Thursday, May 06, 2010

History of Theme Park Proposals in Southern Illinois

After last Saturday's announcement of a major new tourism and retail development more than one person has commented to me that they first thought it was about Busch Gardens, Marion's long-running urban legend that's been circulating for a quarter century.

It's not. Legoland is the park the developer has been trying to get, at least in its earlier incarnation at Glen Carbon. Whether its parent company, Merlin Entertainment, will look at Southern Illinois is not clear.

But Legoland isn't the first and neither is Busch Gardens (a project that has never been verified). The Tony Watkins Company, also of Glen Carbon, is still pursuing plans for Music City, Illinois, destination and convention resort in western Perry County near Pinckneyville.

Announced in 2007, Perry County officials were still publicly dealing with the developer the following year and the company is still promoting the county as a site of its North American plans on its website.

Even before the company arrived on the scene the land in question had been the subject of theme park interest and speculation for decades according to tourism people I've talked with over the years.

Going back a couple of decades we had the Amazing World of Superman proposed for Metropolis and an unnamed Silver Dollar City-type development pushed by area tourism promoter and operator Wayman Presley for three different locations in the western Illinois Ozarks.

Monday, May 03, 2010

History of Legoland and Southern Illinois

Saturday's announcement of a new destination shopping and entertainment center on Marion's north side did not mention Legoland, but that was part of the deal in its previous incarnation, and city officials believe it still is.

Up until last Thursday, April 29, Bruce Holland had been pushing the University Town Center development at Glen Carbon, Illinois, in the St. Louis Metro-East area. After opposition to the use of STAR bonds, the local state Rep. Tom Holbrook, dropped legislation that would create the state incentives.

At some point last week Southern Illinois lawmakers state Rep. John Bradley, D-Marion, and state Sen. Gary Forby, D-Benton, jumped on board. After a rash of meetings with the lawmakers, area mayors and economic development officials, Holland announced plans for the Marion project.

The clock though is ticking. House Speaker Michael Madigan wants to adjourn at the end of this week.

So what's the history on Legoland and the Midwest?

Four years ago Nick Varney, CEO of Merlin Entertainments Group, announced that his company was "actively engaged" in finding partners and a location for a fifth Legoland theme park. They already operated three in Europe and one in North America at Carlsbad, California.

The Theme Park Insider reported the news on Jan. 19, 2006, under a headlined time frame of "3 to 5 years":
Varney said that the company's goal is to develop its Legoland parks as "mini Disney Worlds," destination resorts attracting visitors over several days, rather than just destinations for local day-trippers. As a result, Varney suggested that Merlin might build new installations of its SeaLife and Dungeon amusements next to Legolands, as well as working with local governments and developers to encourage more tourist development around the parks.

Important for Marion and Southern Illinois is the following quote.
"We have three parks in Europe. Looking to the future, in the blue sky, I could see three parks in North America, too. With a Legoland here in Southern California, it does not take a genius to see the Midwest and the East Coast as potential new sites," Varney said.

Merlin Entertainment found its East Coast location at Winter Haven, Florida last year when it acquired the legendary Cypress Gardens site.

In the Midwest, they first looked at Kansas City before targeting the St. Louis region.

In June 2007, the city council at Columbia, Illinois, learned that St. Louis developer G. J. Crewe, which they had been working with since 2004 to develop the Columbia Crossings site, had landed the interest of Merlin to locate a Legoland as part of the proposed 2,000 acre development. Amazingly, the city backed out of the plan.

Skip forward a couple of years with a new developer, Holland, this time, and the idea of a suburban St. Louis Legoland resurfaces at Glen Carbon, Illinois, on the northeast side of the MetroEast.

Holland was able to get work with his local lawmakers to get the STAR bonds incentive legislation through the General Assembly in 2009, but Gov. Pat Quinn vetoed the bill with a change that only half of the state sales tax increment could be used rather than all of it.

Plans were to address that this year, but opposition grew from other MetroEast mayors over the retail development which they feared would threatened their own retail areas. That opposition killed the Glen Carbon proposal last week.

While Legoland officials have officially "downplayed" an Illinois location, company officials did approach Quinn last October while he visited Copenhagen to lobby the International Olympic Committee in support of Chicago's bid for the 2016 Olympics. For those who don't know, Lego is based in Denmark.

