justified.

“We were given reports and asked to study them. I have questions. I did due diligence,” he said.

“If it was going to make a million, I’d probably be asking to invest in it,” McCall said.

Tish said, “The real question is, we have an agreement that he has to provide full funding before it (the boat) goes up. So, how many times do you want us to keep bailing somebody out?

“There’s more going on in town than just the boat, and that’s what we want to do,” Tish said.

“The question is, if this goes south, are the same people (who now support it) going to blame me,” Tish said.

Miller asked why the city had offered Campbell free land and free water and sewer, and Porter said that all of the communities trying to land the riverboat project offered Campbell incentive packages.

Campbell said, “We’re trying to bring something special to St. Elmo, and you’re trying to push it out.”

A second new alderman, former mayor Chris Worman, also posed a few questions to Campbell.

Worman said city residents would be forced to pay more for water and sewer because of infrastructure improvements “if there’s not a good plan.”

“There is a good plan,” Campbell countered.

Through the agreement with the city, St. Elmo will turn over the 40 acres near Interstate 70 if Campbell fulfills his end of the deal.

Tish said. “You have 40 acres – we don’t know what you want to put in there. It could be a parking lot,” Tish said.

“That’s ridiculous,” Campbell said.

Alderman Theresa Riley said her concern is what will happen if the city decides to drop out of the project.

“We have entered into a contract,” Riley said. “If we don’t honor that, we’re going to look absolutely horrible.”

She added, “It’s got to be held up both ways.”

It was at that point that some of the local investors in the project began talking with Campbell. As the council prepared to vote on the issue, Campbell asked to speak.

“Our board thinks that we want to move the boat somewhere else,” he said.

“We don’t want to fight over every little thing – we’re moving,” Campbell said.

Porter said, “At least give us the opportunity to vote.”

Porter, Riley, Jaimee Blankenship and Lloyd Carson voted to support the project, and McCall and Worman cast dissenting votes.

After the vote, one of the investors, Sereta Barnes said, “The last thing we want is to tear the town apart, the council apart, and that’s why we’re thinking of leaving.

“With disagreements, good ideas can come from it. It’s how those disagreements are handled,” she said.

On Friday, Campbell said he planned to meet with the investors over the weekend to talk about the future of the project.

“We have some options,” he said, adding that some other communities – including Effingham – are interested in The President.

“Effingham is my choice, but we want to explore all of our options,” he said.

On Tuesday, Campbell said, “We have talked some, but we have a little ways to go to get through it all.”

He said a decision could come as early as the end of this week.

“We have a lot of things we’ve got to get through,” he said.

City Attorney Rick Day said on Wednesday that he had not been contacted by Tish on his veto or any other legal matters related to the project.

On Wednesday, Tish said he vetoed Thursday's vote because the motion "was very vague. We already support the boat through an agreement in place.

"We need to make motions we can work with," he said, explaining that the council needs to act on motions that relate to specific facets of the project, such as grants for infrastructure improvements."

Asked if he supports the project, Tish said. "They're here and I want to give them the benefit of the doubt.

"But every time we turn around, they're threatening to move the boat.

"Where do we draw the line. I want to work with them. I will support them and do what the city can afford.

"But Mr. Campbell can't guarantee anything," Tish said. "It's a risky investment.

"I want to bring business to town, but I also have to protect the citizens of the community," he said.