By Herb Meeker
News Report Staff
Effingham City Council on Tuesday approved a $50,000 contribution to the Effingham County Regional Growth Alliance with the council chambers full of Alliance supporters.
But the vote was still close with Mayor Jeff Bloemker and Commissioners Kevin Willis and Kevin Esker in support of the Alliance membership payment, while Council members Merv Gillenwater and Don Althoff were opposed.
This is not the first time that the Alliance contribution has divided the council membership. Gillenwater was critical of the Alliance that draws monetary contributions from 60 local businesses as part of a public and private partnership created to help commercial growth in Effingham.
Gillenwater said the Alliance has changed its goals over the years it has appealed to the council for money, and that makes it difficult to create a tangible result from all the money invested.
“I wish I could be that positive,” Gillenwater said to the audience and the different speakers in support of the Alliance. “We just can’t keep giving and hope you do better next year.”
Althoff said he would be supportive of giving more money to the Alliance if it was placed in a city-controlled fund. The contributions made to the Alliance are under control of the Alliance leadership and members.
Gillenwater also suggested the city contribution be set aside and shared with the Alliance when there was a tangible project or investment emerged.
Mayor Jeff Bloemker noted how many successful community leaders were in the audience and how their spirit has helped Effingham grow.
“I don’t want to dampen the spirit of the people in this room. I think we should support this,” Bloemker said.
Several speakers – Jake Niebrugge, Dean Bingham, Joe Fatheree and Newlin Martin — used the speaker card privilege to explain work done so far by the Alliance and the potential that certain projects have for helping the Effingham County economy. Those include financing of housing need surveys; identification of investors; engagement with Lake Land College for a computer coding school in Effingham; and working with the Intersect Illinois Leadership Circle and seeking a United States Department of Agriculture grant for establishing a Self Help Housing Program in the county.
In addition, the Alliance provides monthly sales reports, a strategic plan update and information on cooperative industrial property development in the city.
Bingham, of Agracel, said Effingham could invest more in economic development through the Alliance. He noted Columbus, Mississippi, a town with a budget similar to Effingham’s, invests $450,000 in business recruitment and growth, a figure matched by the county there.
Fatheree, an educator and private consultant, said it is important to invest in the future now.
“Long-term systematic planning is needed. I don’t want to be in a community that is afraid of the future, but one that takes advantage of the future,” Fatheree said.
Martin, whose family has invested in Effingham for 80 years, said this community is in “a sweet spot in Illinois,” and Effingham is “a community that people come to.”
“I agree that $50,000 is a drop in the budget for doing this,” he said.
Lake Land College President Josh Bullock said Craig Nielson, who is the new director of the Alliance, showed the cooperative spirit of the organization when he reached out to Lake Land soon after he started. That has jumpstarted the computer coding education effort.
“Economic development takes time and a willingness to take risks,” Bullock said.
In other business, the council voted 3 to 2 against issuing a Class R liquor license to Lucky Dogs Bar, planned to be located at 302 N. Mulberry St., at the Family Video Complex. The restaurant license only allows alcohol consumption sales. The petitioner is CL Quik Stop of Belvidere, Inc. This would increase the number of local R licenses to 11.
The council voted down the request by a vote of 3 to 2 with Althoff, Willis and Esker opposed and Mayor Bloemker and Commissioner Gillenwater in favor of the license.
Representatives of Lucky Dogs Bar were frustrated by the decision and tried unsuccessfully to speak to the council before the close of the meeting. After the meeting, Willis explained this issue had come up before with another business trying to open a bar for food sales. The concern then and Tuesday night was whether this was camouflage for opening a gambling parlor at the site. The Lucky Dogs Bar group left the council chamber before they could be asked for comment.