Holland probably didn't mention the park because he was still trying to sell Merlin Entertainment on Southern Illinois. Still the possibilities are tempting for area tourism. Holbrook's legislation provides an idea of the minimum investment on a theme park needed to qualify for the bonds - $100 million. That's an investment we can take to the bank.

On a lighter side, here's something we probably won't see in a Land of Lincoln Legoland.

NOTE: Also posted at the Southern Illinois Tourism News blog.

Abandoned Mines to Tourist Attractions?

First it was a baseball stadium a few years ago, now another St. Louis Metro-East developer wants to attract (at least) a themed hotel and indoor water park, (and possibly) a Legoland amusement park to the formerly blighted and mostly reclaimed mined lands on Marion's northwest side.

Bruce Holland of Holland Construction announced plans Saturday for a major destination retail and tourist center on the north side of Marion on hundreds of acres that include many abandoned strip mines.

The hotel he mentioned, the amusement park he didn't, though it was named as a target in a previous incarnation of this project that had been set for Glen Carbon, Illinois - the University Town Center which he pulled two days earlier due to opposition from mayors who didn't represent Glen Carbon.

Both the Southern Illinoisan and the Marion Daily Republican covered the announcement.

The presence of area mayors and politicians present other than Marion Mayor Robert Butler indicate two things, one they realize what a boost this would be for the entire region, and two, if the legislation is similar to the bill for Glen Carbon, they know towns within a 12 mile radius of the project would share in some of the sales tax increment generated.

The massive $395 million development would require the use of public Sales Tax and Revenue (STAR) bonds to finance the development, described in the earlier version of the project as "TIF districts on steroids" - an adequate comparison.

A standard Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district uses the new property taxes generated from the development to pay for the incentives. STAR bonds use the state's sales tax increment generated, shifting the burden (to the extent that one is created) from local property-taxing governmental bodies such as school districts to state government.

There will be much to debate about the proposal in the next few days as the legislation will have to be passed by lawmakers this week. However for now, let's just consider the history of the area targeted.

Developers are focusing on 350 acres of land mostly on the east side of Interstate 57 immediately north of Morgan Avenue. It's bounded on the north by Longstreet Road and I'm assuming on the east by Russell Street. There's also a roughly 40-acre tract west of the interstate, which I assume is the undeveloped land on The Hill behind Menard's.

The Hill development on the west side by Marion Heights LLC, and this project on the east side includes the well-defined strip mine belt that highlights the southern limits of the Herrin coal seam, a highly valued stratum of coal that's about 8 feet thick on average in Williamson County.

This belt of strip mines can be seen in the map as the band of brown. The large body of water on the left side is the strip pit that still exists north of McAlister Restaurant and west of Fairfield Inn.

The reason that the band exists is that the veins of coal in Southern Illinois generally slope up to the south due to the uprising of the Shawnee Hills. Thus, this band represents the area where coal companies could mine the coal from the surface.

In order for land to be considered for either a TIF district or a STAR district (based on the existing legislation), is that it has to be blighted. Abandoned mine lands pretty much meets everyone's designation for blight.

There were underground mines on the north side of this project that began in the closing years of the 19th Century, and the strip mining began in the 1920s. More than a dozen mines operated in this area, though the exact number is unknown even to the state's Office of Mines and Minerals.

Much of the stripped out area on the west side has been reclaimed for both the "The Hill" as well as Kokopelli Golf Club. This area also includes the modern-day locations of Drury Inn, Hampton Inn, 17th Street Bar & Grill, MidCountry Bank, Rent One Park and Menard's.

Strip mining began in this area in 1922 with Southern Illinois Coal Company's strip mine about a half mile north of the Williamson County Pavilion. It operated until the Herrin Massacre in June 1922.

Strip mining began closer to the modern I-57 / Route 13 interchange in 1924 when the Pyramid Coal Company began operating Pyramid Mine No. 1 in the area of the big strip pit on the left side of the map west of the modern Fairfield Inn. Its steam shovels dug 20 to 40 feet in places to mine the 7.5 foot thick on average Herrin seam of coal. They took out 920,480 tons of coal before Coal Stripping Company took over the the mine and renamed it Coal Stripping Mine No. 1 in 1928. They mined another 511,416 tons of coal through January 1931.

Meanwhile up on The Hill itself where Rent One Park is now located and the Southern Illinois Miners play ball, the Scottsboro Coal Company's Scottsboro Mine stripped the area in 1928 and 1929 producing 372,388 tons of coal.

