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Receiver works to clear titles, sell properties

p01 cemetariesValley View Cemetery in Edwardsville, one of two Metro East cemeteries under supervision of a state receiver who is working to find new owners. IBJ photo.By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
    EDWARDSVILLE — One by one, the guests sitting in a large circle in the back room of Main Street Community Center introduced themselves, telling others what brought them to the meeting.
    For one woman, it was the distant memory of her mother and a grandson, as well as an infant sister who died in 1929.
    For another woman, it was the thought of her late husband and several members of his family.
    As each person moved on to the next, a personal list was recounted of loved ones buried in Valley View Cemetery in Edwardsville.
    Now, the survivors want to know: What will happen when it comes their turn?
    “I just want to know what’s going on out there,” one woman said.
    And, so, it has been for decades at Valley View, as well as Mount Hope Cemetery in Belleville, sister operations ensnared by financial improprieties and neglect by multiple owners before the court-ordered receivership took over the operations. Misuse of pre-need funds forced many people to pay twice for services at the time of need — services they thought had been taken care of years before. Those families then had to wait for a court-ordered refund from the State Consumer Protection Fund.
    Over two different timeframes, once between 1997 and 2002, and then again since 2013, court-appointed receivers have worked to get accounts straight. It has taken cooperation of the courts and the Illinois Office of the Comptroller — along with a diehard group of volunteers — to keep things operating at both cemeteries while new owners are sought.
    Volunteers have been cleaning up Mount Hope and Valley View for years. In Valley View’s case, a nonprofit volunteer group, Friends of Valley View, was officially formed this year to give strength to fund-raising efforts.
    In recent months, major cleanup has taken place at Valley View’s office building and around the well-known Bible monument. Signage is being erected and more is in the works, with assistance from the welding class at Collinsville Vocational Center. Around eight new signs are now in place, and more will be done.
    Friends volunteers are now staffing the office part time.
    “Since we became an official organization (in March) we have over 700 hours of documented time,” said Friends President Jeanne Carter, of Edwardsville. “One hundred hours of that was on the spring cleanup, when we had 30 people show up to help us move grave blankets and Christmas decorations and prepare the ground for mowing.”
     Next up is the potential restoration of a smaller, storage facility at the front of the cemetery, which faces Illinois Route 157. Appearances are important, Carter said.
    “The cemetery is a functional business. We don’t want the word out there that it’s not,” she said. Although there were graves on the site earlier, the official dedication of the cemetery was in 1924.
    “We do between 40 and 60 burials a year,” said appointed receiver Sara Wooley, an attorney with the Illinois Comptroller’s Office. “We have since the receivership started.” She is handling the case involving both cemeteries.

How the problems began

    Problems at the cemeteries date at least to the 1990s when neglect was becoming apparent. The owner at that time, Lawrence Esterlen, lost the cemeteries and burial fund license in 1997 for failing to maintain the properties and for taking $85,000 from the cemeteries’ trust funds, which were held for pre-arranged burials.
    A court-ordered receiver, local attorney Don Sampson, assumed control from then until 2002, when Forever Illinois Corp. bought both cemeteries and put $200,000 into an escrow account to be used to make improvements and repairs at both sites. The company also agreed to restore the pre-paid burial funds and to reimburse the state for payments the comptroller made to consumers who claimed they were cheated.
    A new chapter — still a sordid one — began in 2005 when Hillman Crowell of Columbia, Mo., bought the properties from Forever. Just two years later, Crowell’s company, Mid-America Growth and Development Corp., had its corporate status revoked because he didn’t file an annual report or pay his franchise tax.

