All the king's horses and all the king's men

Downtown and Humpty Dumpty

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Politicians say stuff.

We must fight disinvestment in struggling communities. By using public money to leverage private dollars, we can make Skittles fall from the sky.

Then there is White Oaks Mall, downtown Springfield and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. Instead of Skittles, we face an Orange Julius rain, which is as yucky as it sounds.

Politicians had eight years to get their snuff together – that's how long ago the feds greenlighted a rail corridor expansion project that dooms the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency complex on North Grand Avenue.

Given eight years to get this right, why is government sending as many as 700 jobs to White Oaks Mall, where the state last summer paid $3.5 million for the former Sears store? It's the largest shift of jobs within municipal borders that anyone can remember.

"I don't get it," says former Ward 2 Ald. Gail Simpson, who observes that the east side, if not downtown, needs the EPA more than White Oaks Mall. Former Mayor Mike Houston, who left office in 2015 with the EPA building's fate clear, offers a bleak explanation.

"It's probably someone saying, 'It's sometime in the future, we'll worry about it sometime in the future,'" Houston says. "I think, really, it is a lack of planning overall."

This isn't Barney-gate, wherein a former furniture store became storage space for paperwork in a Rauner administration deal that benefited a company tied to political powerbroker and convicted felon Bill Cellini. It's worse. At least a document warehouse, which might presumably employ a security guard, went to the east side.

Alerted by Lisa Clemmons Stott, director of Downtown Springfield Inc., state Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, says that he made inquiries last summer and came away satisfied with the process, if not the result: Central Management Services, he determined, had followed the state's procurement code. "From all accounts, it looks like CMS did their job as they should have, to the letter of the law," Manar told me last month, before announcing that he's taking a job in the governor's office.

The problem, says the senator who is trying to bring a university to downtown, was that CMS couldn't find sufficient room for EPA employees at an upfront cost that would be lower than the mall. Why is there room for a university but not the EPA? There's time to plan for a university, Manar answers, but this had to be done now. The EPA must move by 2023.

In 2007, five years before the current EPA building's fate was sealed, the legislature passed a law: Historic downtowns should get special consideration when the state decides where to locate offices. "There doesn't seem to be any teeth in it whatsoever," Stott understates.

Determined politicians can accomplish much. Former alderman and Republican Party stalwart Irv Smith got bailed out with public money after he partnered with a ne'er-do-well developer with a basket of lawsuits to prove it. The result was new headquarters for the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce in a remodeled church – Dick Durbin was at the ribbon cutting.

Less fruitful has been a plan to create a downtown hotel with a bowling alley and rooftop bar promised by out-of-towners who haven't delivered despite the city dangling tax increment financing funds. The city council squabbles over TIF money for a languishing apartment project that is supposed provide a few dozen places to live in a dying business district. Meanwhile, hundreds of public jobs that require zero city subsidies are going where they're least needed.

Sangamon County Board Chairman Andy Van Meter pleads guilty, acknowledging that he and others sat on their you-know-what's while CMS did its thing. "I think we left this to the bureaucrats, and that was a mistake," admits Van Meter, who, along with city officials, attended monthly meetings on railroad relocation and says that no one demanded that the EPA move downtown or stay on the east side. Real estate negotiations are supposed to be secret, he notes, and says that he found out that the state had bought Sears in October-ish. The sale went down in August.

Manar says that legislation pushed by the Black Caucus to bolster investment in beleaguered areas will, hopefully, prevent this sort of thing from happening in the future. Terrific: The General Assembly can use Springfield as an object lesson. Not a sheet of drywall yet has been installed to convert Sears into office space, but everyone says that this is a done deal. "The ink might not be dry, but it's pretty close," says Rep. Mike Murphy, R-Springfield.

Gov. JB Pritzker, who talks about economic development and business incubators and investing in downtrodden places, can't say that his administration knew nothing. Murphy and Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield, say that they met with EPA director John Kim more than a year ago to discuss the pending move. Neither recalls White Oaks being mentioned. "We talked at great length about the desire to move it downtown," Murphy says. Butler says that shuttered Benedictine University, among other locations, was rejected.

In 2019, the governor crowed about a capital spending plan that included money for practically everything. "After years of disinvestment and passing the buck, we're reshaping our state for the future," Pritzker declared. But not, as it turns out, the capital city's future.

Downtown fell when state jobs left – it was pushed off its perch by politicians, and it doesn't appear that they'll help put it back together again. Humpty Dumpty might have been an egg who spoke from both sides of his mouth, but he was onto something when Alice asked whether it's possible to make words mean different things.

"The question is which is to be master – that's all," Humpty replied.

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