Illinois Public Media News
The cost of farmland in central Illinois increased by almost a third in 2011, land sales professionals say, continuing a trend of the past few years.
The average price of land in the 15 counties around Decatur rose from $8,000 an acre in 2010 to $10,500 last year, Dale Aupperle, president of the Heartland Ag Group in Decatur, told The Journal Star newspaper in Peoria (http://bit.ly/yyGV1Y ).
Continued high prices for corn and soybeans and investor demand are driving the trend, Aupperle said, one that he said doesn't represent a bubble ready to burst.
"There are people who didn't buy (farmland) in July 2010 when the average price was $7,000 an acre. They were shocked that it had gone up from $6,000 an acre the year before," he said. "Now (prime land) is selling for over $11,000. This is driven by investor demand, it's not a bubble."
University of Illinois farm economist Gary Schnitkey agrees that price increases aren't like those seen prior to farming's economic collapse in the 1980s.
"In the 1980s, when prices declined, you had high interest rates and high inflation," he said. "Interest rates are expected to remain low, and low levels tend to support land prices."
But Schnitkey thinks increases in both crop and farmland price will ease this year.
Ameren is disputing news reports that its latest filing for electric delivery rates in Illinois amounts to a rate hike.
But spokesman Leigh Morris said some customers would see an increase in delivery rates, but not others. He says this is the first rate application Ameren is seeking in connection with an upgrade of the electric grid --- and he said it's based on a new formula that accepts a lower return on equity and accounts for lower interest rates.
"This is based on actual spending," Morris said. "There's not forecasting involved with this. And this rate case will result in an overall reduction of approximately $19 million. That's an annual number."
However, Morris said customers in Ameren Illinois' Rate Zone Two - the former CILCO territory - will see an increase in rates. He said the other two zones, which serve former Illinois Power and CIPS customers, would see modest decreases in their rates.
But a spokesman with the Citizens Utility Board said there's more to the latest Ameren rate case than an initial change in rates. Jim Chilsen said the Ameren filing also sets the stage for Ameren's rate structure throughout the rollout of the improved electrical grid.
"Consumer advocates need to get involved, and need to make sure that Ameren is sticking to the law and that Ameren is being fair to consumers," Chilsen said. "And this is one of the biggest cases that we'll ever deal with, because it's determining what this formula will be that will determine rates for up to the next decade."
Morris said the rate filing with the Illinois Commerce Commission replaces a rate hike request filed last February. The new filing covers the first $17 million of what will eventually be $625 million in electric grid improvements over the next decade. If approved, the new rates should take effect in October.
Morris said consumers will be able to learn how the rate request would affect their personal electric bills starting Feb. 1. He said Ameren customers will be able to use the online rate estimator at IllinoisRateFaces.com, or call Ameren Customer Service at 1-800-755-5000.
U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) says banks need to be more transparent as college students start up bank accounts.
In a visit to the University of Illinois' Urbana campus Tuesday, Illinois' Senior Senator called on financial institutions to voluntarily adopt a disclosure form for fees. The announcement comes after Bank of America and other institutions imposed and quickly canceled monthly fees on debit card holders.
Durbin says institutions should all adopt a 1-page disclosure form created by the Pew Charitable Trusts, rather than the more than 100-page statements currently released by most banks. He says the form should be as simple as reading health information labels at grocery stores.
"And you know where to look for calories, for sodium, for carbohydrates, for other things that might be important to you," Durbin said. "This kind of disclosure form brings that kind of information when it comes to financial institutions."
Greg Anderson with University of Illinois Employees Credit Union says the disclosure forms are worth a look.
"What we've seen in the past with truth in lending that he spoke of, truth in savings, the Credit Card act of 2009, all spoke to more disclosure, making it easier for consumers to compare, and credit unions fall right into that," Anderson said. "I think it's kind of a natural for us to take part and follow with that."
Durbin has written a letter to Illinois' State Board of Higher Education as well as the Federation of Independent Illinois Colleges and Universities, asking their help in contacting lending institutions.
