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Out Here: Why are we finding out now?

Published: Thursday, June 13, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, June 13, 2013 12:51 p.m. CDT

As someone who frequents local movie theaters, I look forward to the reopening of the one in downtown Sterling. As a co-worker told me, this new theater will be the type that would show “Iron Lady,” not “Iron Man.”

The theater was set to open in May, but the renovation proved more complicated, so it was delayed until July. The theater plans to hire six to 10 employees, and interviews are starting at 10 a.m. June 26 at the City Hall Annex.

A couple of weeks ago, Decatur TV station WAND reported that the theater operator, Skip Huston, went bankrupt a couple of years ago. He got $215,000 in loans for a theater expansion in Decatur and ended up paying back only about $36,000.

Sterling’s deal is structured differently. It gives $550,000 to the Greater Sterling Development Corp. to buy and renovate the old theater, vacant since 2007.

Huston will make payments for 11 years to buy the building. So if he skips out, the city won’t lose the renovated theater.

In reaction to the WAND report, Sterling officials, including Mayor Skip Lee, wondered about the motive behind it. The bankruptcy hadn’t been publicized before.

I imagine the city of Decatur wasn’t exactly excited to announce that it lost nearly $200,000 in a deal with a businessman, especially during a recession in which many people grew tired of government giving subsidies to businesses. So it took an enterprising TV reporter to unveil the hidden truth.

Bankruptcy is not necessarily the end of the world for a businessperson. Many businesses and people have gone through the experience and went on to great success. Indeed, one of the nation’s largest theater companies, Carmike, which runs the theater in east Sterling, filed for bankruptcy in 2000. Does that really bother anyone today?

Sterling officials’ objections to the TV report boiled down to one question: Why now?

I have the same question, but it’s directed at the city of Sterling, not the TV station.

The city could have publicly revealed the bankruptcy when it was vetting the deal. A good time to tell taxpayers might have been before it decided to lend the money in December.

At some point, council members were told about the bankruptcy, but not publicly. By city officials’ accounts, Alderman Barry Cox found out about it and informed the mayor and city manager.

Heather Sotelo, executive director of the Greater Sterling Development Corp., said Cox mentioned the bankruptcy, but, “We already knew about it.”

If “we” had already known about it, why weren’t council members also told? Maybe Sotelo and others had just discovered the information, but had not had a chance to tell the council.

But the city could have avoided this who-knew-what-when issue if it had just told the public about the bankruptcy before the council voted to lend the money. Maybe the city had a reason not to. Perhaps Huston, who has declined to comment on this issue, preferred his bankruptcy not go public and would walk away from the deal if it were.

Still, this is taxpayers’ money. Shouldn’t the public have been told the pros and cons of the loan beforehand?

Good arguments can be made that the Sterling deal provides much more security than the one in Decatur, and thus taxpayers have more protection. But wouldn’t it have been better to hear these points made before the deal, rather than after?

David Giuliani is a reporter for Sauk Valley Media. He can be reached at dgiuliani@saukvalley or at 800-798-4085, ext. 525. 

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