Top story of 2012: TiF district implemented in Paxton

The year saw its share of big headlines — from the implementation of Paxton’s long-awaited tax increment financing district to the re-opening of the city’s swimming pool and a shocking murder in Gilman. There was also a surprise visit from a popular TV show to a man’s home in Gibson City and the hiring of new principals in the PBL school district. Choosing the top 10 stories of 2012 was no easy task.

1 — TIF district implemented in Paxton, finally

Finally, after five-plus years of planning, Paxton’s long-awaited tax increment financing (TIF) district was implemented in December. The TIF district is expected to have a major impact on the city’s future for the next 23 years and beyond. It will provide incentives for developers to pursue a number of residential, commercial and industrial projects around the Interstate 57 interchange and provide reimbursements for property owners downtown to improve the appearance and conditions of their buildings.

City officials plan to aggressively pursue the development of land around Interstate 57 now that the economic tool is implemented. Among projects expected to be started in 2013 is the development of land owned by Rantoul developer Joe Warner, who has submitted to the city a lofty proposal to build hundreds of new homes, a senior-living community and a variety of restaurants, retail stores and manufacturing facilities around the highly traveled interstate. The council approved the implementation of the TIF district more than five years after Warner first approached the city and pitched a proposal to develop land he would later buy near the interstate.

Meanwhile, an agreement between the city and the Paxton-Buckley-Loda school district will assure the city’s schools that they will not be negatively impacted by such growth. The agreement commits $6.5 million in tax revenue generated by the TIF district for capital improvement projects the school district intends to pursue to address needs that result from development.

The TIF district will start generating revenue only after properties are developed or improved and their assessed values are changed to reflect their higher values. Over the TIF district’s 23-year life cycle, an account under the city’s control will receive all of the new property tax revenue created following development that is beyond what taxing bodies already receive from those properties. The city can then use the funds to reimburse property owners’ costs.

2 — Murder at Gilman gas station shocks community

The Oct. 27 murder of Christ Lutheran High School graduate Jonathan D. Rubin, 27, of Danforth at the Shell gas station in Gilman on Oct. 27 shocked the community. But perhaps even more shocking was the revelation that the man accused of the murder, Andrew M. Condon, 33, of rural Ashkum, allegedly shot Mr. Rubin to death after being denied the sale of a pack of cigarettes. “He was upset about it. He made a scene,” Iroquois County State’s Attorney Jim Devine said. Condon returned to the store about “115 to 120 minutes later,” allegedly firing multiple shots at Mr. Rubin and leaving him for dead in a storage room, Devine said. Police identified Condon as a suspect through surveillance video. Bullets and shell casings found at his property were determined to be from a Glock 9-mm handgun — a forensic match with the murder weapon, Devine said. Mr. Rubin, a native of the Woodworth and Milford areas, was a 2003 graduate of Christ Lutheran High School in Buckley. He was described as an excellent student who was consistently on the school’s honor roll, earned the American Legion Award his senior year and was named co-valedictorian.

3 — Plans for Coady Park: Dog park, community garden

The number of improvements at Coady Park proposed in 2012 was extraordinary, with a dog park, community garden, pavilion, new volleyball and basketball courts and a storage shed all among the additions planned. A new room was also built on the south end of the Paxton Civic Center at Coady Park, making way for a new home for the Paxton Community Nursery School. And all of those improvements are on top of the Paxton Park District’s resurrection of the Paxton Community Sale last spring — the event was held at the park and attracted hundreds of people. In the past year, local park board members have shown a willingness to improve the park district’s grounds by considering any proposal put in front of them. Their proactive approach to progress shows what a government body can do when working with the community to accomplish a common goal.

4 — Swimming pool re-opens after being closed all of 2011

Closed for almost two years, the Paxton Park District’s outdoor swimming pool finally re-opened to the public in June. The pool had been closed all of summer 2011 — for the first time in its 45-year existence — because its main drain was not compliant with newly enforced state regulations related to the safety of suction outlets. A community fundraising effort generated some $70,000 toward the renovation of the pool’s drain, but it turned out most of that money was not even needed. The drain fix ended up costing the park district $3,850 — well under initial estimates. Kitty Anderson, the president of the Save Our Pool Committee — the group that raised the funds for the drain fix — visited the pool for a swim on its opening day, after a state health department inspector had given final approval to go ahead and open. It was clear to her that all the hard work along the way was worth it. “It was great to see the kids,” Anderson said. “They were all so excited. They were all trying to do flips. There were a lot of belly-flops at first. They got into the rhythm. I talked to a few of them. They were real excited it was open. This was done for the children of Paxton.” The pool’s opening also meant the local swim team could compete again after a one-year hiatus.

