State officials say they will scrutinize how the city of Zion used $1.3 million in grant money on a baseball stadium that has yet to be built to ensure it was properly spent.
Zion sought the state money in 2010 for the venture involving the 3-year-old Lake County Fielders independent baseball team. The team played in a temporary stadium in Zion the past two years, but it's unknown whether they will return this year.
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As soon as this week, Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity officials will begin reviewing how Zion spent the two grants from the Illinois Jobs Now! capital plan, spokeswoman Marcelyn Love said.
"We take our responsibility to ensure taxpayer money has been used for its intended purpose very seriously," Love said in response to Daily Herald questions regarding the money Zion received.
Specifically, officials want to know if Zion did enough with the grant money toward delivering the stadium and job creation project pitched to the state.
Love said Zion could be forced to return the grants if the agency determines the money was misspent.
Shantal Taylor, a Zion city council commissioner, said she's hopeful the infrastructure that was put in place for a baseball stadium will be enough to satisfy the state.
Taylor said she believes the city sought the grant money in good faith to help pay for ballpark construction.
"We just have to hope for the best and perhaps something else can happen out there," Taylor said.
State taxpayers' money has covered lights, dugouts, a backstop, utilities and a high school-style scoreboard for a field on private property at the northeast corner of Route 173 and Green Bay Road. The site is fenced and off limits to the public.
The multimillion-dollar stadium with a permanent concert stage, restaurant and banquet facility that Zion touted in April 2010 hasn't been built. The lights, dugouts and other work covered by the $1.3 million in state grants were supposed to be part of that stadium.
As part of a package of documents received by the state and obtained through a Daily Herald Freedom of Information Act request, Zion included 13 pages of artist renderings depicting a stadium, suites and a professional-grade scoreboard with video screen.
Zion rented seats and restrooms for a temporary stadium for the Fielders in 2011 and 2010. The seats and other parts of the makeshift ballpark were removed when the Fielders ended the 2011 home season in September.
Love said Department of Commerce and Economic Development officials plan a site visit and a review of all financial records and progress reports in Zion's possession connected to the grant money.
If problems are found, Love said, the agency can issue a monitoring letter with a corrective action plan. The ultimate action would be demanding a return of the grants if the money was misspent, with assistance from the Illinois attorney general if needed, she said.
Documents show Zion's former economic development director, J. Delaine Rogers, and Mayor Lane Harrison led the city's effort to obtain the grants.
Rogers was part of a news release announcing the start of construction on Zion's 4,000-seat stadium in April 2010, about a month after the city was awarded the $1.3 million from Illinois Jobs Now!
Although a permanent stadium has yet to be built, Rogers said, it's not for a lack of trying. She said Zion spent the grant money properly and contends the city has until 2013 to build a permanent stadium.
"As presented to us in 2009 and 2010, the $1.3 million was intended as the first stage of support for the $15 million project," Rogers said. "Without question, our community, with double-digit unemployment and a large percentage of households at or below median income levels, certainly met the criteria for a jobs-creation grant. In good faith, we moved forward together."
In May 2010, Rogers issued a statement on how 317 new jobs would be created from Zion's ballpark. She said another 120 jobs would be created at an adjacent retail development for "Baseball Stadium Village," which also has yet to be constructed.
Last week, Rogers said at least 80 year-round, full-time jobs and another 150 seasonal positions were created by the Fielders because Zion provided the team a temporary stadium in 2011 and 2010.
Rogers said the job creation included players, coaches, groundskeepers, marketing, clerical, sales and concessions. However, a manager, some players and a radio announcer quit the Fielders amid claims they were not paid all they were owed in 2011.
Separately, the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity last year rejected Zion's request for another $2 million in state taxpayers' money to buy 11 acres of a developer's 23-acre site where the permanent stadium is supposed to rise at Green Bay Road and Route 173.
Zion contends the Fielders owe the city $340,000 in back rent for temporary stadium use in 2011 and 2010. In November, the Fielders' parent company filed a lawsuit in Lake County claiming in part the city misled the team about permanent ballpark construction.