MAHOMET — The Mahomet Citizen has chosen its Top 10 stories of the year, and 2019 brought both conflict and sadness, cooperation and community-wide fun.
The Top 10 stories are chosen based on factors including website analytics on the most impactful and highest profile topics for the year.
1. Subdivisions annexed
The Village of Mahomet’s Board of Trustees voted in late April to annex multiple subdivisions into the village limits despite strong and vocal opposition from many residents in those areas.
After the April 23, 2019, meeting that sealed the annexations, Karadan Drive resident Richard Eardley said, “No matter what pleas we made to the board ... I felt like their minds were closed. They had their minds made up. So, we’re going to court.
“We hate for it to come to this point,” he added. But, speaking during the meeting to the trustees, he said, “I guess we’ll see you in court.”
As of December, however, no court action regarding the annexations had taken place.
Trustees Bruce Colravy, David Johnson, Andy Harpst, Donald Lynn, Bill Oliger and Brian Metzger voted “yes” unanimously on the annexations. The first was to annex Briarcliff subdivisions property; the second annexed Summit Ridge subdivision; and the third was to annex Robinson Properties, including Tin Cup Campground.
Annexation makes the areas in question part of the village, subject to village taxes and regulations and eligible for village services such as brush, limb and leaf removal, snow removal and others. Government regulations allow for annexation when a subdivision is “wholly bounded” or completely surrounded by property that’s part of the village. In some cases, subdivisions have covenants that require that they be annexed once one side of the bloc of land in question is touching village limits, as The Citizen reported in the spring.
In opposing annexation, numerous residents said they don’t believe there are enough benefits to being part of the village to warrant added taxes, and many said they wish to preserve the rural lifestyle they enjoy outside village limits.
The annexations approved April 23 added about 300 people to the village’s population.
Prior to the regularly scheduled meeting, about 20 people held signs in opposition to annexation outside the Cornbelt Fire Protection District training facility on Main Street, as The Citizen reported at the time. The session was moved to the Cornbelt facility in anticipation of a larger crowd than most trustee meetings, and the move was warranted. Dozens of people filled the training facility room for the meeting.
2. School board changes
Mahomet-Seymour school district voters ousted a pair of incumbents and selected a trio of newcomers for the board of education by a narrow margin on April 2.
Up for re-election were Jeremy Henrichs, Jenny Park and Lance Raver, with Julie Cebulski, Meghan Hennesy, Ken Keefe, Colleen Schultz and Jason Tompkins also vying for a total of four seats, as The Citizen reported at the time. The trio of incumbents campaigned alongside Tompkins, with signs featuring the four scattered throughout Mahomet.
Hennesy and Schultz, respectively, bested Raver and Tompkins by around 100 votes each. For candidates outside village limits, Henrichs took 1,064 votes, while Keefe garnered 979, to put both in seats, while Cebulski received 965 and Park drew 962 votes according to unofficial results.
Since the election, a split among board members has shown itself in a number of contentious board of education meetings. Hennesy, Keefe and Schultz — who ran on platforms of transparency — have been divided versus Henrichs and other incumbents: Max McComb, board president; Lori Larson, board vice president; and Merle Giles, board secretary.
3. Mahomet Music Festival
This “humongous” event Aug. 23-24 brought thousands of people to downtown Mahomet for free music ranging from Christian-themed tunes to the country music of well-known star Joe Nichols.
Food vendors, bands, a duck race on the nearby Sangamon River, carnival, beer tent and parade beefed up the top Mahomet festival formerly known as River Fest.
“This is humongous. This has become Mahomet’s premier event of the year,” said Dave Parsons, who’s been in charge of the festival committee for about 12 years, as The Citizen reported over the summer. “You start to hear more and more people talk about the fact that this is the big event. This is kind of East Central Illinois’ big event. This is the big one. This really is kind of the one that really showcases Mahomet.”
Performers included bands Nickel and Dimes and Blooze Brothers, plus Building 429, local singer Onoleigh Pommier and Nichols.
The Mahomet Parks & Recreation Department held its annual Sangamon River Duck Race during the festival as well.
4. “Beautiful Angel” Mackenzie Byrd loses health battle.
The entire community of Mahomet was hit hard early in September when local teenager Mackenzie Byrd, 16, lost her fight against a congenital heart defect while awaiting a heart transplant.
Strengthened by Byrd’s favorite Bible verse, Jeremiah 29:11 — “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future”, her family and friends sought solace in good memories as well in the wake of the young woman’s death.
Her parents posted this on the “Prayers for Mackenzie” Facebook page: “Heaven gained the most beautiful angel today. On this day, Sept. 2, 2019, at 12:20 p.m., our beautiful heart warrior went to be with the Lord. We feel so blessed that we have had 16 beautiful years with you. You fought so hard and with so much bravery always. My beautiful girl you sure did leave your mark on this Earth. So proud to be your Momma & Daddy. Until we meet again my sweet angel. We love you always and forever.”
