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posted: 2/19/2021 5:30 AM

Mayoral challenger questions Antioch business incentive

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The three candidates for mayor in Antioch agree incentives are necessary to attract business, but one challenger says the deal for a key project downtown raises eyebrows.

Longtime incumbent Larry Hanson defended the incentive package for Rivalry Alehouse after challenger Scott Gartner described it as controversial because of the involvement of sitting Trustee Jerry Johnson.

"If there's no public relations around it or no communication, then people just assume something nefarious is going on," Gartner said.

Hanson bristled at the suggestion, saying two other potential developments for the former Flo's Family Hair Care on the southern gateway to downtown fell through before Johnson and two local partners came to the table.

"They were scrutinized," Hanson said. "He didn't get any special treatment."

Hanson also defended the amount of information on various village matters that is available to the public. Gartner and challenger Stacy Ellis said there is room for improvement.

The comments came during a Daily Herald interview with the trio via Zoom. Comments regarding Rivalry came up when candidates were asked whether the village has made good use of incentives and should continue to offer them.

Hanson served 14 years as a trustee before being elected mayor in 2009 and is seeking a fourth term.

Ellis is the widow of Illinois State Trooper Gerald "Jerry" Ellis, who was killed by a drunken driver in 2019, and Gartner is a tech entrepreneur, managing partner at Merit Law Group and member of the village's planning and zoning board. Both are making their first run for public office.

Regarding incentives, Gartner said he feels as if there were "large chunks of business incentive money given to a chosen few businesses." He suggested a marketing campaign to spread the wealth.

Large grants for the Antioch Theatre and Lovin Oven Cakery downtown were important, he added, but the package for Rivalry Alehouse is "probably the most controversial" because of Johnson's involvement.

Johnson owns three properties downtown, including the former Flo's space. The plan is to remake the building in what has been described as a game-changing project.

Gartner said a "lot of people" question the incentive because of Johnson's involvement.

"There's been long delays in the building process, and because there's taxpayer money involved in the project, people get really uncomfortable," he said. "They want to know what's going on -- did the project run out of money?"

Ellis said there needs to be transparency and communication to ensure a level playing field and diversity in applicants.

"There's not a town that doesn't allow incentives, so it would be silly to think that we wouldn't offer incentives or grants to people," she said. "That's not my issue."

In general, the village "has been very closed off with their actions and accountability," Ellis said. She said she wants to increase the amount of information available from village hall, particularly regarding expenses.

Hanson said Johnson was unfairly criticized but, as a business owner, has the right to invest in the community.

"They put everything at stake" to reinvest in downtown, he said, adding they were not responsible for the slowdown.

Hanson said the budget decisions made during his tenure have allowed the village to fund a roster of facade improvement and other business incentive programs.

"I wish we had these things lining up right now to give these incentives because the village is in a comfortable position," he said.

"If you know somebody -- either one of you -- that wants to open up a business, send them in," Hanson added.

Gartner said the village has done a better job of adding documentation to its website the past few years, but more information regarding how contracts and grants are awarded, for example, is needed.

"There's not a thing you can't get on that website," Hanson countered.