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Ricky Rockets development back in play

KANKAKEE — Ricky Rockets Fuel Center, a development proposed for the Interstate 57 interchange at East Court Street about four years ago, is back and is set to begin.

At tonight’s Kankakee City Council meeting, council members are expected to agree to a $2.2 million development agreement which will finally get the project underway, according to sources.

Financing for the project is being sought by the developer, a person with insight on the project noted.

If all goes as expected, the 7th Ward project — at the site of the former Kmart store immediately east of I-57 and across the street from the LaBeau Brothers truck dealership — will begin being built by mid-2020. According to the development agreement proposed at last week’s Budget Committee meeting, the project is to be completed by the first quarter of 2021.

The development was first announced in 2016. However, shortly after some initial site work was started, the project has been on hold.

The development will consist of the Ricky Rockets Fuel Center, convenience store, car wash and restaurant. A restaurant operator has not been announced.

As part of the $2.2 million incentive, the city will agree to reimburse Ricky Rockets up to $1 million for site work such as interior roads, sidewalks, landscaping and site preparation work, among other expenses. The city further dedicates $1.2 million for construction of the new North Eastgate Drive. The city will begin planning for North Eastgate Drive upon execution of the agreement.

The location has largely been vacant since the Kmart store closed in 1994 when a new Super Kmart was built and opened in Bradley. The Super Kmart was eventually razed and is now the site of the Meijer store.

The project is located within the newly expanded East Court Street Tax Increment Financing District. To assist with the development, the council agrees to borrow TIF funds from the Exit 308 TIF district. The money must be reimbursed to the district which includes the popular retail outlets such as Walmart and Tractor Supply Co.

When the development was first brought forward to the Kankakee City Council during the Mayor Nina Epstein administration, the developer, Rick Heidner, of Hoffman Estates, would have received sales tax and gaming tax rebates to help fund and incentivize the development, which was expected to be in the $10 million range.

This time around, the city will receive 100 percent of the sales tax and gaming tax revenues, but instead will assist the development with about $2.2 million of infrastructure work.

Basically, Kankakee taxpayers will be paying for the construction of a new road which will run on the east side of the property. The existing road runs on the west side of the property and near I-57. However, the Illinois Department of Transportation has stated in recent years that a targeted redevelopment of the East Court Street interchange would result in the road being closed.

Pet adoptions on the rise during stay-at-home order

The pandemic that’s wreaked havoc on people’s lives has had a positive impact on the lives of homeless cats and dogs.

Since Illinois’ stay-at-home order was put in place, local shelters have been clearing out adoptable animals at a faster rate, and reports of stray dogs in the area have been down.

Kankakee County Animal Control Director Kari Laird said the facility has fewer animals in its shelter and has been receiving fewer calls about strays, presumably because people are home and watching over their pets.

“We’re hoping the animals stay home and that we have a decrease in stray population overall,” she said. “That would be a dream.”

Laird said that when she started her position in December, the facility had about 49 cats and 27 dogs, which was nearly full. Currently, the facility has one cat, who is enjoying an entire room by himself, and roughly six or seven dogs. The number of dogs tends to fluctuate daily.

“Staff said it’s the lowest amount of animals they’ve seen in the shelter,” she said.

The facility presently has no adoptable pets, and when strays come in and are not claimed, other animal rescue groups are in contact about taking them for adoptions.

Meanwhile, staff have been able to focus on cleaning efforts and spending more time with individual animals.

“It’s been great having the low population,” Laird said. “I just hope people are staying home and taking care of their animals at this time.”

Laird said she believes people have been spending more time with their dogs indoors and taking them on more walks, so the dogs have had fewer chances to run away. Hopefully, people also will use this time to find and fix spots in fences where dogs had been escaping yards, she added.

Jordan Chapman, director of the Kankakee County Humane Foundation, said the shelter facilitated the adoptions of 30 dogs and five cats in March and is on track to meet those numbers again in April.

“We’ve adopted out half of our shelter since everything [started],” she said.

Interest in cat adoptions has been steadily increasing, she said. Before the pandemic, the shelter had roughly 25 cats, compared to about eight currently.

The shelter, located in Saint Anne, is currently operating by appointment only. Potential adopters can fill out an application online and come meet the pet they are interested in once approved. They can also schedule a walk-through if they don’t have a particular pet in mind.

Chapman said having extra time to get a dog acclimated to its new environment and routine can reduce the stress of adopting a pet for the family as well as the animal.

“When life goes back to normal, the dog eases into that new schedule, but they are already used to the house. They are used to the people. They are on that potty training schedule,” she said.

Some people have been taking the opportunity to foster pets, but most of the recent interest has been in adoptions, she said.

“One dog we put into a foster home, and two hours later someone applied to adopt him and was approved; he came back and was adopted later that day,” Chapman said.

