Cairo's financial woes lead to battle over preservation

Monday, November 14, 2005
The Custom House at Cairo, Ill. (Don Frazier)

CAIRO, Ill. -- Some people in Cairo think the key to the town's future lies in its rich history. What else is there in Cairo in 2005, they ask?

Cairo is a city that has seen better days. The population is shrinking, historic buildings sit condemned on Commercial Avenue, city leaders are tied up in lawsuits over alleged abuses of power (and accusations that haven't turned into lawsuits). On top of it all, the tax base has crumbled and the city is in a budget crisis.

With a budget crisis must come cuts, but some of Mayor Paul Farris' suggested cuts have caused a sharp divide. On one side are the preservers of Cairo's history, the city's Library Board, and most of the city council. On the other side is Farris, serving a term that has been embattled since it began in 2003.

Farris has advocated an end to city support for The Custom House Museum and selling Riverlore mansion, two 100-plus-year-old buildings of historical distinction.

The Custom House, completed in 1872, served as a key port of delivery checkpoint for goods passing through the city in the height of the riverboat era. Since 1984 volunteers have been working to restore the building but the project is incomplete due to financial constraints.

Riverlore Mansion was constructed in 1865 and has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places, furnished and renovated as a historic destination.

Cairo has struggled financially for years, having trouble just paying the bills, and Farris sees cutting off funds to the museum and selling the mansion as ways to save money. Repeated calls to Farris weren't returned.

Louise and Russell Ogg disagree with the mayor's assertion. They live in Mound City, Ill., but have a vested interest in keeping the Custom House going after working for 20 years to restore it as a museum. They are members of the local library board, the group charged with the upkeep of both historic properties.

Like many people in the battle, Louise Ogg was reluctant to talk to the media. "Yet it seems it would be something that needs to go before the public," she said.

The Oggs, along with other members of the library board, didn't know about the mayor's proposal until they saw Farris on a TV news station, laying out his plans. Louise Ogg fired off an angry letter in response to Farris. The letter told Farris that his administration hurt Cairo more than any previous administration, and that Ogg would do anything in her power to prevent the closing of the Custom House.

Washington Avenue, Cairo's main thoroughfare, has become a metaphor for this split in the city. On one side of the street is the Custom House, a three-story building in the stoic 1800s government architecture style. The building is at once solemn, intimidating and beautiful.

Across the road is City Hall, where the mayor has his office -- a building of more modern construction, with no historical distinction. To the preservationists, city hall is now infected by a disease named Farris. They can't wait until he's gone, and they can't understand why he wants to close down the museum.

"In Cairo, that's all you've got is history," said Russell Ogg as he sat in the Custom House office, with a full view of city hall. "As far as business goes, it's dormant."

And, they say, if the issue is saving money, cutting off support to the Custom House and selling Riverlore won't do much to help. At the Custom House, all the city provides is phone service (before the mayor had it cut off, but the site has since acquired a new number) and utilities (water is free). The building is owned by the city, but is run through admission fees and funds raised by volunteers. The Custom House, like Riverlore, is also staffed by an all-volunteer force.

Louise Ogg said the city budget appropriates $12,000 for utilities, which the city hasn't even been paying for four months. Utilities haven't been paid at Riverlore for even longer.

The city owns the Riverlore mansion. The building was purchased in 1999 on a bond issue. So far, the city has only been able to pay the $17,000 per year interest and nothing toward the principal on bonds that will begin to mature this year. When that happens, the debt will be about $270,000.

Library board president Bill Harrell and other board members accuse Farris of using money from a special library tax -- some of which would go to the bonds --for other purposes, which they say is a misappropriation of funds.

City Councilman Joey Thurston said he could support selling Riverlore if the mansion was used for an economically beneficial purpose, such as a bed-and-breakfast. But the city may not make enough to pay off the bonds, since some of the cash would have to be repaid to government grant programs that helped furnish the building.

Thurston said he thinks the mayor's suggestions are more personal than governmental.

"He used it as financial budget problems, but that doesn't hold water," said Thurston. Thurston said the mayor has personal beefs with some of the members of the library board.

However, he would support restructuring the board so non-Cairo residents, such as Harrell, could no longer serve, said Thurston. Not because of personal beefs, but because of city ordinances.

Most of the city council, like Thurston, is in opposition to cutting off the utilities at the Custom House. However some might support selling Riverlore. Council member Carolyn Ponting, who won't participate in media interviews, has said in open meetings that the city can't afford Riverlore.

But Thurston agrees with the library board, that history is the only thing the city has left. In an illustration of the state of affairs in Cairo, he said two businesses have left the city in the last two weeks.

"I think right now tourism is about all Cairo can bank on to get people here," Thurston said. "History is a big thing, an you've got a lot of history right there in the Custom House. And it's not just local history. It just doesn't make sense."

Thurston said he has proposed other money-saving measures that have been completely ignored. He wants to eliminate the $1,050 per month the city pays the mayor, the $600 per month the six city council members receive and the $400 per month medical insurance they all receive.

Many locals say there are bigger things to worry about than the squabble over two historic sites. Kenneth Maupin, a 20-year resident, said bad management and corruption going back decades have given the town more than its share of troubles. The dust-up over the Custom House and Riverlore is the last thing on his mind.

Edna Hipps, a lifelong resident of the town, has stayed optimistic.

"I think the city will work something out," said Hipps. "I'm sure the mayor has some reason for doing what he's doing."

For now, the library board will continue to pay the utilities from fundraising. Several activities are lined up during the next week for that express purpose. And the issue of what to do with the historic properties may stay caught up in the deadlock between the mayor and the city council.

335-6611, extension 182

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