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Mark Wackerlin, mule handler for the La Salle Canal Boat, leads Moe the mule along the Illinois and Michigan Canal last week during the boat’s second day of business for the year. The canal boat and Lock 16 tourist attraction has used nearly $900,000 in public tax funding but has yet to meet the expectations used to sell the project.
NewsTribune photo/Genna Ord
By the numbers: $878,500 — The total amount of tax dollars invested in the canal boat project since 1998: ($560,000 from the U.S. Department of Transportation; $285,000 from state grants; $33,500 from La Salle City council donations.)
Canal boat and Lock 16 business revenue 2009 - $257,504 (First year open) 2010 - $212,667 2011 - $203,423 2012 - $185,900
Five years ago, hundreds of people lined the Route 351 bridge in La Salle to watch the canal boat “Volunteer” be dropped into the Illinois and Michigan Canal at Lock 14 — ushering in Illinois’ first moving canal boat tourism destination. The 1848-era replica boat brought with it high promises of economic viability for La Salle. Studies showed 70,000 visitors would generate $3 million to $5 million in annual economic activity within the city and surrounding Illinois Valley. Canal Corridor Association president and chief executive officer Ana Koval sold the project to the public and city officials by touting those studies and claiming the canal boat program would be self-sustaining and tell the rich history of the Illinois Valley. But after costing taxpayers $878,000 in various federal and state grants, and La Salle City Council donations, the decades-long canal boat dream has fallen short of financial expectations during its first five years of operation. “The original plan the studies were based on had a large infrastructure …we were never able to make that kind of an investment,” Koval said. “On the other hand, we didn’t take into consideration other things such as just how weather dependent we are.” CCA income tax filings show the canal boat and Lock 16 Visitor’s Center has never turned a profit. The first year the canal boat was operational and visitor’s center was open they combined to generate $257,504 in revenue. That revenue has steadily decreased each year thereafter to $185,900 in tax year 2012. Regardless, several members of the community, such as La Salle economic director Don Aleksy, still believe the canal boat is having a positive economic impact. “Any time you can bring people downtown is always good,” Aleksy said.
“Port of La Salle” — A brief history Nearly 40 years ago, Illinois & Michigan Canal volunteers and the La Salle Rotary Club had dreamed of and planned to recreate a working 1850s-era canal boat. Bob Aplington was a part of those planning discussions, which never really gained any momentum other than clearing out the heavily forested canal and filling it back up with water. “We thought it was an important part of our local history and didn’t want it to be forgotten,” he said. Plans for the canal boat project didn’t move forward until CCA made public its plans to construct a canal boat-themed tourist attraction in La Salle in 1998. At that time, the CCA had received a federal feasibility study grant to cover the cost of exploring the idea. In 1999, a floating canal boat idea was dropped for a stationary museum boat due to I&M Canal’s need for dredging. But by 2001, that plan had changed. Former U.S. Rep. Jerry Weller (R-Ill.) got behind the plan to turn Lock 14 into a tourist destination called “Port of La Salle” — a multi-million dollar endeavor that would include recreated, working canal boats towed by mules up and down the canal with a boat house and other historically-accurate features. Weller used his resources to secure hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of federal grants to cover the costs of various studies and funding to dredge the canal. In the beginning months of 2003, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had begun drawing up plans to dredge the canal, and Weller was securing more and more federal dollars for the creation of the project. Momentum was moving along so strongly that even then-Mayor Art Washkowiak commented that “the canal boat project will dovetail nicely with the opening of Hotel Kaskaskia” — a tourist/restoration project that has yet to be fulfilled.
Profit from a nonprofit While community economic activity from the canal boat is subjective, there is one person who cashed in on the project. CCA president and chief executive officer Ana Koval made what would become a savvy real estate purchase during the midst of the Port of La Salle hoopla. On April 15, 2003 — the same time Weller was securing gobs of federal dollars for the Port of La Salle project — Koval bought the old Koenig Brothers building at 754 First St. in La Salle for $132,500, according to county property records. The purchase was made using her private money, not CCA money, and went largely unnoticed publicly. Five years worth of setbacks had passed and plans for the Port of La Salle project were downgraded to just one canal boat, a couple mules to pull it, and the original $4 million visitor’s center plan changed as well. Koval’s property, just a block or so north of the Lock 14 canal site, was about to pay off. The CCA board, after much research and an “arm’s length agreement” to avoid conflict of interest concerns — agreed to rent Koval’s 5,480 square-foot building and refurbish it into the current visitor’s center. The CCA now pays Koval $47,800 per year in rent (72.68 cents per square foot for the entire building), which means Koval has easily earned enough in rent alone to pay off the mortgage in the past three years. Several Illini Valley Association of Realtors officials agreed that rent prices for commercial properties in downtown La Salle can vary, but generally the asking rent price is between $2 and $4 per square foot. Additionally, the CCA nearly tripled Koval’s annual salary in 2009 when the canal boat project was complete. Her salary went from $35,500 to $96,000 and remains at that level. “We had an appraiser look at the property and suggest a fair rental price and I offered much lower than that,” Koval said. “You can believe me or not, but my plan when buying the building was to use my former Oak Park home sale to pay for my kids’ college and live upstairs. I figured it would be convenient since I was going to be spending so much time here anyway working on the canal boat project.”
Is it worth it? Since 1998 a grand total of $878,500 in tax dollars has been spent on the canal boat project. The U.S. Department of Transportation granted $560,000 to build the boat and dredge the canal, state tourism grants totaling $285,000 were used in the project, and La Salle City Council agreed to donate a total of $33,500 to the project. No doubt, the project cost a lot of money to build. And volunteers such as Aplington readily admit the project is “not a big profit-maker.” But it doesn’t necessarily have to be highly successful on its own to be worth the public investment, explains Starved Rock Lodge director of marketing Kathy Casstevens-Jasiek. “My goal in tourism is to have enough fun things to do here that day-trippers turn into overnight stays and overnight stays turn into multi-day getaways,” she explained. “People visit, sleep, eat, stay, camp, hike and enjoy all we have to offer and this helps keep us in business. So it’s (the boat and visitor’s center) a win-win for the guests and the tourism-related businesses.” Koval said plans are in the works to increase grant and donation revenue. And CCA board members are considering expanding their offerings such as including bicycle rentals as a means to boost falling revenue. They also may close down completely during the winter time, but have been reluctant to reduce full-time staff to part-time. “The entire CCA board and I are committed to finding a sustainability model to keep it open while educating our local school kids and our visitors,” Koval said.