Four days after the citizens of the United States elected a new president, residents of St. Elmo gathered for an inauguration ceremony of sorts for its new President.
Despite cold, windy weather, a large crowd assembled in an open field east of Driftstone Pueblo on the town’s southern edge for a groundbreaking ceremony for the 85-year-old riverboat that will be converted into a hotel and convention center.
A smokestack from the President stood behind a trailer that served as a stage for Saturday’s ceremony, which included comments from the project developer, David Campbell, city officials and a representative of the firm charged with dismantling the riverboat at Alton, transporting it to St. Elmo and reassembling it.
Campbell has been working with St. Elmo officials for about three years to make the project become a reality, choosing that community over Vandalia and Newton after deciding to take on the riverboat project about six years ago.
Campbell told the crowd that St. Elmo was chosen by a consulting firm he hired to study the three finalist communities for the 300-foot long and 84-foot wide riverboat.
HMI Consultants, Campbell said, decided that “St. Elmo was the best place to do this. He couldn’t think of a better ambiance, with the lake here, with being this close to interstate and with just having the right feel for the type of venue that we’re wanting to project with this riverboat.
“Can you imagine going past here and seeing this boat when it’s up – I still can’t visualize it myself,” he said.
“People will say, ‘How did that boat get here?,’ and that’s what we want,” he said. “We want to create a lot of excitement. We want people to say, ‘I’ve got to pull off (of Interstate 70) and see what this boat’s all about.
“We want people to pull in and investigate it, and enjoy staying, hopefully, several nights with us and enjoying the entertainment,” Campbell said.
His plans call for the President to house 80 hotel rooms, banquet facilities, a small museum “and probably some small gift shops,” he said.
Campbell said he feels that his family’s partnership with the city will pay big dividends for St. Elmo.
“We’re really wanting this to be the spark that makes St. Elmo grow,” he said.
“There have been some ups and downs, and I’m sure there are going to be some more, but we’re going to get through it all and we’re going to have a real nice place here, not only for those people (traveling on I-70), but for the local people, as well,” he said.
St. Elmo was a potential host for the riverboat when Randy Watson was serving as mayor several years ago. Jayson Porter began aggressively working with Campbell after succeeding Watson as mayor.
“Today, a small, rural community is making history,” Porter said.
“We welcome this new development into our community to help spur the local economy, to create much-needed jobs and to give people hope that we will continue to prosper and grow,” he said.
“We also welcome this significant piece of the nation’s history into our community with open arms as we come to realize how it will change our future in so many ways,” Porter said.
“Here we are today, breaking ground on one of the largest projects this city has ever seen,” he said, noting that the President project has evoked both excitement and controversy.
As to the controversy, Porter said, “Let me say, the city’s investment and the risk in this project is minimal, compared to the future returns it will bring us,” he said.
Ken Thomason, the city’s police chief and president of the St. Elmo Industrial Commission, said, “You know, in 1923, this boat was called the Cincinnati, and that smokestack bellowed its first smoke. Here we are 85 years later, and it won’t be long before the smoke is going to bellow from that smokestack again.
“We look forward to that,” Thomason said.
Also speaking was Jeremy Patterson of Patterson Structural Movers Inc., a company based in Washington, Iowa.
“This is one of the biggest structures to be moved in the world this year, and the local impact is astronomical,” Patterson said.
He said his family has invested a significant amount of money in the project, “because I believe it’s a great investment and a great future for St. Elmo. One of the most exciting things about it is that the people here are excited – the support is here.”
Patterson said that as his family talking about moving the President, he learned that his wife had lived in St. Elmo for a while.
“She said, ‘Everybody in St. Elmo will give you the shirts off their backs – that’s how the city is.’”
Other speakers included Tara Hall, a spokesperson for state Rep. Ron Stephens (R-Greenville), and the Rev. Jason Wright, pastor of Church of Christ, who delivered the invocation. Porter also read a letter from U.S. Congressman John Shimkus (R-Ill., 19th District).