None of the 79 Sears and Kmart stores that Sears Holdings Corp. plans to close are in Illinois.
The Hoffman Estates-based retailer announced the specific stores it would close on Thursday. It said earlier this week that it would close up to 120 stores nationally after poor holiday sales.
The Indiana stores slated to close include Kmarts in Indianapolis' Pendleton Plaza and St. John, as well as a Sears store in Anderson. A Sears location in St. Louis, Missouri's Crestwood Plaza is also closing. The dates of the closures haven't been announced, and the company says it can't yet verify the number of impacted employees.
The retailer had reached an agreement with Illinois officials to keep its headquarters in Illinois. Gov. Pat Quinn had said the store closings don't affect that agreement.
Quinn signed legislation guaranteeing the company $15 million in tax breaks during the next decade. The company had threatened to move its headquarters from the state before securing the tax incentives.
The tax breaks depend on the company's ability to maintain 4,250 jobs at the Sears headquarters in Hoffman Estates.
(With additional reporting from The Associated Press)
The showcase summer festival Taste of Chicago will be shortened and moved to later in July next year.
City of Chicago officials said Wednesday that the lakefront festival will run five days from July 11 to 15 in Grant Park. The festival traditionally ran over the Fourth of July holiday and last year was 10 days long.
Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events spokesperson Cyndi Gatziolis says the shortened schedule will make the Taste more accessible to smaller restaurants and help the city save money.
"There's a cost to being out there every single day, and that certainly is one of the reasons why with this financial model we're looking to (will) save some of that money," said Gatziolis.
This is the first year Taste of Chicago will be run by the city's Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. Last year, the city tried to privatize the event, but those plans fell through when the only bidder threatened to charge admission. The Taste of Chicago was then turned over to the Chicago Park District. Days after last year's festival ended, the head of the Chicago Park District said the city lost money on the event.
There are also changes to the Chicago Gospel Music Festival, which will be staged at several locations, including the South Side's Bronzeville neighborhood. The gospel festival will run from June 21 to 24.
Other large events on the city's calendar in 2012 include the Chicago Blues Festival in June, the Chicago Air and Water Show in August, the Chicago Jazz Festival in late August and early September, and the World Music Festival in mid-September.
A new investment group has completed its purchase of the company that owns the Chicago Sun-Times.
A spokesman for Wrapports LLC says its transaction to buy Sun-Times Media Holdings LLC closed Monday. Sun-Times Media also owns a chain of newspapers in suburban Chicago and Indiana.
Sun-Times Media filed for bankruptcy in March 2009 and was led out of bankruptcy later that year by an investment group headed by Mesirow Financial president James Tyree. Tyree died earlier this year.
While the newspaper has slashed costs and cut dozens of staff positions, the Sun-Times won a Pulitzer Prize earlier this year for local reporting.
Its new ownership group is led by technology investor Michael Ferro Jr. and Timothy Knight, the former publisher of Long Island, N.Y., newspaper Newsday.
Sears and Kmart will be closing more than 100 stores after disappointing holiday sales revenue. The holiday season is the most crucial time of year for retailers to haul in a profit, and this year Kmart and Sears fell way short of their goals.
Sears Holdings Corp. owns the companies and is based in Northwest Suburban Hoffman Estates. The corporation says same-store revenue fell 5.2 percent to date for the quarter at Sears and K-Mart.
Both stores blame revenue drops on diminished consumer electronic sales. Kmart also had less inventory on layaway and lackluster clothing sales this year, and Sears saw a decline in home appliances.
Sears has more than 4,000 stores in the US and Canada. Closing 100-120 stores is expected to generate more than $140 million dollars in cash inventory sales. Sears Holding Corp. anticipates additional proceeds from the sale or sublease of real estate holdings.
Earlier this month Illinois passed a huge corporate tax incentives bill to keep companies like Sears headquartered in Illinois. The company was threatening to leave the state if it wasn't given tax breaks.
