As people entered Lorenzo Smith School Jan. 23, a propane gas truck was making a delivery.
The irony being those attending were there for the Promise to Pembroke event to celebrate construction underway to offer natural gas service.
Within a year, the school will be heated by natural gas, and residents of the village of Hopkins Park and Pembroke Township will have the choice to connect to the service.
Three years ago, a group consisting of officials from local, township, county, state and federal government, local businesses, members of the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH coalition and Nicor Gas met in the community room of a Hopkins Park church.
Several of those attendees at that meeting were in attendance Monday.
“A promise made; a promise kept,” Hopkins Park Mayor Mark Hodge said as he addressed the about 125 people attending the celebration in the school gymnasium.
What had been talked about for at least four decades became his goal: Bring natural gas to the community.
“I want to thank Mayor Hodge,” Pembroke Township Supervisor Sam Payton said.
Payton was a county board member representing the township when Hodge got the ball rolling.
“He had the dream. He had the vision,” Payton said.
Pembroke Township was formed from parts of Momence Township in 1877.
The village of Hopkins Park was established in 1972.
Hodge has been mayor since April 2015.
He can reel off several businesses that were there during his childhood, a grocery store, restaurants, barber and beauty shops.
All that is left of those are a few empty buildings and their memories.
Hodge knows the stories of the residents of the village and township. He knows well the struggles of the more than 1,400 residents, with more than 550 living in Hopkins Park, according to the U.S. Census Bureau statistics.
There were 3,009 residents in the township with 819 living in the village in 2009.
U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Matteson, 2nd District, knows those same stories, she has represented the residents for 10 years.
“The community was written off as ‘forgotten’ and economic development was scarce, in large part due to a lack of access to necessary resources, including natural gas,” Kelly said in her prepared remarks.
“But communities like this one don’t give up. And the tide began to turn about three years ago.”
At the start of her first term in 2021, State Rep. Jackie Haas, R-Bourbonnais, introduced her first bill to make the dream become reality. With the help of State Sen. Patrick Joyce, D-Essex, and strong bipartisan support, the bill overwhelmingly passed both the house and senate.
Later that year, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law legislation that gave Nicor Gas the ability to serve the community of Hopkins Park by installing up to 500 feet of natural gas main per customer in designated hardship areas, which are defined by the U.S. Census Tracts and Department of Housing and Urban Development, at no charge to the served customers.
Through the Pembroke Township Natural Gas Investment Fund, the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity would distribute grants to residents to help cover the cost of converting stoves, heaters and other appliances to be compatible with natural gas.
“I will remember this as the biggest legislative accomplishment of my career,” Haas said.
Joyce recalled being at the second meeting.
“I looked around and someone was missing — Nicor representatives,” he said. “If you are talking about natural gas service, you should have the source in the meeting.”
It will be up to Sen. Elgie Sims Jr., D-Chicago, and Rep. Nick Smith, D-Chicago, to carry the ball.
When legislative districts were redrawn after the 2020 Census, they became the township’s legislators.
“We will work for you to get the infrastructure,” Sims said.
Bringing Pembroke Township into the 21st century with natural gas will lead to broadband internet, solar energy and wind turbines.
Broadband service should be up and running within the next year, said Kelly’s aide Rick Bryant.
Kelly secured a $3 million grant that will be administered by the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity on behalf of the Community Development Corporation for Pembroke and Hopkins Park for broadband, GPS and other infrastructure to be funded.
That money will serve as both a principal funding source and be used to qualify for state matching funds through the state’s Rural Broadband program, Bryant said in an email answering questions about the project.
“DCEO and the Rural Broadband office are working with the Kankakee County Board, Pembroke officials and our office to review proposals and DCEO will eventually award a contract for the best broadband provider proposal,” Bryant said.
The broadband will help students at Lorenzo Smith School be able to have internet service available in their homes.
“The children are the future, and deserve to have those promises fulfilled,” Lorenzo Smith School Superintendent Nicole Terrell Smith said.
Residents can choose natural gas over their current heating plan — propane, electric or wood burning stoves.
Nicor spokeswoman Jennifer Golz said more than 100 residents have signed up for service. There is no cost to residents to hook up to the system.
The more than $8 million project will run 30 miles of pipeline through the township, including the former site of the proposed women’s prison east of Hopkins Park, near the state line with Indiana.
The prison was supposed to add 800 jobs to the local economy.
More than 20 years ago, then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich ceased construction on the program, which had been funded by former-Gov. George Ryan, of Kankakee, a few years earlier.
Hodge said there are plans for the site to help the area grow its economy, bring businesses to the area and jobs.
“It will become an industrial park for Hopkins Park and Pembroke Township,” Hodge said.
“It is time for jobs for the people of Pembroke Township.”
Region: Northern,Region: Kankakee,Local,City: Kankakee
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January 28, 2023 at 08:14AM