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Statehouse will close Oct. 1

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By Rich Bauer, Managing Editor

Vandalia officials knew to expect cuts at the Vandalia Statehouse after Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich cut about $1.4 billion from the state budget. But it was much worse than city officials could ever have imagined.

The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency announced on Thursday afternoon that the Statehouse is among 24 historical sites and state parks that will be closed on Oct. 1 as a result of agency cuts by Blagojevich.

“Our budget for historic sites was cut in half,” said Dave Blanchette of the IHPA, “so we had to decide how to address that.

“It was a difficult decision,” Blanchette said, explaining that the agency used public visitation figures to determine which of the historic sites to close. The Statehouse traditionally has more than 30,000 visitors each year.

The agency’s action calls for the closure of the historic sites through the end of the current fiscal year, June 30, 2009. “Hopefully, this will be a temporary thing,” Blanchette said.

In addition to closing more than a dozen historic sites, the agency “knew that we would have to lay off some people,” he said.

But, he said, the agency also knew that it would have to retain at least one employee at each site, for maintenance and security purposes. “If we didn’t do that, we would have been stuck playing catch-up after the sites were re-opened,” Blanchette said.

The agency laid off one full-time employee at the Vandalia Statehouse, leaving Site Superintendent Mary Cole as the lone employee at the old state capitol.

“If you have to cut to one employee, you can’t be offering public programs at the sites,” Blanchette said, adding that the state is optimistic about opening the Statehouse and other closed sites for special events.

That leaves open the possibility that the Statehouse will still be able to host its Christmas Open House in December, its Lincoln’s Birthday celebration on Feb. 12 and the Grande Leve on Father’s Day weekend.

But, Blanchette said, “There has been no final determination on anything after Nov. 1.”

Some Lincoln sites in and near Springfield – including the Old State Capitol, Lincoln’s Tomb, the Lincoln-Herndon Law Office and Lincoln’s New Salem – will be open seven days a week, beginning next spring, only because the state’s Lincoln Bicentennial Commission has given $300,000 of its funds to the state for that purpose, Blanchette said.

Even though the Statehouse will be closed to the public, he said, that doesn’t mean that Cole will not be busy.

In addition to dealing with maintenance issues, Cole – and the lone employees at the other closed sites – will be responsible for contributing to improvements in the agency’s Web site and making improvements to the presentation of public programs.

“So when they (historic sites) do open again, we can have improved programs,” Blanchette said.

At Monday’s meeting of the Vandalia City Council, Mayor Rick Gottman said he is “very saddened and concerned” about the closure of the Statehouse, which served as Illinois’ capitol from 1836-39.

And, Gottman said, the city is not willing to accept the action without putting up a fight.

The mayor said he has already been working with City Administrator Jimmy Morani and Director of Economic Development and Tourism JoAnn Givens about how the city can challenge the closure.

“We will put together a team that will be getting information together in time for the (General Assembly’s) veto session this fall,” Gottman said.

In its presentation, he said, the city will remind legislators and the governor that the Statehouse is the oldest existing state capitol.

The timing couldn’t have been worse, Gottman said, pointing out that Illinois and communities with Lincoln historic sites are gearing up for the celebration of Lincoln’s 200th birthday next year.

“We have been socking a lot of money into our (Looking for Lincoln) storyboard, and our committee has already been planning activities,” Gottman said.

“This is not appropriate for this to happen in the Land of Lincoln,” he said.

Gottman told aldermen, “There is a lot going on behind the scenes.”

At the recommendation of Alderman Larry Cable, the council approved the drafting of a resolution in which the city will voice its opposition to the agency’s cuts.

The closure of the Statehouse and other Lincoln sites also bothers state Sen. Frank Watson (R-Greenville), to say the least.

“I’m just furious,” Watson said on Friday afternoon. “I don’t know what this is about, whether they (Democrats) are setting us up for a tax increase, or what.

“What’s the most outrageous thing about this is that we are going into the bicentennial of the birth of the greatest president we’ve ever had, and we’re making these cuts to our state’s Abraham Lincoln sites,” he said.

Watson, who is the Illinois Senate minority leader, said of the cuts, “This is going right to the pulse of the people of Illinois. We’re closing historic sites and state parks, which create revenue for the state.

“We’re taking away what’s important to the people of this state, and to people in other states,” he said.

“This is not the way to address problems with the budget,” Watson said. “The governor deserves the (poor) approval ratings that he has, for things like this.

“This shows their (Democrats) inability to grasp the common-sense approach of government,” he said. “They don’t get it.

“They don’t bring people to the table who will be impacted and who can give input on decisions such as this,” Watson said.

The senator said he “is not going to give up” on fighting the cuts, and feels that Illinois residents need to take things like this into consideration when they vote this fall.

“The thing that I don’t think they (Democrats) understand is that they are enablers who are letting this go on. There has to be a political price to pay.

“Enough is enough – people need to remember that when they go to the polls in November,” Watson said.