EFFINGHAM, Ill. -- Chicago investors who want to operate a medical marijuana farm in this rural south-central Illinois community say they will donate more than $1 million over 10 years to local schools if city and state officials approve the proposal.
But city officials who turned down the project last month likened the offer to a bribe and said they don’t expect to change their mind when the City Council meets next week to discuss the gift.
“If I was to change my vote now, I would be nothing more than a Judas,” said Commissioner Matt Hirtzel. “Instead of 30 pieces of silver, it would be a million dollars to the schools.”
Commissioner Brian Milleville observed that “this must be the Chicago way. They want to grease a palm, but because it is in a public setting, they call it legal.”
The investors, attorney Jon Loevy and real estate developer Rich Silverstein, pledged $75,000 to immediately fund a jobs training program and, depending on the success of the pot farm, as much as $1 million over the next decade for other educational programs.
They described the offer as an investment in the community’s future.
“I don't pretend to understand what dark forces are opposed to this,” Loevy told the Effingham Daily News. “I believe that if enough citizens want good jobs and money for the schools, city leaders should have to respond to that.”
Last month the City Council denied a zoning proposal for the $5 million to $7 million "Effingham Medicinal Farms" project by a 3-2 vote, concluding it was not a good fit for the community.
The site is on farmland just south of the city border, but still within its zoning jurisdiction. A change to light industrial zoning is needed before the investors can seek state approval and construction can begin.
Illinois is among several states to approve the growing and sale of marijuana for medical purposes. Effingham is considered a prime location for a pot farm because it is located at the intersection of two major interstate highways -- north-south I-57 and east-west I-70.
The community of 12,000 residents features a 198-foot steel cross near the intersection.
Loevy said there are misconceptions about the project; that the farm will only grow and transport the marijuana crop to distribution centers throughout the state.
“There will be no marijuana sold in Effingham,” he said.
Still, the perception the community could get a reputation as a pothead place caused high school teacher Joe Fatheree to ask at the earlier public hearing what local parents would tell young people about a marijuana facility in their city that has “drug free” signs along its roadways..
“Tell your children this is a factory that is making medicine to relieve people's suffering,” Loevy responded. “Why is it immoral to help someone with glaucoma or chemotherapy?”
Tony Huffman is a reporter for the Effingham, Ill., Daily News.