The increased interest in adopting pets has been great for longtime shelter residents, she added. A black pit bull named Perdie was adopted a couple weeks ago after being in the shelter for three years.

Lonyea and Jack Rutherford of Kankakee recently adopted a cat, which they’ve named Nairobi, from the shelter.

The couple wanted a “sibling” for Oslo, the pit bull mix they adopted last year, but it turned out Oslo got along better with the cat than with other dogs.

“It’s been two weeks since we’ve gotten her, and she’s an essential part of our family,” Lonyea Rutherford said.

Rutherford said she would advise others interested in adopting to keep in mind that it is a serious responsibility.

“If you believe in your heart of hearts that a pet is what you want, go for it, especially while you have all the time to bond and hang out with them and take them for walks,” she said. “But still remember your commitment when your life becomes what it was before.”

Federal court releases 3 ICE detainees from county jail

KANKAKEE — Three Immigration Customs Enforcement detainees who were being held at the Jerome Combs Detention Center in Kankakee were granted their release earlier this month by federal judges.

The three men were released because they faced severe risk themselves or are caretakers for individuals at high risk as the COVID-19 virus spreads through Illinois, according to the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC).

The NJIC and attorney Sidley Austin filed lawsuits earlier this month in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois in Urbana against the Jerome Combs Detention Center.

Within 24 hours of one filing, the federal court ordered the first of the group to be released.

“Under the conditions our clients have described, it is not a question of if, but when, a staff member or immigrant at Jerome Combs Detention Center will contract COVID-19,” NIJC attorney Kate Melloy Goettel said in a news release.

“Once it arrives, as we’ve seen at other Illinois jails, it will be nearly impossible to contain.”

Attorney Michelle Ramirez said: “These civil detainees are being held in a county jail while they await adjudication of their viable legal claims for immigration relief. The imminent and serious threat of COVID-19 spreading in our jails makes their continued detention dangerous,” she said.

The individuals represented in the lawsuits are: Juan Manuel Hernandez, Delome Johannes Faviand and an 18-year-old man, whose name was not released.

Hernandez, 46, suffers from several health issues He had been detained by ICE for more than eight months because he was unable to afford a $2,000 bond set by an immigration judge. Hernandez’s wife, who has significant medical needs, has lived in a nursing care facility during his detention.

Favi, 32, suffers from health issues. His U.S. citizen wife submitted a petition last year for him to obtain lawful permanent residence. A March meeting with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services regarding the application was postponed when the immigration office closed because of the pandemic. Favi already has been detained for more than nine months while awaiting the adjudication of his immigration petition.

The 18-year-old man is an asylum seeker who entered the United States as an unaccompanied minor and was transferred from Office of Refugee Resettlement custody to ICE adult detention on his 18th birthday. He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, which has been severely exacerbated by his prolonged detention while awaiting adjudication of his asylum application.

Kankakee County Sheriff Mike Downey said the filing of lawsuits “wasn’t a shock.”

“When this first started, advocates for ICE detainees and advocates for other inmates used this just as an excuse to get clients out of jail,” he said. “Our jail administrators do a great job. We were one of the first that got out in front of [COVID-19] very early when this arrived.

“Corrections Director Chad Kolitwenzew and Rob Schultz and the rest of the staff have done a tremendous job.”

The lawsuits described the conditions the immigrants said they faced at the jail.

Those include four people sharing a cell, toilet and sink. Sleeping accommodations that don’t follow the six-foot distancing recommendations.

The detainees congregate in larger groups at various times throughout the day, including mealtime, and have not been provided face masks, gloves or hand sanitizer, even as new people continue to be brought into custody at the jail, the lawsuits states.

They have received little information about COVID-19 and what they do know about preventing its spread is from television or phone calls with family members, the lawsuits said. Not all jail employees wear face masks or other protective gear when interacting with immigrants at the jail, and have neglected to clean high-touch surfaces such as light switches and door knobs, the lawsuits state. Numerous immigrants in custody at the jail have had a cough or fever, symptoms associated with COVID-19, yet the staff at Jerome Combs had not quarantined anyone, and no one had been tested for the virus, according to the lawsuits.

Downey said these types of lawsuits are frustrating.

“They are telling a judge a lie, and either the judge believes them or rules because they have their own agenda,” he said. “We have a responsibility as a jail when it comes to the detainees and inmates’ safety. Our medical department has been doing a fantastic job, even before COVID-19, in treating the inmates and detainees. Our goal is when they leave here that their health is better than when they came in”

Downey agreed there are inmates who can be released.

“They need to be vetted with the people they deal with on a regular basis,” he said.

The county has a contract with the Bureau of Prisons and ICE allowing the agencies to house their inmates/detainees they take into custody.

“This is not about the money. You are in custody for ICE, committed a theft or a burglary,” he said. “As a society we are not holding people accountable. You got prosecuted. You have been sentenced.”