Grafton mayor determined to stay in port district despite votes
By ALAN J. ORTBALS
Quarry Township will be dropping out of America’s Central Port just as soon as Gov. Bruce Rauner signs a pending bill into law, but the township’s main city, Grafton, is staying put.
After sweeping through the House on a 109-0 vote in April, House Bill 3664 was passed unanimously by the Senate in May.
Legislation to expand the district was enacted just last year but Quarry Township officials suddenly flipped and wanted out, according to Dennis Wilmsmeyer, the port’s executive director.
“We started discussions with them about why they wanted out,” Wilmsmeyer said. “They just decided that they wanted out and we told them if they wanted out, we’d support it. We don’t want to go anywhere we’re not wanted.”
The district was expanded on Jan. 1, 2015, to include the townships of Wood River, Alton and Godfrey in Madison County and the townships of Elsah and Quarry in Jersey County. These were added to the original townships of Granite City, Venice, Nameoki and Chouteau. The legislation also gave the district authority to build and operate manufacturing, residential and cultural facilities; expanded its borrowing authority up to 20 years from 3; and changed its name to America’s Central Port.
While H.B. 3664 removed Quarry Township from the port district, the city of Grafton stayed in. Now, it would require new legislation to remove Grafton from the port district, and at this time there are no plans to seek such legislation.
The City Council had voted unanimously to join the district when first invited in 2013 but the election of 2015 washed three new aldermen into office and brought anti-port district sentiment with them. A new vote was taken as soon as the new aldermen took their seats in May and this time the vote was 4 to 2 to leave the district.
“When we got the new board members, two of the people who originally voted yes switched and voted no to not be in the port district,” said Grafton Mayor Tom Thompson. “It was based on some irrational thinking that if we were in the port district, that instead of this beautiful riverfront and tourist attraction we were going to have barge repair services and cargo facilities on our riverfront.”
Thompson pointed out that such a development was impossible as there’s no place on the riverfront suitable for such uses and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers controls the riverfront anyway and would not allow such uses in that location.
While the City Council rejected the port, the vote had no immediate effect as the city remained in the district.
“Quarry Township is not in the port district but the city of Grafton is,” Thompson said. “I’m on the port district board. When the board voted to get out of the district, they were trying to influence the Senate to take us out but the Senate didn’t.”
Wilmsmeyer said he was happy to have the city in the district.
“Grafton provides us diversity in what we do,” Wilmsmeyer said. “We’re in very industrialized areas today. Grafton provides more of the recreation and tourism side of things — certainly not industry. So it would have provided us a good diversity in what we do and what we have to offer if we could have added a focus on the environment and recreation and tourism as a component of what we do. That would have been fine. But again, as I told Quarry Township officials, ‘if you don’t want us in your community, we don’t want to be there. We don’t want to go anyplace we’re not wanted.’”
Despite the vote of the council, Thompson wants to keep the city in the port district.
“It’s a good situation for Grafton,” Thompson said. “Grafton needs to be part of the big picture. We can’t just keep pulling in and saying, ‘we want to go back and just be that little town of Grafton wary of outsiders and suspicious of people who don’t live here.”
And, Thompson pointed out, tourist dollars are a significant source of funds for the city’s general revenue account.
“We don’t even come close to bringing in enough property tax to run this city,” Thompson said. “We are wholly dependent on tourism and overnight stay tax. If we didn’t have these crowds on weekends and didn’t bring in this sales tax money, our property taxes would be so high in Grafton, people couldn’t afford to live here. We don’t have car dealers or drug stores or grocery stores or shopping malls. We are totally dependent on tourism to run this city. As for me,” Thompson added, “I’d rather have tourist’s sales taxes providing the money than a substantial increase my property taxes.”