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Thursday, June 20, 2013 10:25 am

Stalemate sells steaks

Statehouse controversy helps downtown’s economy

Three houses along Springfield’s 10th Street rail corridor house recent prison parolees. Owned by David Kettelkamp, the houses are each called House of the Rainbow, and the neighborhood association is eager to have them removed from the area.

Michael Higgins

Michael Higgins loves America.

The owner of Maldaner’s restaurant in downtown Springfield pays his taxes, votes and keeps abreast of current events, perhaps moreso than the rest of us, by going to a fair number of city council meetings. But, in at least one way, Higgins sees the world differently.

“We used to love Rod Blagojevich,” Higgins says with a hint of wistfulness. “The first couple-three years, he kept them in about all summer.”

“Them” is legislators, and in a post-Blagojevich era of shuttered state offices downtown, Higgins and others who make livings by pampering and feeding and sheltering have an understandable fondness for lawmakers who spend months in Springfield and have returned this week for a one-day special session out of which not much is expected.

Higgins and others who know what it’s like to accommodate political powerbrokers and hangers-on don’t make ends meet with legislators alone. After all, the state spends just $40,000 a day to keep the legislature going when lawmakers, who get $111 per day for meals and lodging, are in session. But interest groups are just as important as lawmakers.

“You want a very controversial year,” Higgins says. “You want a year that requires every association in the world that deals with Illinois to have to be in town…. Is the legislature doing good in a general sense? Probably not, at least in the last few years. Do you want them to not be good in Chicago or do you want them to not be good in Springfield? That’s how I look at it.”

Higgins says that legislative sessions aren’t necessarily a make-or-break for his restaurant.

“We would still be open without the legislature,” Higgins said. “It allows us to catch up on revenue. We’re always thankful they’re here. We know our legislators, we try to accommodate them as best we can. If there’s a certain legislator hanging out in your place, the lobbyists show up. The legislator wants to be seen, the lobbyists want to be seen – it feeds on itself.”

For those who need privacy, Higgins sets up gatherings in an upstairs banquet area. There are, however, limits.

“Trust me, there are meetings that happen up there, but we don’t have smoke-filled meetings,” Higgins said.

Victoria Ringer, executive director of Downtown Springfield, Inc., says that legislative sessions are more than blips.

“I think, for a long time, it’s been a great economic booster,” Ringer said.

Vic Lanzotti, an owner of Sebastian’s Hideout, says business from legislators is critical.

“It’s beyond important,” Lanzotti said. “Being an upscale restaurant, the legislative community is a big factor for Sebastian’s. We would not be able to survive if we had to depend on walk-up business from Springfield. … We know that once we hit the summertime and the session’s over, we all hunker down and wait until next fall.”

Pulled pork might be a daily diet at the Capitol, but for those who appreciate $40 steaks from locally raised cattle, the legislature helps, according to Lanzotti, who says that his restaurant keeps the same level of product throughout the year even though the target customers are Chicago-area lawmakers. Like other restaurant operators, Lanzotti says that hours turn flexible during session and keeping track of the reservation list is important.

“They may stay in until 10 o’clock at night, and we’ll tell our staff to stay open longer than we normally would,” Lanzotti said. “Without mentioning any names, we might get a reservation for someone we know, and we’ll alert the manager and the staff: We’ve got this person coming in, that means there will be other people following. You kind of know.”

During business hours, at least, restaurant owners don’t talk politics.

“We don’t play sides, we don’t do Republican or Democrat,” says Sharon Ehrat, a co-owner of Augie’s Front Burner. “We do tailor to certain individuals. If we have regulars, if we know they prefer maybe one vegetable over another, we make sure we can accommodate them. We go out of our way to make them happy.”

Karen Conn, who runs the Inn at 835 and Obed and Isaac’s restaurant and microbrewery with her husband Court, says that some lobbyists book rooms for an entire session, and bookings tend to get tight as sessions wind down.

“We have a lot of lobbyists that stay with us that we know on a first-name basis,” Conn says. “They’re like an extended family.”

A one-day session, Conn says, is something like a one-night stand.

“When you do one-days, it’s business and they’re gone,” she said. “Hardly a kiss and off they go.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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