Here are excerpts of editorials that appeared in newspapers around Illinois.

Sept. 11, 2020

Chicago Sun-Times

As Starved Rock grows crowded during pandemic, why not expand?

The number of visitors who showed up each month this summer at Starved Rock State Park rivaled the totals the park normally saw over an entire year two decades ago.

Many of those visitors had been going a little stir-crazy at home during the pandemic. They were looking to sequester safely in the great outdoors. But in doing so, they put a big strain on the trails and facilities in a park that Condé Nast Traveler in 2018 rated the most beautiful place in all of Illinois.

It would be nice if Illinois could spread all those new visitors over a larger scenic area, easing the crunch while turning no one away. And as it happens, there is an obvious solution.

Two years ago, the state purchased about 2,600 acres — roughly the size of Starved Rock State Park — right next to the iconic park. The newly purchased site is also close to the nearby 1,938-acre Matthiessen State Park and the 234-acre Margery Carlson Nature Preserve.

The scenic land, bisected by the Vermilion River, has trails on it that could be made handicapped-accessible, which most of Starved Rock’s trails are not. It could add to the area’s reputation as a Midwestern jewel of nature. But the land remains closed to the public.

When the previous owner, Lone Star Industries, ended its mining operations and sold the land, employees there already were using the trails for recreation. The acreage includes a lake, a waterfall, bluffs and the Wildcat Rapids, the state’s only stretch of rafting-suitable whitewater.

People hike their way into the site now, but at the risk of a $195 ticket from a conservation officer.

Right now would be an excellent time for the state, which invested $11 million to buy the land in 2018 through the state’s Open Land Trust, to open at least some of it to the public. When the state announced the land purchase with much fanfare, officials envisioned campgrounds, restored forests, canoe and kayak access, cross country skiing, fishing, wildlife habitat and picnic areas. And the Illinois Department of Natural Resources says it is actively “reviewing and charting” the property.

Yet so far, the whole thing remains off limits.

“After the state acquired the property, it has been curiously quiet about what the plans are,” one conservationist told us.

We get that at a time when the state has big budget problems, it might not be able to open up the 2,600 acres all at once. As the DNR points out, access points for rescue personnel and staff are needed. Signs and guard rails must be installed. Trails must be inspected and perhaps upgraded. Debris must be removed.

But the land can be accessed from existing parking lots, which generally are a major expense for opening public parkland. Existing restrooms also are conveniently situated.

This should make it easier for the state to undertake a “soft opening,” in which visitors would be invited to use those areas that are the safest and most accessible. Other parts of the new parkland that are more remote, require extra safety investment or are in need of major construction, such as campgrounds, could be opened later.

Because the existing parking lots sometimes fill up even now, the combined parks wouldn’t necessarily be able to accommodate many more visitors at the busiest times. But those who do come could really spread out.

The peak of this year’s outdoors season is coming to a close, but expanding the acreage open to the public could be considered by the Legislature when crafting next year’s state budget.

Starved Rock and Matthiessen were temporarily closed for cleanup after heavy storms on Aug. 10. And now, we’re hearing suggestions that, even after the cleanup, some trails need to be closed to allow them to recover from overuse.

That would make it all the harder for people who are eager to a break loose from home confinement during the pandemic to get out and enjoy, safely, the best of nature that Illinois has to offer.

Why not open up more scenic land instead?

Sept. 14, 2020

Chicago Tribune

Winter dining is coming. Start building the yurts

Our favorite combat-the-coronavirus idea is called “Dibs Dining,” and it’s exactly what you’re thinking: carryout to be consumed while seated at a card table on a just-shoveled patch of asphalt. Curbside dining at its Chicago-est finest.

If that doesn’t speak to this city’s spirit of ingenuity, and wit, in the face of economic adversity, well, there are more than 640 other ideas to choose from in the “City of Chicago Winter Dining Challenge,” a citywide design contest intended to spur creative thinking for the dining scene as temperatures fall. It offers a $5,000 cash prize to three winners. Winners will be announced later this month. Hey, suburbs: Get into the action with a competition in your town, too.

The ideas? Lots of domes, yurts and nosh pods. A surprising number of suggestions involving unused school buses. And more varieties of heated tables, chairs and blankets than you knew possible. Oh, and something involving baked potatoes. You’ll have to find that one.

It’s a clever effort to help a restaurant industry that has been pummeled by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and, to a smaller degree, a summer of civil unrest. Nearly 600,000 people across Illinois work in restaurant and food service jobs, and the Illinois Restaurant Association estimates more than half of them have been laid off or furloughed during the pandemic. Analysts from Technomic say the U.S. restaurant industry is on track to lose up to $300 billion in sales this year compared with 2019.

The Tribune’s running list of shuttered restaurants in the Chicago area has topped 50, and probably doesn’t account for dozens more tiny mom-and-pop spots that couldn’t make it. The corner diner. The taqueria. The all-night gyro shop. So many favorite places, gone. Eater Chicago also maintains a running list of closures, including some suburbs, and the list dating to mid-May is miserably long and probably incomplete as well.

For a few warm months, restaurants with patios and sidewalk space got a boost. The city eased some of its draconian regulations to allow for more creative outdoor solutions, and even with mask requirements and social distancing, dining outside felt almost — dare we say — normal. Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office also experimented with street dining, allowing neighborhoods throughout the city to block off streets for mass outdoor dining. That’s an option we hope stays in the mix even after the pandemic becomes less of a public health threat.

