Callahan victim of coup d'downtown


By Mike Kroll

"I was sitting in my office on that Wednesday morning when at about 8:45 Tom Pepmeyer and Tom Schmidt stopped in to see me-- I really had no way to anticipate what they were about to say to me," explains Roger Callahan as he describes the morning he was fired as executive director of the Galesburg Downtown Council (GDC). "Initially I thought they were there to discuss rescheduling of a meeting that had just been postponed but they quickly corrected that notion. Tom Pepmeyer (GDC president) told me that the board met the night before and taken a vote to terminate me. I was surprised, I had no way of expecting this action but March 24th was my last day. I asked them what the reason was and they simply said insubordination. That's all they would tell me. At some point, I think it was Tom Schmidt, it was suggested that I submit my resignation but I refused. I told them it was a bit late to ask me to resign only after the board voted to fire me."

When news of Callahan's firing broke on the radio later that Wednesday most people were shocked and surprised. Callahan was recruited and hired in May 2001 and under his leadership the Downtown Council had accomplished quite a lot. If you talk to any number of downtown business people most would tell you that Callahan was one of the better downtown directors and a clear improvement over his predecessor, Ross Tilghman. For example, when Callahan arrived he inherited Tilghman's concept of the Streetscape Project that was in disarray and well behind schedule. While the merits of it various features remain debatable Callahan did see the project to its completion.

The Downtown Council is made up of the property owners within downtown special assessment district who voluntarily pay supplemental property taxes to support downtown. Just last fall the Galesburg city council approved another ten-year extension of this supplemental special assessment that funds the GDC. A closely related parallel group, the Downtown Galesburg Business Association (DGBA), is composed of member businesses located in downtown buildings. As director Callahan had three primary functions: attract and retain business tenants for the property owners, direct the downtown maintenance staff and assist in the marketing of businesses within the DGBA. To accomplish these tasks the GDC has a marketing coordinator and two maintenance persons in addition to the director and an annual budget of about $200,000.

"When I arrived I determined that my focus would be to forge a united downtown. My job was to be the voice of the 90 property owners and cheerleader for the downtown businesses. As I was hired the five member committee told me that they expected me to build up the downtown and get it looking good again. They wanted to see Streetscape become a reality and they wanted to see the Seminary Street loft project completed. Maintenance and appearance needed to be improved and there were many more vacant store fronts. Four months after I was hired the GDC held a strategic planning session. That was September 25, 2001 just two weeks after 9-11. It was here that my list of priorities was put into writing and I believe that I did a pretty good job of accomplishing the goals of that plan."

In addition to Streetscape Callahan was instrumental in getting the downtown facade grant program moving and expanding. A number of such facade improvements were accomplished in the last year alone. With Michele Bizarri and the DGBA Callahan also helped put together the "Come Home to Downtown Galesburg" image campaign. "I think I poured my heart and soul into the downtown-- this is my hometown after all, and there remains so much more to be done. I was looking forward to continuing our expansion of the facade program along with a new building revitalization program that was to begin this year. We had targeted the former O.T. Johnson and Cornerstone buildings for badly needed investment under this new program. And Michele has a full plate of DGBA activities including the Scarecrow festival we began three years ago."

Ironically, it was arguing for a raised for Bizarri that ultimately cost Callahan his job according to official accounts. "It was during our March board meeting that I was advocating a raise for Michele. Some GDC board members, notably Vern Stisser, were demanding I document accomplishments to justify the raise and I tried to point out all that has been accomplished in the last year. I guess this discussion got kind of animated but at one point Vern described the Downtown Council as a 'Mickey Mouse operation' and I really took offense. Our discussion went on for some time when suddenly Vern said out of the blue, 'We need to go into executive session!'"

According to Callahan he always felt he had a good rapport with all of his board members, including Stisser. He was acquainted with Stisser even before the latter was appointed to the GDC board last November. The appointment of Stisser along with Jay Bullis and Jay Matson was somewhat unusual in that only Matson went through the appropriate nomination process. "I received a telephone call one day last fall from Jay Matson telling me that we had to put the Stisser and Bullis names on the agenda for the November annual meeting. Jay wasn't even officially on the board yet himself but that didn't stop him from ordering me to do this. I even received another telephone call from a different board member after the annual meeting agenda came out questioning the addition of these names. Don Cooper (editor of the Register-Mail) said that this would be a violation of the GDC bylaws and I told him I was only doing as I was ordered."

Stisser moved to Galesburg only a few years ago and maintains an office in the Weinberg Arcade. He also owns the Antique Mall and the former Sears building across from the Post Office. Since this winter Stisser has also become the landlord for the Downtown Council, Galesburg Area Chamber of Commerce and the Galesburg Regional Economic Development Association (GREDA). Not long after the Chamber of Commerce sold their building on the corner of Kellogg and Simmons Streets to Mike Martin one year ago they began to look for a new office location. This move was led by GREDA president Eric Voyles who reportedly felt that the former Commerce Center offices weren't sufficiently impressive to woe prospective new businesses to Galesburg. When Martin, who purchased the building with the expectation of maintaining the existing tenants, offered to remodel the building to suit he was ignored.

"We went through this laborious process of studying 19 different locations where the three entities could co-locate," said Callahan, "while it quickly became clear that the decision to move into the Sears building had been secretly made early on. I never really understood this plan as we were supposed to be looking for 3200 square feet for the three entities yet this building was so much bigger. I guess I should have seen then that this move was just one part of a bigger plan of Eric's to expand GREDA's domain. It is now becoming clear to me that the new office relocation went far beyond the three organizations as more and more new economic development entities are now joining in use of this space. I'm growing concerned that what we are witnessing is a major case of empire building by Eric (Voyles) and that my firing may be part of the overall plan."

Callahan believes that for some time Voyles has wanted to subsume the economic development of downtown Galesburg within GREDA. He sees this move as not only a turf grab but also an attempt to get the money generated by the SSA. When some GDC board members were quoted in the Register-Mail as considering a restructuring of the Downtown Council and potentially eliminating the director's position Callahan saw this as further evidence of a greater scheme afoot. At this point little more has occurred and only time will tell if the Downtown Council is to be sucked into GREDA.

While most of the board members of GDC have chosen to remain mum I was able to speak with one principal who disputes some of Callahan's characterization of just what occurred. Tom Schmidt is president of Carl Sandburg College and vice president of GDC. Schmidt was present when Callahan was fired and confirms that insubordination was the official reason. "Any executive director serves at the will of his board and I can only state here that there was a unanimous consensus that Roger's behavior at the March board meeting went beyond the pale. I can well imagine that if I, in my capacity, behaved similarly I would not expect to be employed by Carl Sandburg College the next day."

Callahan says that Pepmeyer told him on the day he was fired that the process was unfair and because he (Pepmeyer) did not believe Callahan had behaved in an insubordinate manner he was Callahan's lone supported among the board members voting that night. Schmidt categorically denies all this. While Schmidt was not himself present during the "incident" it was later described in believable detail by those who witnessed it and more than justified the firing of Callahan. Additionally Schmidt denies any knowledge of a bigger plan as outlined by Callahan. "What happened was nothing more than a fundamental breach between an executive director and his board," stated Schmidt.

"My focus right now is to find a full-time teaching job, preferably in a middle school teaching math. Whatever happens from this point forward I really hope it is positive for the downtown for it is really the heart of this city. I want to thank Carl Nixon and the committee that hired me. Excepting how this episode came to an end I must say that my involvement with the Downtown Council has been a very good experience for me and I hope I have done well for my hometown. Unless something happens to disprove it I must believe that I was nothing more than the victim of an organizational coup."