Hundreds of people offered condolences to the family and tributes to Mackenzie on the Facebook page.
Mike Case, family life pastor at Mahomet’s Grace Church and a close family friend, said Mackenzie had Shone’s Complex heart disease
“She struggled with that since the day she was born,” Case explained.
The faith in God and Jesus Christ that Mackenzie held and her family has is helping sustain them, Case told The Citizen at the time. They believe they will be reunited with her one day.
“That’s what we hold onto and what we know to be true,” Case said. “They have constantly mentioned the healing that she’s had.
“Her heart doesn’t hurt anymore.”
5. Local business growth
The business climate continued to be one defined by growth and success in 2019 for Mahomet.
This includes existing and new-to-town establishments. Among examples is Poeta South, a new branch of Lake Forest-based Poeta Training Center, which offers wrestling and fitness programs year-round, which settled into Sangamon on Main as an anchor tenant. The announcement that Poeta was coming came in mid September; the business leased the main gym and additional space or approximately 4,300 square feet in total at Sangamon on Main.
“It’s a major ‘get.’ We are really excited,” said Walter Pierce, director of the Mahomet Area Chamber of Commerce. “I think it’s not only drawing local, but they’re drawing from a pretty wide radius. I think it’s a pretty good deal. (We’re) pretty excited about this.”
Sangamon on Main is a multi-tenant, co-working building located in downtown Mahomet, as The Citizen noted at the time. The building previously housed Sangamon Elementary School until it was sold in August 2018 to Sangamon on Main, LLC. Since that time, the new owners have been converting the vacant school into a co-working environment that is now home to 12 businesses, the media release stated.
Then, in December, the Village of Mahomet approved a liquor code amendment that would accommodate some alcohol sales at a new venture called “Company Coffee and Wine.” The code change requires that 40 percent of the business’ annual sales be derived from food; coffee is considered a food under that requirement.
Mahomet couples Lee and Brooke Starks, and Mike and Elizabeth McDermith, are behind the venture and hope the establishment will open sometime in May. Company Coffee & Wine is set to locate next to Yellow & Co., which is owned by the McDermiths, at 604 E. Main St. in Mahomet, part of WesPark Plaza.
The idea is for a space that offers a quiet atmosphere for conversation and a patron’s choice from among coffee, numerous wines, some craft beers and some spirits. A coffee bar will sit in one corner of the establishment, and living room-style sets of furniture will be available for couples or groups to gather and relax, Lee Starks said.
“It’s going to be really cool,” he said.
6. Martin at MPE
Middletown Prairie Elementary School got a new principal starting with the 2019-20 school year, and Ryan Martin transitioned from his role as assistant principal to leading the school with relationships in mind.
“My No. 1 goal is to continue building the relationships I’ve built this year with staff, with students, with community. I think that’s my biggest strength, and I want to continue working on that,” Martin told The Citizen in July. “I want this particular building, being the first experience for many kids (in school) — I want it to be a great experience for them. I want to create that environment which we already have, but continue to grow it.”
The Mahomet-Seymour school board announced March 29 that Martin was to take over for Wendy Starwalt, who resigned earlier in March. She had served as principal for two years, since 2017, according to Superintendent Lindsey Hall. Starwalt declined an interview with The Citizen.
The school accommodates students in pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and grades 1 and 2. Martin started the job on July 1.
“I’m very excited about it. I am about every emotion you can probably think of: nervous, but I think I have the confidence that I am going to figure it all out,” he told The Citizen. “The staff here has been great and understanding that I am going to need some time to figure some things out. We’re going to get together and help each other out, and that’s how I am and I think they are for me too.”
7. 25-year-old killed
The July death of a Mahomet woman was one of the top stories on the newspaper’s website, mcitizen.com, for 2019.
Champaign County Coroner Duane Northrup said Kayla L. Kelley, 25, was pronounced dead at Carle Foundation Hospital at 8:56 a.m. July 21 from injuries she received in a single-vehicle crash that happened about two hours earlier, The Citizen reported. The crash occurred in southwestern Coles County.
Illinois State Police at Pesotum said Kelley was driving a Toyota Rav 4 west on Coles County Road 250 N near County Road 30 E at 6:30 a.m. when the vehicle left the road to the left, hit a bridge guardrail and rolled over. Kelley, who was not wearing a seat belt, was ejected. She was alone in the sport utility vehicle, The Citizen reported.
She was taken to Carle by helicopter.
8. Shaping the future of Mahomet
Plans for community growth by both the Village of Mahomet and the Mahomet-Seymour board of education — separately and in working together — gathered steam during 2019.
Action by village trustees advanced several aspects of planning for the future of Mahomet. An addition to the community’s comprehensive plan that details coming improvements downtown was approved in September. The Downtown Master Plan addendum details efforts to spruce up downtown Mahomet to the 2016 village comprehensive plan, as The Citizen reported.
