Illinois Public Media News

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - August 23, 2011

State Commerce Agency Says Tourist Spending Up in East Central Illinois

Tourism dollars were up in East Central Illinois in 2010. The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity cites figures from the U-S Travel Association showing that tourism dollars rose last year in Champaign, Vermilion, Douglas, Piatt, Ford and Iroquois Counties.

In Vermilion County, tourists contributed $70.5 million dollars to the local economy in 2010, up 6.2% from 2009.

Jeanne Cooke of the Danville Area Convention and Visitors Bureau says Vermilion County tourism dollars had dipped in 2009 to $66.34 million --- she blames the recession for cutting into business travel that year. But she says last year's showing brought the county back up to 2007 levels.

"We're really happy about that", says Cooke, "because we had anticipated that it might take us as much as three years to return to our 2007 figure."

Now, despite recent shocks to the national and global economy, Cooke hopes that a variety of things to do in Vermilion County will keep the tourists coming.

"For example, we just finished the Walldogs (outdoor mural) event", says Cooke. "The end of September, we have Civil War Days that brings people from all over annually. We have the NJCAA Division II Men's Basketball Championships. We have outstanding state and county parks --- 15,000 acres."

The DCEO says the economic impact of tourism in east-central Illinois ranged from $5.8 million in Piatt County to $266.1 million in Champaign County. Iroquois County, with $29 million in tourism dollars, saw the sharpest increase by percentage last year --- 8.4%. The figures are based on purchases of such things as restaurant meals, hotel rooms and gasoline by out-of-towners.

Summary of US Travel Association data released by DCEO: Economic Impact of Tourism in 2010

Champaign County: $266.1 million, up 5.9% Douglas County: $30.6 million, up 3.1% Ford County: $5.4 million, up 3.7% Iroquois County: $29.0 million, up 8.4% Piatt County: $5.9 million, up 5.3% Vermilion County: $70.5 million, up 6.2%


AP - Illinois Public Media News - August 23, 2011

Ind. Asks Residents to Report Tremors from Quake

Indiana residents who felt Tuesday's earthquake that shook the East Coast are being urged to report those tremors to a federal agency.

The state Department of Homeland Security and the Indiana Geological Survey is asking Hoosiers to submit online reports if they felt any tremors at 1:53 p.m. Tuesday, when a magnitude 5.9 quake centered below Mineral, Va., rattled the East Coast.

People as far away as Michigan have reported feeling tremors from that quake. The more data scientists receive from other states where citizens reported feeling the earth shift the more accurately they can gauge the quake's intensity and the area affected by it.

To report feeling tremors, people should go to the U.S. Geological Survey website. Then, they should click on the "Did You Feel It? - Tell Us!'' link.

Categories: Government, Politics, Science

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - August 23, 2011

Champaign Official Responds to Anonymous E-mail Alleging Police Favoritism

Champaign city manager Steve Carter says there are two sides to every issue, and he says it is only fair to hear the police department's reply to an anonymous e-mail alleging favoritism among its leaders.

But Carter said changes have been made, including some agreed to Monday by the city's Board of Fire and Police Commissioners

The e-mail alleges that reference material for a 2008 lieutenant's exam had been used twice before, giving an edge to veterans who had already taken it. The e-mail also contends Sgt. Tom Walker held an advantage since he is friends with Lt. Scott Swan, who helped develop the test, one that Walker scored highly on.

But Carter said that test didn't result in any promotions, and he said new safeguards are now in place when it comes to giving exams.

"We utilized an outside testing firm to do the work," Carter said. "Our human resources department oversaw the entire process. And outside of some general guidance in terms of 'here are the issues' - policies and procedures of the department, issues that are important to them - the department really wasn't actively involved in the development of any of the questions."

Carter said the Champaign Police Department has also changed the oral interview process, so that officers are no longer on interview panels. Another accusation concerns ratings within the department. Carter said the city has now included separate officer rankings from the police chief, deputy chief, and lieutenants, so the impact of any one person is limited in terms of promotions.

The e-mail was sent to city officials on Friday, the same day that Police Chief R.T. Finney announced he was retiring on Jan. 20, 2012. The note came from the e-mail address "cpdintegrity@gmail.com." Carter says he hasn't set a date for a response from the police department, but he said it's important to give the police department time to respond.

"Whether it's one employee or a group of employees, we're concerned about that, and want to respond appropriately," Carter said. "We want all of our employees to feel like they're being treated fairly inside the organization. That's not to say that it would be unusual to have a situation where there aren't some employees who are unhappy with decisions made by supervisors. I think that's kind of a normal part of business.

