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Friday, May 2, 2003 02:20 pm

People, Places, Goofing Off

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Oddest Landmark
Hilton Hotel
700 E. Adams, 789-1530

1. Deviating from what is ordinary, usual or expected; strange or peculiar.

In defining the word "odd," the American Heritage Dictionary could have used a photo of the Springfield Hilton. The hotel is modern and well-run, but over the last 30 years nearly everyone has wondered why it looks so peculiar. Originally it was an independent hotel, the Forum 30, and its designers said they wanted the new tower to be the pride of the prairie, only rivaled on the Springfield skyline by the state capitol building. But local wags have always pictured it differently, dubbing the hotel the prick on the prairie. Several have suggested a fountain should be placed on top. Still, the Hilton is a legitimate landmark, and it plays an important part in the community. On any given day the place could be packed with wrestling fans, state employees, or Jehovah's Witnesses. The building may always look odd, but it's ours. (TT)


Best Waitress
Demetria Clay
Clay's Popeye's Bar-B-Q
1121 E. South Grand, 522-0386

Demetria Clay got a jump on the competition for Best Waitress in Springfield. As a senior server at Clay's Popeye's Bar-B-Q--one of the most reliably tasty restaurants in town--all she really had to do was smile as she brought out your platter of ribs. But Dee, as she's known to family and friends, goes above and beyond. "I just give people the type of service that I expect to receive when I'm out dining," she says.

Of course, at Popeye's, it's also important to know your sauces. There's no toothpick color-coding to distinguish the mild from the blistering. "If you get confused," Dee advises, "you just ask the person who ordered 'hot' to taste the food first."

She's less decisive when it comes to identifying her favorite customer. After deliberating for 15 minutes, she finally settles on "Mr. Johnson," who "always gives me a hard time." But as we leave, Dee is still sorting through the possibilities. "There's so many of them!" she says. We're all her favorites. (DR)


Best Bait Shop
Pete's
2001 S. Grand Avenue East
No phone--just ring the bell around back

In the late 1940s, Pete Locker and his cousin, both avid fishermen, pooled $6 for a minnow tank. When other priorities led the cousin away from fishing, Pete bought him out for double his original investment--$6. From this tank grew a business that will celebrate its golden anniversary next March. Seven days a week, for up to 12 hours a day, fishermen can still stock up at the shop behind Pete's house at 2001 South Grand East. Just look for the sign hanging from a tree: "Pete's Live Bait." A friend painted it over an old Coke sign. You'll find night crawlers, wax worms, minnows, crickets, and a wide assortment of lures. Pete also mixed his own cheese dough bait until colleagues at Pillsbury complained that he brought the odor to work. It's been a good run, Pete says. But come next March, he's hanging up the dipping net for good. After 50 years of serving others, it's time to do more fishing of his own. (TT)


Best Florist
Fifth Street Flower Shop
739 S. Fifth, 522-3334

Fifth Street Flower Shop owner Pat O'Connor has been behind a lot of touching moments. Once, O'Connor recalls, he delivered 12 dozen red roses to a woman's office and hours later followed up with 12 dozen white ones. Unfortunately, the customer's relationship turned sour. "I think it came down to a stalking situation," O'Connor says. On a happier note, he remembers another customer sending a flower arrangement in a trombone to mark someone's 76th birthday.

O'Connor purchased the shop 16 years ago, but the business had been in Springfield since the 1920s. He says dealing mostly in fresh flowers--instead of silk and novelty items--has helped him carry on a tradition of satisfaction guaranteed. (TM)


Best Carpet Cleaner
Stanley Steemer Carpet
730 Corporate Court, 585-9933

Your carpet probably needs more than a good vacuum when:

(a) you've forgotten its original color;
(b) it's crunchier than it used to be;
(c) it smells the same as your cat;
(d) all of the above.

For about $33 a room, Stanley Steemer (yes, Steemer, not Steamer) will move all your furniture, spot clean it if necessary, and arrive at your doorstep on the same day you called. You can even schedule a cleaning online at www.stanleysteemer.com.