To the east in the general location of the Menard's store and the land to the north, the McLaren Mining Company began stripping in 1948 and 1949 on the Herrin seam which was 25 to 35 feet below the surface. Beginning in 1950 through '55 (except for 1953 and 1954 when idle), it mined the deeper Springfield seam. Overall it produced 98,613 tons of coal.

Immediately north and possibly including some of the later stripped out area was the underground Peabody Mine No. 2. The Ohio and Mississippi Valley Coal & Mining Co. started production in 1897 on its Ohio & Mississippi Valley Mine No. 2. It operated until 1900 and produced 243,343 tons before the Southern Illinois Coal Mining and Washing Company took over renaming the mine the Southern Illinois No. 2 mine which mined 639,461 tons of coal from 1900 to 1904.

Peabody Coal Company took over the mine in 1904 and operated it as Peabody No 2. mine up through May 1916 producing 1,419,571 tons. Overall, the mine in its two-decade history produced more than 2.3 million tons of coal.

Peabody No. 2 was connected underground with Peabody's No. 1 mine that was located east of the interstate just north of the modern end of Peabody Lane (a small lane running north of Morgan Avenue in between Carbon and Russell Streets). Originally, the lane was the right-of-way for the railroad spur up to the mine.

Mine No. 2 mined the coal at 78 to 84 feet below the surface. The average thickness of the Herrin vein was 7 to 9 feet. To the east at Mine No. 1, the coal was anywhere between 21 to 90 feet deep. Some of this shallower parts of the mine were later stripped mine from the surface to take out the remaining coal the original miners had left.

Mine No. 1 started about the same time as No. 2, but with a different owner. Johnston & Reed sunk the mine in 1895 and produced 75,000 tons through 1896 when it was taken over by the Ohio & Mississippi Valley Coal & Mining Co. which operated the mine from 1896 to 1900.

The Southern Illinois Coal Mining & Washing Co. took over at the turn of the century and operated the Southern Illinois Mine No. 1 in 1900 and 1901. They produced 25,900 tons. The previous owners had produced 296,711 tons. Peabody's production was likely included in the No. 2 totals.

On the east side of the interstate there were a number of small operators.

One of the underground mines was the Wilson Mine operated by H. L. Wilson from 1923 to 1926, J. W. Wilson in 1927 and W. A. Wilson in 1928 and 1929, for a total production of 8,794 tons.

Another underground mine was located on The Hill's lands on the east side of the interstate which presumably pledged for this new development was likely the Bradley & Scullin No. 1 mine which operated from 1922 to 1924, then followed by other owners lost to history before Quality Coal Company took over in 1933 and operated it until 1941. It mined the Springfield seam. Quality mined 28,176 tons of coal during their control.

There was another underground mine along Russell Street north of Morgan. The Southern Jewel Coal Company operated their Southern Jewel mine from 1935 to 1939, producing 8,329 tons.

The strip mines seemed to come later on the east side.

The Wenzel Brothers Coal Co. operated Wenzel Mine about a quarter mile north of Morgan Avenue, just north of the trailer park, in 1964 to August 1965, mining a total of 27,520 tons.

Claude White Construction Company stripped out part of the Herrin seam just 6 to 35 feet below the surface in his North Side Mine in 1969. White came later in 1977 and over the next five years mined another 41,600 tons for a total of 48,680 tons produced.

Mr. White was the father of the late G. A. White, one of the three original partners of Marion Heights LLC, the developers of The Hill.

Arrowhead Coal Company operated their Arrowhead mine in 1978 and 1989 taking out the mining pillars abandoned in earlier underground workings about 20 feet below the surface. The produced 5,307 tons.

On the eastern edge of the proposed development in Section 12 was the Polinksi Mine operated by the Polinksi Coal Company in 1947 and 1948 which produced 14,021 tons and the Hamilton Mine or Consumers No. 1 mine in the area near and south of the intersection of North Russell and Longstreet.

State mining officials aren't sure if the last two mines were separate or the same one. Consumers Coal and Materials operated Consumers No. 1 mine from 1931 to 1938 producing 59,634 tons. The Hamilton Coal Company operated the Hamilton Mine around 1932, which was listed with the same production figures.

For more on this new development, particularly the possibility of a Legoland theme park, check out the post The History of Legoland and Southern Illinois.

For more on Williamson County's mining history and maps to the actual locations of the mines mentioned above as well as a hundreds of others in the county, check out the Williamson County Coal Data page at the Illinois State Geological Survey's site.