by Norm Winick

Knox College will receive $1.5 million from the State of Illinois towards the renovation of Alumni Hall. The Illinois First grant was quietly announced December 21st by Governor George Ryan "to renovate Alumni Hall for public and academic purposes." It’s the largest contribution to date towards the $7 million project and among the largest contributions Knox College has ever received.

According to a press release on the governor’s web site, "The exterior renovations will include restoring the exterior façade to replicate the original 1890 appearance of the building. The interior renovations will include an interpretive center for the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, the Underground Railroad, a secure art gallery, a historically restored lecture and debate hall and a Lincoln Studies Center for historical research.

While most Illinois First grants specifically credit a local state senator or representative for initiating them, this one, and recent similar grants to Blackburn College and Milliken University were silent on that count.

Ryan has been under attack for continuing the Illinois First grants while mandating cuts in many state agencies and programs. A statement of the website justifies the program, considered "pork" by some of the Governor’s critics. "Illinois FIRST funds are not part of the state budget's General Revenue Fund. Recently, lagging tax collections brought on by a slowdown in the national economy and the terrorist attacks of September 11 have forced the governor to order spending cuts in the General Revenue Fund that amount to less than 2 percent of total spending. Illinois FIRST monies are derived from separate accounts in the state budget-- the Road Fund and the Fund for Illinois Future-- as well as through the sale of state bonds."