Sunday, December 23, 2007

McHenry County Convention and Events Center

The idea of a convention and events center for McHenry County has been raised. While I first had misgivings about the plan, on reflection I find it has merit. However, the proposal currently being pursued is not workable. An ecologically sensitive watershed is not the place to put a convention center, or a ball park.

McHenry County College’s mission is to provide higher level education to the McHenry County area. It is funded by property taxes for that express purpose. MCC should not shift its focus from this to commercial activities of a minor league ball park. MCC should stick to its original mission and consider expansion in that arena.

There is, however, a venue that is perfectly suited to support a convention center and hotel - one that has already been prepared for commercial use, with water, sewer, electric and telephone services already in place. I refer to the former Motorola building in Harvard.

The vacant Motorola building is perfectly suitable for reuse as a hotel and convention center. It is an open design with a large factory space that could easily be adapted to the new use. The site also has ample, well lit parking lots. Even if additional structure had to be built, it would still be better than destroying the Crystal Lake watershed.

Another advantage to the Harvard site is its proximity to the Metra commuter rail. The Metra rail not only carries passengers from downtown Chicago, but is also used for freight traffic. The addition of a freight yard in Harvard would allow for delivery of containers to and from the convention center.

The addition of east and west exit and entrance ramps on I-90 at Route 23 combined with improvements to Routes 23 and 14 would make the site competitive with the Stevens Center in Rosemont, the Allstate Arena, McCormick Place, and the new Sears Center. Harvard has easy access to O’Hare field via the Metra train service. It is also within easy reach of the Rockford and Milwaukee Airports. And it is within close proximity of Wisconsin’s tourist attractions.

Building a convention center in the Motorola site would provide much needed relief to the Harvard community, which was hard hit by the departure of Motorola. It would provide much needed long term employment to residents of Harvard and the surrounding communities. And it would stimulate the development of ancillary businesses to support and complement the convention center.

I cannot support the destruction of the Crystal Lake watershed. However, I can support the adaptive reuse of the Motorola site in Harvard.

Seasons Greetings

Sherrie and I wish everyone the Merriest of Christmases and a happy, healthy, and prosperous new year.

May peace and love fill your homes now and for all time.

In the immortal words of Tiny Tim, “God bless us, everyone.”

Bob and Sherrie Ludwig

Thursday, December 20, 2007

McCullom Lake

The job of protecting the water supply in McHenry county falls to the Health Department. These are the people that say your septic system has to be 75 feet from your well to keep you from getting sick.

It is also their job to verify that companies operating in McHenry County conform to standards that protect the air and water from contamination. Roam Haas maintained an unlined open lagoon as a waste pit for their chemical plant. It was the job of the Health Department and, by extension, the county board to insure the water supply for the surrounding communities was protected.

The “market is the cure for all ills” has been the ongoing mantra for more than 25 years. The theory is that market forces will protect us from abuses of business. The reality is far different. Market forces only guarantee that companies will do everything in their power to maximize profit. In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with that. But there is a far older and long tested adage that applies in the market place, “trust everyone, but count your change.”

The job of government is to level the playing field, to insure that the rights of the individual are not trampled by the forces of money and power. It is no accident that the first three words of the Constitution are “We the People.” The purpose of government, stated eloquently in the first paragraph of the Constitution is: “to form a more perfect union; to establish justice; to provide for the common defense; to promote the general welfare; and to secure the blessings of liberty onto ourselves and our posterity.”

One aspect of establishing justice, and promoting the general welfare is to insure that no person or group of people regardless of station or wealth is allowed to trample the rights of another. The companies in question have been operating in McCullom Lake for decades. The cost of a few wells to monitor the condition of the ground water surrounding these businesses would have been insignificant, especially compared to the cost of cleaning up contamination or the loss to the families in question.

Every four-year-old learns – you mess it, you clean it. The cost of holding these companies to the standards that would have prevented the contamination in the first place would have been far cheaper than the legal battle about to be played out. But none of this was done, so we are left with a bitter lesson, and the need to insure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated.

