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Economic energy evident in 2018

December 30, 2018

There are 365 days in 2018, but a whole lot more pertinent stories appeared in the Daily Journal during the calendar year.

With the last days of ’18 now upon us, the newspaper has compiled a list of its top 10 stories for 2018. A recap of the 10 appear below, in descending order.

1 CSL Behring expansion

The expansion of CSL Behring might not only be the biggest story of the year, it might be the story of the decade, the decision that could change just about every life in Kankakee County.

CSL, located along Illinois Route 50 in Bradley, already employs 1,600. There is no solid figure on how many jobs expansion will add, but the number likely is to be large, with the jobs being professional and well-compensated. The expansion has been estimated at a value of $1 billion and will take as much as a dozen years to construct. CSL will steadily absorb and use the property that once held Bunge Edible Oil. It has been lauded as the largest biotech investment in the world.

A key will be the work of Michael Gibson, a 1978 Kankakee Eastridge High School graduate. Gibson, an interventional cardiologist, is working on a medicine designed to be a super cholesterol reducer for patients who have had one heart attack and need to avoid a second. It would be groundbreaking new medicine, produced locally.

Because of this announcement — and several others — Kankakee County now is a workplace destination. We now rank at or near the top in job growth. Kankakee Community College is first in the state in job placement among junior colleges. Suddenly the drive in Kankakee County is not to find jobs, it is to find workers. The new challenge is to turn the commuters coming here into residents who are staying here.

2 Nucor Steel expansion

In almost any other year, the expansion of a steel plant would rate as the top story.

The expansion of Nucor Steel certainly is substantial. An investment of $180 million is set to add 75 top flight industrial jobs by late 2019.

Nucor is the nation’s top recycler, turning scrap steel from shredded cars and many other sources into merchant bar quality steel. It also is one of those industries set to gain if this country holds China’s feet to the fire so that American steel can compete more fairly.

Nucor, similar to CSL, too, is working to get involved in the community. In 2018, it received the Good Heart Award at the Riverside Healthcare Heart Ball for its sponsorship, donation and charitable support.

3 Bourbonnais Parkway opening

In November, the $46.3 million investment that is the Bourbonnais Parkway opened to the public on Interstate 57.

Freeway interchanges have been huge economic drivers in the past. The village of Bourbonnais certainly hopes to take advantage. There already are 1,200 acres ready for commercial and industrial development. Utilities are either in place or already targeted. Likewise, a hotel-motel tax is set to capture fresh money.

Accepting new business proposals likely is to be a pleasant task for village officials in the years ahead.

4 February flooding

Significant flooding caused Kankakee, Iroquois and Vermilion counties to be declared disaster areas. The damage was most severe in Iroquois County, where 400 homes were damaged, 100 of them severely. The Kankakee and Iroquois rivers rose to flood stage, but did not set records.

Local groups, including the Kankakee Area Jaycees, the Red Cross and the Aroma Park United Methodist Church, among many others, stepped up to help.

We have seen no overall estimate of the damage. The flooding, too, did not appear to have caused any fatalities, but it is a reminder of the power of nature and the fact that living next to a riverbank has hazards, as well as beauties.

5 Parkhurst-Dugan race

The election race between Republican Lindsay Parkhurst and Democrat Lisa Dugan for state representative was bitter and was expected to be close. Voters in the 79th Illinois House District were deluged with fliers. In a trend that made you want to hold your nose, both candidates were unfairly tied to child pornographers.

Parkhurst was the incumbent, having served one term. Dugan was returning to politics after having served the district for a decade. Parkhurst won easily, with 56 percent of the vote.

Kankakee County bucked state and national political trends. Illinois became increasingly Democratic. Republicans did not win a single statewide race in Illinois. Nationally, the Democrats took back the House of Representatives.

But in Kankakee County, Republicans won all nine contested races for the Kankakee County Board. Republicans won both of the contested countywide races for treasurer and county clerk.

In a normal political year, Kankakee County votes about 2 percent more Republican than the general population. But in 2018, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner got 13 percent more here than in the state overall and lost the race to J.B. Pritzker.

6 KCC’s Avendano announces retirement

John Avendano announced his retirement as president of Kankakee Community College, effective at the end of the current school year.

During his decade of leadership, the school saw amazing success, with surging enrollment. He helped plan a successful 50th anniversary celebration for the college.

Avendano originally was an athlete, whose career was derailed by injury, but he made the most of his educational opportunity, becoming a tremendous example.

As the year ended, KCC had narrowed its search for a new president to two candidates: Michael Boyd, the vice president for instruction and student success at KCC; and Laurie Chesley, the vice president of academic and student affairs at Grand Rapids (Mich.) Community College.

7 The opioid crisis

While the problem remains severe, there are signs progress is being made — not enough, but there is hope.

A November community summit on the issue at Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School revealed 26 people had died from overdoses during the past fiscal year in the county to that point.

It’s a grim number, but down from the 56 deaths per year before and the 36 the year before that. Officials point to increasing use of the Narcan antidote to save lives.

The message speakers made is that the opioid epidemic affects entire families. Children of adult users are victims, too. Back in January, Kankakee County’s opioid deaths even came to the attention of President Donald Trump.

8 Kankakee School District 111

Perhaps no community institution enters 2019 with so many major changes on its plate as the Kankakee school district.

The Kankakee Federation of Teachers, the district’s teachers union, has authorized a strike. Exactly if and when that would happen is unclear. The teachers rejected the latest district offer. The 324 teachers in the district are paid an average of $54,579, lower than the state average of $65,721. The district last had a strike in 2010.

On the upside, the district used borrowed federal funds to complete a $20 million major renovation of Kankakee High School. The goal is to create a college-like atmosphere for the students.

Sadly, that positive has been overshadowed by repeated reports about student fighting. More than 40 fights were reported in the first half of the school year. Most students, of course, do not fight, and school board members spoke up to point out that a small slice of the student population is damaging the reputation of the whole.

In the world of instantaneous media, some fights were captured on video and broadcast on the internet.

The district is cracking down on the fighting. An announcement was made that police now will be called. A number of alternatives for fighters, including suspensions and alternate placements in different schools, were announced.

9 Possible Riverside/IMH merger

Riverside Medical Center, already the area’s top employer with 3,000 jobs, has signed a nonbinding letter of intent to consider merging with Iroquois Memorial Hospital.

Earlier this month, Riverside acquired the ambulance service that had been operated by Iroquois Memorial. IMH turns over five ambulances. Their service had 29 employees.

Overall, it was a strong year for Riverside. The hospital’s “Lead with Your Heart” campaign had a goal of $2.5 million. About $3.3 million was raised to expand services and provide heart healthy education.

10 Meijer opens

On May 17, Meijer opened its new 195,000-square-foot store on Illinois Route 50 in Bradley.

This is not an easy time for many retailers, but the addition of Meijers meant 300 full- and part-time jobs for the area. Meijers takes the location once used by a Super Kmart. There are 235 Meijer stores.

The opening also cushioned the decline of jobs and options when both Sears and Carsons closed. Both were located at Northfield Square mall, and the future of the mall is one of the stories we’ll be watching in 2019.

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