‘If you rattle our cage ...’

Lisa Depies
STATE?SEN. TIM?BIVINS, second from right, addresses a town hall meeting on the Hennepin?Canal. Bivins was joined by, from left: Rep. Don Moffitt, Sen. Dale Risinger and Rep. Jerry Mitchell.

When construction on the Hennepin Canal finished a century ago, the waterway was considered built too small and too late to be useful in the railroad era.

Not wanting the canal, the Corps of Engineers turned it over to the State of Illinois, and, for many years, the 104-mile waterway struggled to find its identity.

Though it may once have been unloved, the formerly obsolete canal is a thriving state parkway beloved by nearly everyone ... everyone that is, except Illinois state governor Rod Blagojevich.

The governor originally earmarked two dozen historic sites and state parks, including the canal, for closure. Historic sites were slated to close Oct. 1, with state parks to follow Nov. 1. However, in mid-September the governor extended those dates to Oct. 15 for historic sites and Nov. 30 for parks.

For many, the fact that the sites are being considered for closure at all is absurd, and, on Sept. 17, more than 400 concerned citizens attended a town hall meeting in the Geneseo High School auditorium.

Led by State Senators Tim Bivins (R-Dixon) and Dale Risinger (R-Peoria), as well as State Representatives Don Moffitt (R-Galesburg)?and Jerry Mitchell (R-Rock Falls), the meeting gave citizens a chance to vent their frustrations and concerns over the proposed closing of the Hennepin?Canal.

“The governor doesn’t recognize the upheaval he’s created,” said?Bivins. “He’s done this for purely political reasons. Reward and retribution is the style of this administration.”

The governor has said he’s closing the historic sites and state parks as a cost-saving measure, but state representatives present at the Geneseo meeting pointed out the sites all bring in more revenue then they cost to operate.

“If the problem is a shortage of funds, why cut off a revenue generator? That’s just backwards,” said Moffitt.

The funding issue should be moot, said the state officials, because the House of Representatives has passed a fund sweep, which would enable funds to be restored to the parks and historic sites.

The senate hasn’t had a chance to vote for the funding because senate president — and Blagojevich supporter — Emil Jones has yet called the senate back to vote on the issue.

“I don’t like fund sweeps, but if it comes before the senate, I’ll vote for it. It’s the lesser of two evils,” said Risinger. Fund sweeps involve funneling excess funds in other state accounts into areas where the money is needed.

“Maybe we need to sell the governor’s plane. Then we’d have a little money for our parks.?I’ll even give him the address for eBay,” said Bivins.

In addition, if the Hennepin Canal is closed, the state could face a loss of federal transportation dollars and could have an ecological and environmental disaster on its hands if the closed canal breaks free from its channel.

“There is no planning in this administration. We just go from crisis to crisis,” said Mitchell.

“If we get past this crisis, then the governor will go and figure out another fight to have with downstate. If he wants his fights, he should keep them in Chicago. Their politics just don’t work downstate,” he said. “The governor doesn’t understand.?If you rattle our cage, you’re going to hear from us.”

The elected officials at the Sept. 17 meeting said the state closings were “regional, not partisan.”

As it stands, if the Hennepin Canal Parkway closes, any visitor using the canal or its adjoining bike path would be considered trespassing.

But Henry?County?Sheriff Gib Cady told the assembled crowd he had an idea of how to handle the situation.

“The Henry County Sheriff’s department is very, very small, but I’ve got to do what the law says,” said Cady adding, tongue-in-cheek, “So, what I’m going to do is give a letter of authority to any volunteers who want to help me seek out violators.?I’ll need these volunteers to walk or bike along the canal and report criminal activity. I might need 20,000 or 22,000 volunteers, and if that’s not enough, I might need more.

“This is absolutely ridiculous,” added the sheriff to loud applause from the crowd.

Henry County State’s Attorney?Terry Patton echoed Cady’s sentiments. “I will always prosecute people causing problems on state land, but nobody in?Henry County is going to be prosecuted for trespassing just because the governor is going to shut down the canal.”

The two-hour town hall meeting gave area citizens a chance to address concerns over the closing, and many took the opportunity to share their opinion.

“This is part of our history.?Is it worth saving a couple of bucks to let a hundred years of history waste away?” asked Geneseo High School student Jim?Rudy.

“The Hennepin Canal is unique, certainly in Illinois and perhaps in the United States. We cannot let this happen. We owe it to our grandchildren to keep the canal alive,” said  Gary Wagle, president of Friends of the Hennepin?Canal.

“The Hennepin Canal is why I moved to Geneseo 20 years ago,” said Richard Detmer. “This isn’t just about tourism dollars, this is about quality of life.”

“How many of the closings fall east of I-39 or north of I-80??Zero,” said Atkinson mayor Guy Pauley.

“It’s time to get Springfield back as the state capital,” said Dan?Dauw of Colona.

Mel Snook of Geneseo called the Hennepin Canal a “gem” and said, if adequate funding was provided to the canal “We could have a state park that would be unrivaled.”

Risinger, Moffitt, Mitchell and Bivins all encouraged area residents to continue to send letters to the governor. “With a grassroots effort, you can change this,” said Mitchell. “Every letter I receive, I will personally hand deliver to the governor’s office.”

“I put the blame for this squarely on the governor’s shoulders,” said Bivins. “Have you ever visited a state park, governor?”