Based in Dublin, Ohio, the national chain has a Springfield franchise that's independently owned by Joe and Kendra Doone. According to Kendra, Stanley Steemer cleans carpets, upholstery, drapes, and tiles--it also has a 24-hour emergency water-extraction service. The Doones might even knock the price down if you get more than one room done. (PS)


Best Day Spa
BJ Grand Salon Spa
3300 Robbins, 787-7770

If getting scrubbed with a dry brush, slathered in warm mud, wrapped, massaged, and rinsed with a five-headed shower is your idea of Heaven on Earth ($110), you must be one of the many people who voted for BJ Grand Salon Spa. This westside outpost seems to be situated on the border (if there were one) between Illinois and California. Soft waves of aromatherapy and muzak waft over you as you leave the bright din of the hair salon and enter the spa. A veritable smorgasbord of pleasures awaits you--anything from a Peach Paraffin Hand Treatment ($5) to a full-body massage ($55), as well as treatments touted to slim your thighs, firm your bust, erase your stretch marks, and "re-mineralize your body." It all sounds great . . . except for the Brazilian Bikini Wax ($60). Yeow! (DR)


Best Health Nut
Sangamon County Sheriff
Neil Williamson

Head west on Stevenson, just past Starship Billiards, and you'll see a billboard for the Fit Club. But the beefcake splashing around up there is no ordinary model: it's Sangamon County Sheriff Neil Williamson. Waving a wet weight around, the 51-year-old Williamson is tone and tan, a testament to good health. Those who know him agree this is no case of false advertising. Department receptionist Betty England, for example, contends her boss "seems fit," and Patty Poole, from the Fit Club's business office, sees the sheriff working out every day. Williamson has even run marathons. He likens his love of exercise to an addiction. "I do about three miles every morning on the treadmill and mix in some crunches and cross training. After 35 years of running I have to minimize the damage to my knees and hips." He hopes the Fit Club advertisement improves the image of law enforcement professionals everywhere. "I hate the stereotype of the fat cop with a donut." (MW)


Best Downtown Store

The Cardologist
225 S. Sixth, 525-4121

When he was 16, Doug Mayol went to school in the morning and ran his own crafts consignment shop in the afternoon. It was in a storefront next to Dellert's. In his 20s, Mayol ran a similar store above the downtown Vono's. Then Leonard Sapp hired him to manage Fairhills Mall for a decade. That relationship ended in 1988, shortly after Mayol opened the Cardologist. Fourteen years later, business is better than ever for Mayol. "Since September 11," he explains, "personal communication has become more important."

Mayol facilitates this communication, often eliciting smiles with his zany window displays. These have ranged from flocking flamingoes to miniature nuns to an offer of free DNA testing on Father's Day.

"I want to make people laugh," Mayol says. "I want to give them a smile at lunchtime. Most of the inspiration for them comes from my own twisted mind." (TT)


Best Republican and Democrat
Carl Oblinger

When we asked Illinois Times readers to select their favorite Democrat and Republican, we expected they'd choose different people. But Carl Oblinger, who was once a prominent Republican, switched parties this year so he could run against Rich Brauer for state representative in the 100th District.

Before jumping parties, Oblinger was no lightweight Republican. He's a former Sangamon County circuit clerk and mayor of Chatham. A trustee on the board of Lincoln Land Community College, Oblinger also has a PhD in labor history. His mother, Josephine, was a state representative in the early 1980s.

When State Representative Gwenn Klingler lost to Brauer in the spring primaries, Oblinger stepped in as Brauer's moderate opponent. Although he was severely chastised and insulted by local leading Republicans, Oblinger did receive recompense. After quitting his job with DCFS, which receives federal funds that prohibit him from seeking political office, Democratic Secretary of State Jesse White brought Oblinger onboard, giving him a one-year, $75,000 contract, according to The State Journal-Register. If the Democrats do well this November, Oblinger, 57, might coast easily into early retirement, even if he loses. All he needs are a few more, one-year contracts from the leaders of his new party. (PS)