The area in question includes property west of Lombard Street, east of Center Street, south of Franklin Street and north of Dunbar and Union streets.
In the Downtown Master Plan, Mahomet would add alley parks, rain gardens, numerous trees, a bandshell and more in places within the defined area. Multiple sets of townhouses are anticipated within these parameters as well, village plans show, as The Citizen reported.
In conjunction with changes downtown, the village board purchased five parcels of land from the Wayne Perkins Trust for $475,000. This land is located directly east of the Mahomet administrative building on Main Street.
The three houses and accompanying outbuildings will be demolished relatively early in 2020, trustees estimated, and village President Sean Widener called the purchase of the land “a significant step” toward fulfilling Mahomet’s Downtown Master Plan. That effort arose in part from a community workshop in January plus preparation before that session, with the scope taking in what participating residents and village leaders want downtown Mahomet to look like circa 2050.
As the Citizen reported, the Downtown Master Plan calls for the Perkins land to become a parklike area called “Village Green” on the north side along Main Street, and include “rain gardens” there as well. To the south, the plan is to someday build a “Bandshell Plaza” and include a splash fountain area.
9. Cannabis sales rejected
Although public comment was limited on the issue, village trustees voted in mid-December 2019 to prohibit businesses from selling marijuana in Mahomet; adult use of recreational cannabis became legal in Illinois on Jan. 1, 2020.
Patrick Brown, Mahomet village administrator, said about 1 ½ hours of discussion on the state’s law was held at the board study session on Nov. 12, and more people attended than at a previous meeting held by trustees to garner public opinion on the matter.
“Some people spoke in favor of being able to purchase cannabis in Mahomet, mainly coming from the angle of medicinal reasons,” Brown told The Citizen at the time, while two ministers spoke against any future dispensary in Mahomet. Other residents also spoke against the village ever allowing a cannabis dispensary within its limits.
The meeting drew about 20 residents for the discussion.
10. PTO official, also a school board member, resigns from PTO in midst of controversy
Corresponding executive Ken Keefe resigned from the Mahomet-Seymour PTO on Aug. 26 after the PTO issued a statement on Facebook that it asked him to resign and it cut all ties to his credit card processing company.
PTO leaders said they learned Aug. 23 that the company, Fund For Us, which was used to handle credit card payments for the annual Dawg Walk fundraiser last year, was owned by Keefe, who works as a software developer at the University of Illinois.
“What the PTO posted was correct. There was a very serious communication error between the board and myself. I take complete blame for that,” Keefe told The Citizen.
Keefe made headlines as a Mahomet-Seymour school board member by accusing past boards, which included some current school board members, of violations of the Illinois Open Meetings Act. Both the PTO and the OMA situations were discussed in a contentious school board meeting on Aug. 19.
Keefe told The Citizen on Aug. 26 that he offered to resign from the PTO the day after that school board meeting. PTO President Ashley Webber confirmed that timing. She said Keefe sent an email Aug. 20 asking if PTO leaders wanted him to resign.
But it was Aug. 23, in a one-on-one phone conversation with Keefe, that Webber learned that Fund For Us was Keefe’s company.
“This came out of left field Friday. None of us knew this,” she said Aug. 26. Within three hours, PTO leaders asked Keefe to resign.
“It wasn’t something that we sat on very long once we had the information in front of us,” Webber said. PTO officials did wait to make an announcement, she added, until after consulting Mahomet-Seymour Superintendent Lindsey Hall.
“We felt it was important to let the school administration know prior to releasing that (statement),” Webber said.
In its own statement, the school district stated this afternoon that it was made aware in the morning of “Ken Keefe’s alleged financial dealings with the Mahomet-Seymour PTO and its fundraising activities.
“The School District is in the process of obtaining related facts and will review any implications as they may relate to Mr. Keefe’s position as an elected member of our Board of Education,” the press release issued by Hall stated.
Keefe said this morning that it was six days ago that he offered to step away from the PTO.
“I offered my resignation about a week ago in order to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, and I brought up ... I own this website and that was the first time we started connecting these dots,” he said. “I will be stepping down and completely separating from the PTO. I hope there is no lasting harm done to the PTO or the Dawg Walk due to this.”
Keefe said he believed PTO leaders knew that Fund For Us was his company. He told The Citizen he didn’t believe he did anything wrong.
“I looked at my business as any other vendor that we use,” Keefe said. “We use local places to buy T-shirts, and we use local places to buy food, and this was a local place that provided exactly the type of web database, web processing that we need ... no I don’t think there was anything (wrong) in that regard. The only thing that was improper was that the board was not aware and I didn’t do a better job of asking the board to make a formal decision to use my business.”
The school board later issued a statement that said, in part: “…our local board of education has no jurisdiction over this matter.” Board President Max McComb said Keefe’s role with the PTO at the time and role as a school board member were separate.