'Absolutely ignorant' deal: Centreville taxpayers could be out $500,000

News-DemocratApril 20, 2013 

— Operating out of a New Athens bait shop, Roger Strong persuaded Centreville city officials to spend $500,000 in public money to acquire a 55-acre site now wholly owned by his development firm without a finalized written agreement or a signature.

In June, Mayor Mark Jackson attended a groundbreaking ceremony at the wooded location opposite the Flying J Restaurant on Illinois 15 near Interstate 255 where Strong and his partners proposed building a 100-room hotel and a factory to manufacture residential locks.

"It's an awesome day for Centreville," Jackson said at the time.

Since that day, and well after the taxpayers' money was wired to a real estate title company to secure the site ownership deed for Strong's company, Strong Holding LLC, the proposal has soured. Nothing has been built and both sides are talking about filing a lawsuit against the other.

Strong isn't under an obligation to repay the $500,000, turn the property over to the city or to develop the site, he said in a Friday interview.

However, he said he would like to see some sort of development result.

Strong Holding LLC now owns the entire site according to a notarized deed filed on April 2, 2012, in St. Clair County with the recorder of deeds. The purchase price was $675,000. Strong said his firm got a mortgage for $175,000 and financial records show that Centreville took out a $1 million bank loan to pay for future development, and used $500,000 of it to cover the remainder of the site cost. The $500,000 was wired to a real estate title company to complete payment to a private seller.

During an interview last week at the bait shop, Strong was asked his opinion of city officials who would approve the transfer of a large amount of taxpayer money without a written agreement.

"I wasn't going to ask any questions. I found it absolutely ignorant," he said "Hell, I don't know why they did it."

Jackson, the mayor, could not be reached for comment.

Centreville's former Economic Director Rodney Lewis, who helped put the deal together over two years beginning in mid 2010, said the village firmly believed in Strong's plan.

"We trusted them and gave them the maximum flexibility to get the financing and complete the project," Lewis said, adding that he met several times with two businessmen and a lawyer who were identified by Strong as investors and was confident that they could finance their share of the deal. The three investors could not be reached for comment.

During an interview on Friday, Lewis conceded that the city had lost control of the public's $500,000, but said that "a host of legal options ... will make the taxpayer whole."

Strong said his backers are also talking about taking legal action to recoup what he said were services and still more money promised by the city.

"The city owes us a road and a million dollars," said Strong, who added that he is still waiting on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to work out an agreement to allow the access road to cross a small wetland.

Lewis and city officials countered that Strong had verbally reassured them that he would pay $200,000 as his firm's share of the cost of acquiring land rights for a road into the site that would allow the proposal to go forward.

While Lewis did mention the $200,000 payment during talks about the project, nothing was worked out on paper and nothing was signed, Strong said.

"They wanted to borrow $200,000," he said, "Our attorney told us municipalities shouldn't borrow money from private companies."

Earlier this year, Lewis said he and other Centreville officials became, "suspicious of the whole thing ... It was a series of small things in the back of my mind. But none that broke the camel's back."

One thing Lewis said he learned that caused concern was that Art Feole, a businessman convicted in 1995 of racketeering and prostitution in the Above the Red Garter federal prosecution in Brooklyn who served two years in prison, was connected to the proposal.

However, Feole, contacted by telephone at the bait shop in New Athens, said Thursday he was not a partner in Strong Holding, LLC, and did not have a stake in the proposal.

"I do some consulting and try to help out. The past is the past," he said. "I might be a witness in a lawsuit the company is intending to file." He declined further comment.

Lewis, who also works as a full-time East St. Louis firefighter but was not formally trained as an economic director, said that earlier this year he and city officials including Jackson became alarmed. Lewis said that while he could not name names, this is what happened: A person he said was associated with the development company came to a city official and said, "This will all go away if you give us a strip club license."

But Strong said there is no reason for secrecy. He said an attorney acting on behalf of his company asked an attorney then working for the city for the license but was told none were available. Strong said he views a strip club license "as a marketable security," that could be sold to make good on what he alleges is the city's failure to build the road and give him the $1 million for the project.

"We were going to sell it," he said.

Lewis said "there was no way that we were going to allow an adult entertainment venue next to a national religious site." He referred to the nearby National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows.

The controversy between city officials and Strong increased about a month ago when Strong contacted Detective Raymond Wilson at the New Athens Police Department. The bait shop is about a block from the police station.

Strong said he told Wilson, and later repeated his story to agents at the FBI in Fairview Heights, that it was improper for city officials to come to him and repeatedly ask for the $200,000 without a written agreement.

Wilson accepted hundreds of pages of paperwork from Strong, including numerous emails between Strong and Lewis, and took them to the office of the St. Clair County State's Attorney.

"They told me that they believed that it was a civil matter ... I think he (Strong) may just be making a mountain out of a molehill," Wilson said.

Despite talk of legal action on both sides, Lewis said, "There's still hope for the project's completion."

"The city wants this project to happen, but the clock is ticking."

Strong said, "Sure. I'm willing to go through with the it if they live up to their obligations."

Contact reporter George Pawlaczyk at gpawlaczyk@bnd.com or 618-239-2625. Contact reporter Beth Hundsdorfer at bhundsdorfer@bnd.com or 618-239-2570.

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