Best Landscaped Home
Illinois Governor's Mansion
Fifth and Jackson, 782-6450

Imagine having to maintain a scenic yard and tourist attraction the size of an entire city block, while the most powerful man in the state kept an eye on your work. For Governor's Mansion gardener Tom Martin, it's no sweat-he's glad his handiwork delights the public. The mansion was established in 1855, but Martin boasts that he helped to elevate its landscaping. When he arrived from the U. of I. in 1986, he found "pretty much nothing here, except the large trees." Nowadays Martin and two part-time workers manage the intricately arranged gardens and a perimeter of "casual" ground cover. Literally thousands of flowers fill the yard and decorate the house's interior as well. A complex system of drip irrigation and sprinklers keep everything rosy, and an inventive composting system thoroughly recycles all plant waste. Martin is an aficionado who spends his winter down time examining gardens around the world, searching for new ideas. You can get a closer look on tours of the mansion, offered Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. (MW)


Best Idea Out of City Hall
City beautification

First, the blinking signs had to go. "Those were essentially outlawed," says Bryan McFadden, chief of staff for Mayor Karen Hasara, who appointed a Citizens Task Force to consider changes in the city's zoning code. "There was a grace period for people to remove the signs, and that period has come and gone. We got several hundred complaints." Then came the provisions for green space. Developers got those watered down, but they couldn't eliminate the call for buffer zones between business and residential areas. "We've been finding a learning and acceptance curve," McFadden says. "We have elevated landscaping and trees to the level of sidewalks. Certain things are mandatory in development: sewer, water, streets. Landscaping is more important now than before. It used to be considered a frill. Not anymore." (JC)


Best Place to Hike
Tie:
Carpenter Park
Illinois 124 and I-55, 544-1751

Lincoln Memorial Garden
2301 E. Lake Shore, 529-1111

For veteran hiker Vern LaGesse, picking Carpenter Park or Lincoln Memorial Garden depends on whether you're looking for the rustic or the refined, the touch of nature or the touch of man. On its 300-plus acres, Carpenter offers hardwood flood plains, sandy prairie, and river bluffs. Its trees are centuries old. A careful eye can spot a pileated woodpecker or a brown creeper. At the opposite end of town, noted landscape architect Jen Jensen designed Lincoln Memorial Garden in 1936. Its 100 acres lie partially on earth deposited there during the building of Lake Springfield. Tastefully arranged trails feature plantings that come only from the states Lincoln lived in. Stout wooden benches and stone council rings invite frequent pauses. There's a serenity here that Carpenter Park is too wild to achieve. (TT)


Best Boat Launch
Lake Springfield Marina
Boat rental and sales office open
9 a.m. to 7 p.m., seven days a week.
483-3625

Success has come quickly since the Lake Springfield Marina opened for business just off the I-55 bridge 14 months ago. It's even expanded from 48 covered slips to 89 slips--64 covered, 25 uncovered. A new fuel service boat dock and a building for rental and sales were added this year. Budding sailors may rent pontoon boats (seats 12; $175 for four hours, $275 for eight hours, plus fuel), a party barge (seats 30; $275 for four hours, $395 for eight hours, plus fuel), and canoes and paddleboats (each seats about two; $30 for half a day, $50 all day). Personal watercraft can be rented for $60 a hour. The launch is always available, but the best time is in the morning, the earlier the better. In the warmer weather the "rush hour" begins at about 4:30 p.m., especially on weekdays as cornbelt commodores exit the workplace early. General manager Gene Duncan says the city council recently approved new rules to expand the lake's swimming areas, but most readers agree: Lake Springfield is the best place to float your boat. (MW)

Best Place to Buy a Suit
Jim Herron Ltd.
Hilton Plaza
700 E. Adams, suite C, 753-8036

Want to save money when buying a new suit? Look for quality. That's been Jim Herron's advice for 40 years. After working for Myers Brothers and then Roberts Brothers, he opened his own men's clothing store, Herron Ltd., in 1975. Located at the Hilton Hotel, he offers downtown's best window-shopping. In suits, his top line is an easy choice: Hart, Schaffner & Marx. They're not only made in America--they're made in Chicago! And, unlike most other stores, Herron's offers free alterations for the life of the garment. This has led to many long-term friendships between Jim and his customers. Many of their sons have also become regulars. He gives no one a hard sell. He doesn't use bar codes. His "computer" is a 200-year-old cash drawer. At Herron's, it's all person-to-person. (TT)