(With additional reporting from The Associated Press)
Bank of America will pay a multimillion dollar settlement to resolve allegations of discriminatory loans by its subsidiary, Countrywide that took place between 2004 and 2007. The case stems from a lawsuit filed by the Illinois attorney general's office.
Back in March 2008, Attorney General Lisa Madigan issued a fair lending subpoena to Countrywide after a report found that the company sold higher-cost loans in the Chicago area to more African Americans and Hispanics compared to white borrowers.
Bank of America's decision to pay a $335 million dollar settlement signals the largest settlement of its kind over residential fair lending practices.
The settlement with the U.S. Justice Department was filed Wednesday with the Central District court of California and is subject to court approval. According to the DOJ's complaint, Countrywide charged over 200,000 African-American and Hispanic borrowers higher fees and interest rates than non-Hispanic white borrowers with a similar credit profile.
Natalie Bauer, who's a spokeswoman in the Illinois attorney general's office, said approximately 15,000 people in the state may be eligible for restitution under the settlement.
"The settlement is one of those ways that we will be able to help homeowners on the ground who are struggling right now as a result of the illegal practices that banked used in the lead up to the crash of the economy back in 2008," Bauer said.
Dan Frahm, a Bank of America spokesman, said in a statement that the bank does not practice lending based on race.
"We discontinued Countrywide products and practices that were not in keeping with our commitment and will continue to resolve and put behind us the remaining Countrywide issues," Frahm said.
The United States' complaint said that Countrywide was aware that the fees and interest rates that its loan officers were charging discriminated against African-American and Hispanic borrowers, but failed to impose meaningful limits or guidelines to stop it.
People who believe they were victims of lending discrimination should e-mail the U.S. Department of Justice at email@example.com
Bauer said a settlement administrator will review those claims.
Meanwhile, the Illinois attorney general's office has filed a similar lawsuit against Wells Fargo for discriminatory lending practices.
Urbana's City Council gets its first chance Monday night to hear about a proposed six-story mixed use development designed to be a 'stimulus' for downtown.
Champaign architect Gary Olsen said his Metro Centre on South Vine Street would use a retro style of development, and compliment buildings like the Champaign County Courthouse. The development would include condominiums, commercial retail, restaurants, as well as parking space. A second building to its east would consist of townhouses.
Olsen said he is open to ideas for businesses the public wants to see in Urbana.
"We're encouraging anyone in the Champaign County area who has a wonderful boutique they love in Chicago, or a sports place that they have found in Indianapolis they would like to replicate here," he said. "We're not just looking for restaurants, we're looking for a lot of commercial retail use of the first-floor level."
Olsen responded to a request for proposal from the city, after it purchased property on the square block across from the federal courthouse downtown. Urbana holds a lease on the Goodyear Tire shop on South Vine, and will negotiate to relocate that business.
There is no action expected at Monday's initial presentation, but Olsen hopes construction can completed by 2014, which would coincide with Lincoln Square Village's 50th anniversary.
The Urbana City Council meets at 7 p.m. Monday at the city building.
Former workers at a shuttered auto parts making plant in the Detroit enclave of Highland Park say the plant may have contaminated the area with a cancer-causing chemical.
The Detroit Free Press reports Tuesday that known carcinogen hexavalent chromium was used at the Chrome Craft plant.
Saad Bolos of Madison Heights worked at the plant 17 years and says leaks included a rooftop pipe that spilled into an alley.
The Chrome Craft plant is owned by Urbana, Ill.-based Flex-N-Gate Group, a manufacturer of bumper systems for pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles. The company says it has fully investigated the claim and says it has no knowledge of leaks or violations.
Flex-N-Gate is owned by Shahid Khan, an Urbana businessman who hopes to win approval this week from NFL owners to buy the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Flex-N-Gate bought Chrome Craft in 2005. In a 2009 lawsuit, Khan said he was a partner in Chrome Craft dating back to 1993.
Four inspections at the plant from 1992 until its closure found 39 violations of environmental laws, according to documents gathered by the UAW.
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality plans to investigate the claims about the plant, which closed about two years ago.
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