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Locals hit D.C. to lobby for projects

  • Steven Mitchell

    Steven Mitchell

By Geoff Ritter
Posted on 4/19/2019, 6:33 PM

A downtown transportation terminal, a new homeless shelter, additional beds at the hospital and more are potentially on the table for Carbondale, and area officials are discovering a renewed sense of cooperation as they come together to lobby for those projects and others.

Last week, a delegation of Jackson County leaders traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with lawmakers to discuss funding for a range of proposed projects within the city limits and beyond.

This was the second annual trip for the group, dubbed the Jackson County Community Partnership. Last week's delegation included Mayor Mike Henry; Steven Mitchell, economic development director for the city of Carbondale; Councilwoman Carolin Harvey; Carbondale Chamber of Commerce CEO Jennifer Olson; Woody Thorne, vice president at SIH; SIUC Interim Chancellor John Dunn and his chief of staff, Matt Baughman; Murphysboro Mayor Will Stephens; and local labor representatives.

Mitchell said the lobbying effort grows out of an emerging consensus that communities along the Route 13 corridor will benefit by working more closely together on projects that, while perhaps physically located in one city or another, stand to benefit the area as a whole.

"The purpose is to advocate for a number of projects not just in Carbondale, but around the whole region," Mitchell said. "It was a really strong coalition. We were presenting a common front, a united front."

While in Washington, the group met with Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, and also shared conversations with staffers for U.S. Reps. Mike Bost, Cheri Bustos and Rodney Davis.

At the top of Carbondale's priority list is securing funding for construction of a new multi-modal transportation center downtown that would replace the existing Amtrak station. The city is seeking a $14.64 million Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) grant to fund the project, with the city itself kicking in an additional $3.66 million to complete the project.

The city applied for the grant once before, and although its application was deemed "highly recommended," the program received 850 applications last year requesting a total of $12 billion in funding. Only $1.5 billion was available, according to City Manager Gary Williams, but the city was encouraged to apply again and has plans to do so this year.

"Overall, our app is really solid and there was little feedback to improve it for the 2019 funding cycle," Williams wrote in an email to the Times. "Funding notices are expected to be issued by the end of April for this year's program."

Also on deck for the city is exploring funding opportunities for moving the Good Samaritan House homeless shelter into the former dormitories located on East College Street, where the facility would merge in a sense with the warming center established in the same location earlier this year. The homeless shelter has seen increased demand in recent years, along with growing incidents related to mental health.

In addition, the city is hoping to focus lawmakers' attention on poor on-time performance problems with Amtrak as it operates along the Canadian National railroad tracks -- namely, that Canadian National routinely grants preference to freight trains over passenger trains along the Carbondale-Chicago route, leading to substantial delays.

As part of the delegation, SIH is lobbying for a bed expansion project at Memorial Hospital of Carbondale, an expansion to the SI Cancer Center in Carterville, and the establishment of a trauma center at Memorial Hospital. Murphysboro is lobbying for the Southwest Illinois Connector, a proposed expansion of Rt. 13/127 into four lanes from Murphysboro to Pinckneyville.

Mitchell said that in his years of working in economic development in southern Illinois, he has not always found neighboring communities so eager to work with one another. Now, however, Mitchell said area leaders are beginning to see the advantages that come with cooperating and speaking with one voice.

"We face a lot of challenges," Mitchell said. "This is a recognition that we're stronger together than we are apart."

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