5 — “American Pickers” comes to Gibson City man’s home

A newspaper in Danville ran a story in September that quoted the economic development director of Vermilion County, expressing disappointment that Vermilion County didn’t get picked for a visit by the “American Pickers” television show. That same week, the Paxton Record ran a story announcing that the show had made a stop by the Gibson City home of Ray “Beetle” Leisure. The History Channel show put out a call to chambers of commerces in all of Illinois, asking them to help find candidates for the show. Leisure, who says he has five buildings crammed full of antiques, heard about the opportunity and put in his name.  In September, the show’s hosts, Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz — two of the most skilled “pickers” in the antique business — stopped by Leisure’s home on South Church Street to film a segment for the show. Crowds of Leisure’s neighbors and “American Pickers” fans waited outside to get a glimpse of Wolfe and Fritz, who took breaks between filming to sign autographs and pose for photos. “We never seen so many people (in front of our house). ... There must have been 500 cameras out there (on the street),” Leisure said. “They probably got a better view than I did.” An air date for the episode featuring Leisure has not been set yet.

6 — Theft of funds from Paxton park district, village of Cissna Park

There were two arrests made in 2012 in connection with the theft of funds from government bodies. The first arrest came in February, when Beth Tabor (above-left), a former administrative assistant for the Paxton Park District, was charged with felony theft for allegedly stealing approximately $50,000 from the district over a four-year period. Investigators recovered numerous items from her home that were believed to have been purchased for personal use while she was employed by the park district from 2006 until May 2011, police said.  Park district officials were saddened by the news of Tabor’s arrest. “If the allegations prove to be true, then it’s definitely unfortunate,” said Recreation Director Neal McKenry. Then, in December, a former village clerk and bookkeeper/collector for the village of Cissna Park was arrested and charged in connection with the theft of “well in excess” of $100,000 from the village. Rhonda Sue Siebert (above-right)  was fired for undisclosed reasons in September as collector and bookkeeper, an appointed position she held in addition to serving as the elected village clerk. She also resigned as clerk during the same meeting. Sheriff Derek Hagen said the theft of the money occurred over a period of time dating back to 2006.

7 — New principals hired in PBL, GCMS school districts

When Paxton-Buckley-Loda Junior High School Principal Dave Snider took another job leading a high school near his hometown of Carlinville in April, the PBL district wasted little time filling the job. The school board turned to Josh Didier, who had been principal of Clara Peterson Elementary School in Paxton, to fill Snider’s shoes at the junior high. The board then scrambled to find a replacement for Didier at Clara Peterson. In June, the board ended up hiring Amanda Wetherell, a first-grade teacher at Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley Elementary School, as the new principal at Clara Pete.

Meanwhile, a month later the GCMS district began its own search for a new principal, when GCMS High School Principal Mike Lindy submitted his resignation, effective Oct. 1, after Lindy accepted a job as superintendent of the El Paso-Gridley school district. The GCMS school board then hired Chris Garard, who had been an assistant principal at Rantoul Township High School, as the new GCMS High School princpial. The 46-year-old Garard is a native of Gibson City. “This is a chance to go home,” he said. “The opportunity to come back after 25 years and bring my experiences back to my community is really exciting.”

8 — Paxton man charged with allegedly leading drug-trafficking ring

The news broke in September that a Paxton man — Eddi S. “Migo” Ramirez — had been charged in federal court with drug-trafficking charges, alleging he oversaw the distribution of large amounts of cocaine throughout Central Illinois. The U.S. Attorney’s Office later announced in a press conference that Ramirez was among 18 people charged in connection with an investigation into cocaine trafficking in Illinois. The investigation led to the seizure of more than 10 kilograms of cocaine, three kilograms of heroin and $856,000 in cash. Ramirez, of the 200 block of East Pine Street in Paxton, was arrested Aug. 31 near Staunton,  after returning from Memphis, Tenn.; he has been ordered detained in federal law enforcement custody.

9 — Engelbrecht makes grill given by Obama to UK prime minister

Chris Engelbrecht put Paxton on the international map in March. Engelbrecht, who operates Engelbrecht Grills & Cookers in rural Paxton, was contacted in early 2012 by the U.S. government to build a grill that would be given as a gift by President Barack Obama to David Cameron, prime minister of the United Kingdom. After agreeing to complete the top-secret project, the grill made headlines in March when the gift exchange occurred. For his efforts, Engelbrecht was invited to the White House for a welcoming ceremony for Mr. Cameron and his wife, Samantha, and then was treated to a lunch at the State Department building where he was surrounded by many nationally and internationally known figures. “Hillary Clinton talked about the grill at the luncheon. The vice president talked about it,” he said. Engelbrecht made several appearances on national and international television that same week.

10 — Weather: Drought in summer, mild winter, Christmas tree blown over

The weather was a big story throughout the year. The mild winter of 2012 came as a good thing for Paxton and Ford County. It meant Paxton’s street department had lots of road salt left over for 2013. But the unusual weather continued throughout the year. One of the worst droughts to ever hit the area persisted for months in the summer, resulting in poorer-than-average yields for Ford County’s corn and soybean crop.

Then came a severe wind storm just before Christmas. The wind storm blew down the Christmas tree in downtown Paxton — the first time that has ever occurred. The Christmas tree in downtown Gibson City almost had the same fate, if not for the city’s street crew bringing a backhoe to the scene to keep it securely upright, Gibson City Mayor Dan Dickey said.

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