Quinn's plans to reopen historic sites still hung up on details

Eric Naing

Gov. Pat Quinn has big plans for the Dana-Thomas House in Springfield and other state historic sites. He's promising to soon reopen sites that were shuttered last fall and then merge their oversight with state parks, a model seen at the federal level.

It's the details to make those plans a reality that are still a work in progress.

Several times last week, Quinn vowed to reopen the dozen historic sites that his predecessor, Rod Blagojevich, closed amid budget problems last year. Quinn reopened seven state parks in February that also were shuttered but hasn't reopened the sites yet.

On Thursday, Quinn said he has been in discussions with House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, and Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, to use an additional spending bill to fund the reopening of the historic sites by this summer.

"Very shortly, we'll have a plan for the spring and summer, mostly for the summer," he said at an appearance at the State Fairgrounds. "We're going to work on getting money for this fiscal year for historic sites."

Beyond the short-term money fix, Quinn is looking to achieve savings to keep all the sites open by merging the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency - the oversight body for historic sites - with the Department of Natural Resources.

Speaking to the editorial board of The State Journal-Register on Thursday, the governor said he did not expect any opposition to the agency consolidation and that he had the authority to do so without the approval of the legislature. Quinn argues historic sites and parks are often linked at the federal level, so it makes sense to extend that to state government.

Historic Preservation Agency spokesman Dave Blanchette said he was optimistic that the historic sites would be reopened by the summer.

But for next year, Blanchette said the state's ability to keep the sites open depends on how much money is available after the legislature approves a budget.

Even with the presumed savings from the agency merger and a proposed $35 million budget increase for DNR, Blanchette acknowledged that all the funding needed to keep the sites open next year has not yet been secured.

Blanchette said he could not provide a specific figure for how much money is needed to reopen the sites.

Quinn's budget plan calls for about $2.3 million in combined savings between the IHPA-DNR merger and consolidating two labor boards.

But Quinn and his administration have not elaborated on how he would produce cost savings from the merger, or whether that would mean layoffs or other cuts from doing away with IHPA as a separate agency.

Some lawmakers have expressed concerns that folding the preservation agency into DNR would cause IHPA to lose its identity and that the management of historic sites would suffer.    

Rep. Rich Brauer, R-Petersburg, was glad the sites may reopen but he opposes the agency merger.

"I'm concerned that DNR, which handles parks and nature, won't be able to take care of our historic sites properly," Brauer said.

Rep. Raymond Poe, R-Springfield, shares that concern.

"I hope that game warden knows something about the Historic Preservation Agency," he said.

Poe also believes that the governor needs the approval of the legislature before consolidating the agencies.

"I hope the legislature can have input on that," Poe said.

Blanchette dismissed that criticism, saying the merger was "a really good fit" and that it would not affect the duties of the preservation agency. He also said that it was too early to know whether any preservation agency services or employees would be cut in the merger.

DNR spokesman Chris McCloud said his agency already has the right experience because two sites are already covered: Dickson Mounds in west-central Illinois, and Fort Massac in deep southern Illinois.

"Not only do I think DNR is capable of managing historic sites, we are doing it currently," he said.

Neither Blanchette nor McCloud knew when Quinn expected to merge the two agencies.

Jim Peters, president of the historic preservation group Landmarks Illinois, noted that having historic sites and parks under one agency is nothing new to Illinois. In 1985, the Historic Preservation Agency was separated from a predecessor to DNR: the Illinois Department of Conservation.

However, Peters does want a clear division to be maintained between IHPA and DNR after the merger.

"You need to have a very strong preservation person in charge of this division," he said. "People who manage parks are different form people who manage historic preservation programs."

Tom Huber of the Sangamon Valley group of the Illinois Sierra Club, pointed out the National Park Service already manages Lincoln's Home in Springfield. He thinks DNR can manage the parks and historic sites.

"The main issue will be whether they have the money to keep the sites open," Huber said.

Eric Naing can be reached at (217) 782-3095 oreric.naing@sj-r.com.