The determination of the responsibility of Roam Haas and Modine and the other companies involved in the McCullom Lake tragedy is now in the hands of the courts and twenty-twenty hindsight. Except, in this case, hindsight isn’t twenty-twenty. Time and changing circumstance have distorted the situation. An exact determination of responsibility will be difficult and expensive for all parties concerned. An answer is years and maybe decades away - too far removed for the satisfaction of the victims or their families. Rohm Haas will lose regardless of the outcome of the court case. The victims will lose because no amount of compensation will restore their lives. And the people of McCullom Lake will lose because of the cloud that now blankets their community. Only the lawyers will win.

It is unreasonable to expect that any kind of market force will compel business to protect the residents of a community, especially when the owners and operators of the business are remote from the community in which they operate. It is the job of government to defend the residents of the community.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Housing and Development

A perfect storm is poised to strike the McHenry County housing market. The combination of unmanaged development and the collapse of the sub-prime lending market threatens property values throughout the county. Home owners and in particular farmers, whose equity is bound up primarily in their land, and who acted prudently in obtaining their mortgages, are vulnerable to the imprudent acts of a few, many of whom do not even live in this state.

The McHenry county board never met a developer they didn’t like. Slack jawed and glassy eyed for every developer that walked in, the county board helped create an overabundance of housing, all based on the same $365,000 price range aimed to perpetuate an artificially inflated income standard, and price point designed to maximize the developers' and agents' profits. However, not everyone fits into the $93,000 per year income range needed to afford these homes.

When the market for these homes slowed, an unregulated lending industry lowered standards and aggressively marketed to those who would not normally qualify for these loans. This was done in the full expectation that any short term lack of profits would be overcome when the teaser rates expired and the lenders could increase the loan rates at will. These marginal borrowers cannot afford the loans at the inflated rates and now stand on the verge of default.

It’s easy to point a finger at the borrowers and say “caveat emptor, they should have known better.” But the lenders are not innocent either. The lenders had an obligation to their investors, and to the communities, to perform due diligence and not accept borrowers that fail to meet customary standards.

For all the finger pointing, the only true victims in this crisis are the people who played by the rules, bought wisely and managed their debt prudently. They have the bulk of their net worth tied up in their property, and stand to see the value of their investment evaporate because of the unethical actions of a few.

The hardest to be hit will be farmers. Farmers have the greatest proportion of their worth invested in their property. Crops may pay the bills from year to year, but the value of their land establishes their net worth. The failure of the sub-prime lending market will adversely affect the entire lending market, including the seasonal credit farmers use to operate.

Development must be managed to protect the current residents as well as provide for reasonable growth within the county. A mixture of homes designed to fill a broader income range more suitable to the actual market is needed to insure that a stable community can exist. The county board has an obligation to the residents that elect them to protect their interests. It is here that the current county board has failed the most.


All of the major routes in the county have to be improved to handle the increased demand being placed on them. A toll road exit at Route 23 would reduce some of the burden being placed on Route 20. If necessary, bypasses will have to be constructed to insure that towns don't suffer excessive traffic congestion. All of this will require coordination at the federal, state, and county level to accomplish the task.

McHenry county is currently operating under a five year $122 million transportation plan that provides for improvements on ancillary roads but totally fails to address the primary transportation issue facing the county. All of the major highways in the country are operating at or above peak capacity. The transportation plan does nothing to address this issue. Improvements to the feeder roads without addressing the deficiencies of the primary routes will do little to improve transportation in McHenry county and may, in fact, make the problems of the main routes worse.

The transportation plan includes 19 bridge projects totaling $12 million. All of these are replacements. While the plan does include funding for a biannual bridge inspection and emergency bridge repairs, there is no provision for regular bridge maintenance. The average cost of a bridge replacement in the plan is $619,000. The reserve for emergency bridge repairs is $30,000 per year. Bridge replacements are the most expensive and disruptive road projects that can be undertaken. There is more to bridge maintenance than patching the pot holes and striping the road surface. Any comprehensive plan must include maintenance of existing bridge structures to make best use of tax dollars. Without provision for comprehensive, regular maintenance, the county will stumble from one expensive replacement to the next.

We can no longer afford to maintain the status quo. The state of transportation in McHenry country is causing business to leave the country. Without an infrastructure that enables businesses to move their products, they cannot afford to operate in the county. As we lose businesses the burden shifts to the remaining residents. An ever deepening hole is being created that, if allowed to continue, will stress our communities to the breaking point.