August 14, 2012

Sports Maker Breaks Ground on Rantoul Center

A California-based company that makes sports equipment broke ground on Tuesday on an 800,000-square-foot facility located in Rantoul’s Village Industrial Park.

Easton-Bell Sports is consolidating five of its smaller facilities in east central Illinois into one large structure, which should be completed by next year. The company sells equipment and accessories for hockey, baseball, softball, football and cycling.

According to the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, the new Rantoul facility will be financed with a combination of internal, private and public investment. David Vaught is the acting Director for the state’s Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. He said the state put nearly $3.5 million into the company’s expansion.

“You know, they employ a lot of people here already,” Vaught said. “They have plans to add another 50 jobs. So, the growth of jobs is hugely important as we come out of the recession. So, we’ve done all we could to help them achieve that objective.”

About 300 area employees will move to the new facility. Donna L. Flood is the Chief Operations Officer and President of Giro / Easton Cycling. She said the added space will improve operations, and ultimately lead to more jobs.

“We know that we’ll have to potentially add workers as we continue to get bigger,” Flood said. “Right now, it’s probably going to be neutral because what we’re going to bring on board in more efficiency and more operations.”

The company’s presence in Rantoul began in 1983, when Bell Sports acquired a motorcycle accessories plant in the area.

August 14, 2012

Champaign Offers Storefront Improvement Program

Champaign City Council members get their first look Tuesday night at a plan to upgrade old storefronts to their original appearance.

The program is open to owners of commercial buildings located within Tax Increment Financing Districts both downtown, and on East University Avenue. 

The program provides matching grant funds to cover half the expenses for a storefront on the ground floor, and 25-percent of any work for upper floors. The work on any one building can’t exceed $10-thousand.

Jane Addams Book Shop Manager Judy Elmore says ownership is willing to put some money into the store’s appearance, and has some ideas of their own, but would like to know more about the city’s wishes.

"Our upstairs is fine," she said.  "We have a nice brick front, so that's all really nice.  It could probably be cleaned up, but really, it's our front window and the painting around that (that could use an upgrade.)  We'd almost like to see that go back to brick, but we don't know what's underneath the paneling and such."  

The program is offered to any structures build before 1940.

Austin's Sportswear owner Autumn Bates is interested, but says funds are limited.

"I personally have worked downtown 40 years, so I'm familiar with a lot of programs that have come through," she said.  "Some have been successful, and some have been very self-serving for certain parts of the community.  Having the original facades is a great idea, but I do also know that, from the construction side of it, it is terribly expensive, and I'm not interested in re-building this building."

Champaign City Council member Michael LaDue says a 1950's or 60's veneer on a storefront doesn't serve as a good backdrop for the public art now on display downtown.

"Look at Galena (Illinois.)" he said. "People go to Galena because of the charming 19th century storefronts.  It's largely original, it's never been adulterated.  That we would make these funds available should make it fairly painless for anybody really interested."

The city council meets for a study session Tuesday at 7 p.m. in the council chambers.

August 14, 2012

Union Leaders Push for Pension Compromise

Illinois union leaders are asking political leaders to negotiate with them before approving a plan to overhaul the state's pension systems. They made their plea on Monday in a teleconference with reporters.

Lawmakers are scheduled to gather in Springfield on Friday, Aug. 17 to consider options for fixing Illinois' underfunded pension system. It is a task that could include shifting pension costs for public school teachers from the state to school districts.

Sean Smoot, with an association of Illinois police officers, said the pension proposals currently under consideration are unconstitutional and will not solve the funding problem.

"Let me be clear: the path they have chosen, they have chosen alone, without meaningful input  from retired or working employees," Smoot said.

Christine Boardman, the president of a union representing government workers, said it is legislative leaders who have walked away from discussions.

"It is not the workers, it is not the people who actually add value to the state every single day," Boardman said.

In a conference call with reporters, Boardman and other labor leaders outlined what they'd like to see in pension legislation.

They want tax law changed to close what they call "loopholes" benefitting corporations. They want to make sure current retirees are not affected by the changes. And they say state funding of retirement benefits should be automatic and guaranteed.

Cinda Klickna is the president of one of Illinois' two big teacher unions.

"The pension crisis was caused by past governors and legislatures that failed the people of our state," Klickna said.

Klickna said union members have been paying for their retirement out of every paycheck, and should not have to pay for past decisions to underfund pensions.

“For decades, our members have made their payments to the retirement system, while the state has not," Klickna said. "Our members are asking, ‘What guarantee will the legislature make going forward, so that we protect tax payers, and pension system participants against a repeat of the bad  behavior that caused the pension crisis.’”

Consistent underfunding over the years is one of the main reasons the pension system is  roughly $85 billion short of what it needs to meet future obligations.

With Illinois talking about pension cuts, more than 4,500 state employees have retired in the past fiscal year. Roughly the same number of University employees also retired. That’s the highest in at least five years.

August 13, 2012

Lawmakers Return to Springfield to Deal with Pensions

Members of Illinois' General Assembly weren't supposed to return to the capitol until November, but they will be back in Springfield later this week for a special session. Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn has called for the special session on Friday to overhaul the state's pensions, even though lawmakers are still divided over the best way to do it.

There is an $83 billion gap in what the state has promised its employees they'll get when they retire, and what Illinois actually has in the bank. Legislators are in widespread agreement they have to do something to cut the state's pension costs.

In the spring, the Senate passed a measure that begins to do that, but it only applies to General Assembly members and state employees. Not affected are the benefits of public school teachers, university workers, and judges. That pushes aside having to resolve a dispute over how much school districts should have to pay versus the state.

But House Republicans say they won't back that partial solution.

"So it's a really significant bill, there's no question about the sufficiency of the bill, it's constitutional and it's already passed one chamber,"  Senator President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) responded. "So, I don’t know why the House Republicans wouldn't want to vote for it, I think it's a mistake."

The House GOP has said a measure that only deals with two pension funds is too weak, and lifts pressure on lawmakers to finish the job.

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