Categories: Government, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - August 22, 2011

Stage Collapse Lawsuits Could Challenge Ind. Same-Sex Marriage Rules

The first lawsuits filed over the Indiana State Fair stage collapse could challenge the state's rules on same sex marriage.

Attorney Kenneth Allen said his clients were recently married in Hawaii, a state that allows same sex civil unions. Beth Urschel was injured in the stage collapse. Her spouse, Tammy VanDam, died from the incident.

Allen said the lawsuits address a legal gray area in Indiana.

"Tammy was her wife and Beth is entitled to be treated as any spouse should be treated: fairly, equitably and justly under the law," he said Monday. "That's something we intend to challenge because as it stands now, Indiana law does not recognize her as a spouse and we expect to change that.

Allen said the court is the best place to address the issue because the state legislature hasn't taken action. Allen is seeking more than $50 million in damages on behalf of Urschel and the estate of VanDam.

Categories: Government, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - August 22, 2011

Victim of Ind. State Fair Stage Collapse to be Organ Donor

The family of a cheerleading coach from Ohio who suffered brain injuries when a stage collapsed at the Indiana State Fair says they've decided to "allow her to be at peace."

The family of 24-year-old Meagan Toothman says it became apparent Sunday night "that our Meagan was no longer with us." The family writes in an online journal posting that an organ donation surgery is planned for later Monday.

Marchele Hall of the Marion County coroner's office says Toothman is on life support at Methodist Hospital. Authorities earlier announced she had been pronounced dead.

Six others have died from injuries suffered when powerful winds toppled the stage onto fans waiting for the country act Sugarland to perform Aug. 13.

Categories: Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - August 22, 2011

Champaign Unit 4 Opens New Magnet Schools

One the two magnet schools starting up in Champaign Monday will immediately expose its students to other cultures and languages.

For the expanded and renovated Garden Hills Elementary, it's taken on an international baccalaureate program. Principal Cheryl O'Leary says students and visitors will right away notice the international hallway, representing the heritage of students from overseas.

She says each grade level will partner with a school from another country, and each student will learn Mandarin Chinese. And O'Leary says international baccalaureate schools are also required to focus on 10 learner profiles - words like inquiry, open-minded, and principled.

"We have those written above throughout the hallways in the building in five different languages for the children as they go through the halls " she said. "They'll have to know what it's like to be an inquirer and what it's like to be curious. So those are some of things that we'll be instilling in them pretty young during inquiry-based learning, and hoping that it continues on in their middle and high school years."

O'Leary says planning at Champaign Unit 4's district level should allow younger students, particularly those in kindergarten, to continue similar lessons once they reach middle school.

Just over 400 students attended Garden Hills last year. An April lottery was held for additional students wanting to attend the district's two magnet schools. That will boost Garden Hills' attendance to more than 520 this fall, near capacity for the building.

Unit 4's other magnet school opening Monday, the new Booker T. Washington Elementary, carries the STEM theme, or focusing on science, technology, engineering, and math.

School principal Asia Fuller-Hamilton says it's her hope that the students develop a love for science, have an appreciation for it as they grow older, and perhaps seek out a career in it. The program will allow the school to collaborate with the U of I's I-STEM initiative.

Fuller-Hamilton says lessons integrating the subjects will literally be all around the students.

"We want to be able to answer the question, 'Why do I need to do this math problem? Why do I need to learn this about these people, or about this in science?' We try to show them how it all goes together," she said. "And actually, the way that the building is built, it allows them to do that. The gym has geometric shapes as well as area and diameter math concepts on the flooring."

The school itself includes laptops for students, conference rooms at every grade level, art and music rooms, and a reservoir for rain water in order for students to maintain a garden. Prairie grass will be planted outside, keeping students from having to travel to a park to connect with those lessons.

About 300 students will attend the new Booker T. Washington school this fall.

A tour of Champaign's Booker T. Washington Elementary School from Illinois Public Media on Vimeo.

 

Categories: Education, Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - August 19, 2011

Champaign Police Chief Stepping Down

The city of Champaign will start looking for a new police chief to take over when current chief R.T. Finney retires.

Finney has announced his decision to step down Jan. 20, 2012. In a press release, Finney said he is leaving with joy and trepidation after more than 30 years in the law enforcement profession. He became chief of police in Carbondale in 1999 and took the top post in Champaign four years later.

"I entered into law enforcement over 30 years ago as a civilian employee and since that time I have enjoyed working in every facet and position that law enforcement has to offer," Finney said in a statement.