p01 SIUEA rendering of the new lab at the Student Design Center at the School of Engineering, courtesy FGM Architects. Go to Page 11 for our special section, Higher Education in Southwestern Illinois.By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
    EDWARDSVILLE — An ongoing expansion of the SIUE Engineering Building belies everything you’ve heard about budget problems with the state’s universities and the flight of students to other states. There is growth in some Illinois school corridors.
    The two-story construction project will be the focus this month of SIUE Day, a fund-raiser for the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville Foundation. A breakfast meeting and tour of the new Student Design Center at the School of Engineering are planned, beginning at 8 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 12.
    Most of the $5.7 million needed for the project has been secured, resulting in the completion of Phase 1 of construction. The school still needs about $1.2 million to fund the construction of Phase 2, which will include additional design labs, offices and meeting space on the building’s second floor.
    The second phase relies heavily on private donations.
    “You know the situation with the state budget,” said Cem Karacal, dean of the School of Engineering. “We were a little hesitant to go forward with the whole project without having full funding. At the same time, there was this pressing need for this space. So, we decided to divide it into two phases. Let’s get the first floor done, let’s get the shell for the second. As soon as we secure the money we will build the second floor.”
    The second floor is a closed-in structure with as yet no interior walls, perfect for the upcoming, large reception. Guests will be told what they can expect to see in a finished project.
    Certain areas of the building are to be named for key donors, among them The Korte Co., Nidec Motor Corp. (formerly Emerson Electric Manufacturing), and J.F. Electric Inc.
    Karacal sees the situation as an opportunity to better connect with local industries.
    “This is a mutually beneficial relationship. A lot of companies use our graduates, they hire our graduates. They are benefitting from the quality of the education they receive from us,” he said. “But at the same time we need it to finish this project. When you look at the whole operation it costs quite a bit to educate an engineering student.”
    The investment is worth it.
    “Show me a really prosperous area that does not have a competent, technical workforce,” Karacal said.
    Engineering was one of the bright spots in the latest enrollment figures at the university, which were generally down from last fall.
    “This is an important project and a reflection of the growth of the school,” Karacal said. “For almost eight years we’ve been growing at almost 8 percent each year. There are fluctuations but when you average it out it’s been almost 8 percent.” This fall was a modest increase, he said.
    “When I came 10 years ago we were half the size school as we are now,” added Christopher Gordon, School of Engineering associate dean.
    The original Engineering Building came about in the year 2000 as a matter of necessity. Before the main building was constructed, electrical engineering and construction management classes were taught at University Park, and the rest of the classes were taught in the basement of the original Science Building.

    Edwardsville High School looks to be the next home of CEO, a program that aims to build hometown leadership and entrepreneurism skills at a young age.
    Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities is slated to start in the fall of next year, pending the anticipated approval of the school board and the hiring of a facilitator to run the program.
    “We’ve had conversations with many people,” organizer Marc Voegele said. “We’re at the point now of getting the initial startup fee collected, and we’ll have that done (in time) to get it on the schedule for startup next year.” The $25,000 fee is underwritten entirely by donations from local businesses and private individuals. There is no cost to taxpayers or school district
    A facilitator — a leader of the program — would then have to be named, he said.
    If all goes as expected, Edwardsville will join programs that now serve high school students in Granite City, Alton, Roxana/Bethalto, Waterloo, Belleville and Macoupin County.
    In Southwestern Illinois, talks have also begun about establishing the program in other districts, among them Collinsville and O’Fallon Township/Triad, each for the 2019 school year, one year after Edwardsville is expected to start.
    “This is a great area to target and it’s done exceedingly well” in this region, Voegele said.
    The CEO program is a concept created by the Midland Institute for Entrepreneurship in Effingham. The programs involve districts in at least five states.
    “They have about 40 programs and about 160-something school districts contribute to those programs,” Voegele said.
    The whole aim is to prompt high school students to one day become business leaders of their hometowns.
    Classes meet off campus throughout the year, hosted by area businesses, giving students a direct networking opportunity with important leaders in the community.


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    Harriet* burst through the double doors of the Venice Recreational Center with a new lease on life.
    “Somebody, take me to church!” she exclaimed. “I need to thank God, I need to rejoice.”