The reality, though, is that most of us haven’t been eating out much, if at all. We order carryout to support our local favorites, and maybe we’ve hit the fast-food drive-thru more often than we’d like to say. But restaurants are struggling to survive. And now … winter is coming.

So, it was heartening to see such innovative suggestions for Chicago winter dining. We don’t know who the contest winners will be, but we hope every restaurant owner, every neighborhood business association, every alderman will look for inspiration among the long list of ideas — and find ways to make them work, for the benefit of restaurant owners, workers and diners.

Here’s one to get started: neighborhood restaurant collectives. The idea is for the city to make it easier for groups of restaurants in a common area to pool resources and share covered, heated outdoor dining spaces. Other ideas call on the city to turn large public spaces — park field houses, community centers, even parking garages — into winter food halls where a rotating set of restaurants could operate.

Another proposal called Plate Beacon addresses local hunger by encouraging diners to double up their food orders and send the extra food (or the cost of it) to the hungry via an app. Developed by a group of Northeastern Illinois University students, it’s already up and running in Rogers Park and is ready to expand.

Other ideas encourage the city and its restaurants to develop winter food festivals and marketing campaigns that remind us how charming it can be to bundle up, drink glogg and stroll in the snow. We still need convincing on that one. Remember the polar vortex?

Indeed, our restaurants are facing a fierce winter, and they need our support. While Congress debates the next federal relief package, we encourage restaurant owners and city leaders to start experimenting.

Maybe it’s fancy dining at Soldier Field. Maybe it’s a food truck festival in a parking garage. Maybe Lightfoot could open the beaches before snow falls for a picnic under the stars. Or maybe, as Andy Meyer proposed, it’s Dibs Dining.

“This is Chicago — City of Broad Shoulders and the City that Works — and any solution needs to reflect that simple fact. … Sitting on an old, rusty folding chair while eating a Polish sausage while your Old Style sits on an ironing board in the bitter cold — that is the outdoor dining experience that reflects the best of Chicago.”

Sept. 13, 2020

The News-Gazette (Champaign)

Partisan politics

Last week’s legislative inquiry into alleged misconduct by the Illinois House speaker proved to be little ado about very much.

No one should hold their breath in expectation of substantive revelations generated by the highly political House inquiry into alleged criminal wrongdoing by Michael Madigan. But there will be a fair amount of political entertainment stemming from this hyper-partisan inquiry that is, by design, going nowhere.

The real concern among both Democrats and Republicans concerns the inquiry’s impact on the November general election.

That’s why Madigan has denounced this obvious stunt as a “stunt,” even though it’s also a legitimate vehicle for Republicans to use to make their points about Madigan’s leadership practices.

Everyone who’s paying attention knows by now that the 78-year-old Madigan, a political powerhouse unto himself, has been identified by federal prosecutors as the key figure in a yearslong bribery conspiracy. They have alleged that Commonwealth Edison, which has acknowledged its illegal role in this tawdry tale, provided no-show jobs to Madigan friends and associates in exchange for Madigan’s favorable action on the utility’s legislative proposals.

ComEd already has entered into a deferred prosecution agreement in which it is required, among other things, to pay a $200 million fine. Last week, former top utility executive Fidel Marquez was charged in the case, and all signs are that he will plead guilty and cooperate with prosecutors.

But no other individual, including Madigan, has yet been charged. The investigation remains pending, and suspected targets, including Madigan, have lawyered up.

That’s why it borders on the unbelievable that Madigan or anyone else will participate in a substantive way with the six-member — three Democrats and three Republicans — House investigative panel.

In addition to Madigan, Republicans have indicated they wish to hear from a number of other key players in this controversy. They include former ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore, retired utility executive and lobbyist John Hooker, close Madigan friend and alleged conspiracy ringleader Michael McClain and Marquez.

But their lawyers will not — and should not — allow them to give substantive testimony in the unlikely event they are subpoenaed to do so. To do so with federal bloodhounds on their trail would be crazy.

So what will come out of this? It would be no surprise if there were not expressions of indignation and finger-pointing directed by Republicans against Democrats and vice versa, the histrionics reported in great detail by news outlets.

In fact, that happened Thursday, when the committee met for 30 minutes before adjourning. Ultimately, the member decided to formally notify the U.S. Attorney’s office of the inquiry and solicit its advice on how it should proceed.

The real action lies within the realm of the U.S. attorney’s office. The sideshow is in Springfield, but what a sideshow it is.

The Madigan inquiry represents only the third such inquiry in this century. The two previous targets — former state Reps. Luis Arroyo and Derrick Smith — were a couple of low-life legislative grifters

For a politician of Madigan’s statute to be dragged into the muck with those characters is a personal affront to the Chicago politician. That’s why he reacted with such obvious rage when House Republican Leader Jim Durkin called for the inquiry.

But this is one of those rare occasions when there’s little Madigan can do about House action, except to stand by and watch as his committee loyalists make sure the inquiry goes nowhere.

Of course, the point isn’t to get to the bottom of what happened. It’s to muddy up Madigan and House Democrats who are relying on Madigan’s campaign money to get reelected in November.