Champaign city manager Steve Carter said Finney managed to help the police department earn its first accreditation and boost police community relations.

"We probably are doing a lot more as a police department in terms of trying to reach out to the community now than we ever have," Carter said. "R.T. has been very supportive of expanding those outreach efforts in the community."

Finney was one of the first two officers to respond to the incident that led to the 2009 police-shooting death of teenager Kiwane Carrington. Carter said efforts to improve citizens' image of police continue.

Carter noted that a search for Finney's successor will begin immediately, though a new chief might not be in place by the time Finney retires.

(Photo by Jim Meadows/WILL)


AP - Illinois Public Media News - August 19, 2011

Regional School Chiefs Sue to Get Paid by State

Illinois' 44 regional school superintendents have gone to court to get paid by Gov. Pat Quinn.

The Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools filed a lawsuit in Sangamon County Friday seeking paychecks the Democratic governor cut off in July.

Bob Daiber is president of the superintendents' association. He says Quinn's action is "totally unfair.'' He says the chiefs didn't want to file a lawsuit but have "exhausted all options'' in trying to resolve the issue with Quinn.

The elected school chiefs inspect local public schools, do employee background checks, certify teachers, operate area alternative schools and more. But Quinn calls them unnecessary bureaucrats and halted more than $10 million to operate their offices for the budget year that began July 1.

The superintendents have worked without pay since.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - August 19, 2011

Champaign County Nursing Home Looking at Single Rooms as Revenue Source

The manager of the Champaign County Nursing Home says it's exploring the idea of offering more private-pay rooms for single patients to boost revenue.

Mike Scavatto told the Champaign County Board Thursday night that a drop in Medicare revenue has dealt what he calls a 'significant blow.' And he says nursing homes everywhere are seeing a delay in state Medicaid reimbursements. Republican and Nursing Home Board of Directors member Alan Nudo says he suggested the single room idea as a revenue stream.

"I think the board kind of said 'let's just go forward with it,' he said. "We don't have to have a flat-screen TV in there or cable hook-up at this stage. Let's just try to put in single rooms. And that still gives us plenty of room for Medicare and Medicaid beds."

Nudo suggests setting up just over 20 private rooms could bring in an extra $100-to 200-thousand. Scavatto says more amenities could be added when the nursing home can afford them.

As another long-term upgrade, the county nursing home wants to add renal dialysis equipment. Scavatto says not many homes offer it, and that could serve as a census builder, allowing residents to receive care in the home instead of forcing them to ride a bus to a medical center.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - August 19, 2011

Champaign County Board Backs High-Speed Rail Measure

The Champaign County Board has gone on record backing high-speed rail in the Midwest.

The board supported the non-binding resolution on a 15-to-8 vote Thursday night. Republicans Jonathan Schroder and Brad Jones joined all the board's Democrats in supporting the concept. Most Republicans argued that the U.S. is hardly in a financial position to pay for the rail system, saying what funds we do have should be used to keep up current infrastructure.

Aaron Esry said the state and the U.S. don't have any money for such a project, and won't for some time.

"I don't see how we can sit here and ask potentially more taxpayer money to be spent on another program at this point and time," he said. "Get our fiscal houses -- both the state and federal -- in shape, and we can look at this. At this point and time, I'm not going to vote for it."

But Democrat Tom Betz said this country should take the lead seen in places overseas, where high-speed rail networks present a real economic advantage.

"I personally don't expect to see it happen in my lifetime in this country, and in this area," he said. "I think there are places on the East Coast where it might be more effective. But the idea of abandoning this idea strikes me as not a very open, progressive thing to do."

Meanwhile, Democrat Michael Richards cited a feasibility study underway at the University of Illinois, and the ability for private investors to help support high-speed rail. The U of I is heading up the $1.2 million study to study financing options. The results are expected by the end of 2012.

The Champaign County Board's vote came a few hours after the executive director of the Midwest High Speed Rail Association spoke in Champaign, discussing the potential for a high-speed line to Chicago. Rick Harnish said the 220-mile an hour trains would mean reaching downtown in 45 minutes, and O'Hare International Airport in just over an hour, connecting the University of Illinois to the international world.

"It becomes easier to attract the kind of staff that really keeps the U of I on the map," he said in an afternoon press conference. "It becomes easier to keep the young people that are coming here to the university - to keep them here, so that when they come up with a great idea at U of I, they can stay here and develop that."

Harnish's group calls for the 'bullet' trains, along with modernized 90-mile an hour Amtrak trains linking areas in the Midwest.


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