Best Tailor
Mario Ingoglia
Metro Tailoring & Alterations
127 W. South Grand, 744-6969

Sicilian-born Mario Ingoglia came to Springfield 11 years ago, following a successful career in San Diego. He wanted to be close to his parents, who had retired here from Jacksonville. Metro Tailoring may be centrally located at the northeast corner of Spring and South Grand, but Ingoglia says the shop's name refers to one of his favorite cars: the Nash Metropolitan, a sporty two-seater manufactured in the late 1950s. An auto enthusiast, Ingoglia plans to open a vintage car museum at 1921 Peoria later this year. Still, he knows the shop's spot has played an overriding role in its success. "My central location is convenient for state people, judges, lawyers, and a lot of motorcycle riders." His touch with leather, which borders on the reverent, accounts for the cycle connection. (JC)


Best Auto Repair Shop
Wilkerson's Service Centers
2840 Stevenson, 529-0292
2000 W. Monroe, 787-2296

When we asked what makes Wilkerson's Service Center the Best Auto Repair Shop in Springfield, the manager launched into a predictable spiel: it's the personal service, reliability, honesty, blah blah blah. Eventually he fessed up. "It's probably because we're open more hours." Finally, an auto repair business that acknowledges cars break down at all hours of the day and night, even--heaven forbid!--on weekends. Wilkerson's East Lake location is open 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the week, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays. The Westside location is even more accommodating, open 6 a.m. to midnight Monday through Saturday and 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Sundays. (DR)


Best Car Wash
Mermaid Car Wash
2631 S. MacArthur, 698-8005

It's not difficult to see why readers voted Mermaids the Best Car Wash in Springfield. Not only do they provide prompt, courteous, and thorough service (they will clean your car inside and out for as little as $10.95), but you get to chat with Seaweed the macaw in their cozy lobby while you wait. If Seaweed is not in the mood for chatting, you can sip complimentary coffee while browsing Mermaid's large selection of air fresheners and greeting cards for all occasions. Open 7 a.m to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Rain or shine. (DR)


Best Car Salesperson
Carlo's Auto Sales
2817 Old Rochester, 528-0228

Carlo's Auto Sales doesn't advertise on TV. It doesn't have a big listing in the Yellow Pages. It doesn't have a Web site or an inflatable gorilla. Heck, it doesn't even have those colorful little plastic flags flapping from a utility pole. Just a chain link fence and a sign that says "Beware of guard dog."

Inside the office, which must be entered via the garage, the walls are covered with bowling plaques (KC Holy Family League), cartoons depicting despicable salesmen, and humorous bumper stickers such as "My other car is a piece of (expletive) too." Owner Carlos Catalano is the guy in the baggy khakis and plaid shirt--no tie, no pinkie ring, no tassles on his loafers.

No financing, either. "We're strictly cash 'n' carry," Catalano says.

So why did this guy win Best Car Salesperson in Springfield? "Beats me," Catalano says. "You trying to get me to buy an ad or something?"

Well, no, I don't sell ads. But thanks for asking.

Catalano opened his car lot in 1983. Before that, he ran the City of Springfield's garage, so he may know a thing or two about car repair. He sells most vehicles, he claims, "at wholesale price." And that's just for starters.

"Everything's negotiable," Catalono says. (DR)


Best Boss
Vicki Bied
Heritage Manor

There must be something special about Vicki Bied, who received more votes than anyone else combined for Best Boss. It's not just that Bied, who heads the Heritage Manor nursing home, received so many votes. It's that most of the ballots were accompanied by lengthy testimonials. One of Bied's employees even quoted Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, declaring that she "can no other answer make but thanks, and thanks, and ever thanks."

So what makes Bied so beloved? She's loyal, several employees wrote, and only corrects them once the facts are in. She treats all her workers as if they were part of one happy family, said another. She takes an interest in their private lives too. She tells them they are essential to Heritage's success, no matter how "lowly" or "menial" their jobs. And everyone takes her seriously. "If you're caught doing something wrong," one employee said, "you don't want to be you."

Bied says a caring atmosphere is necessary in a long-term care facility. "The residents at Heritage were our teachers, bus drivers, and principals," she explains. "For some, we are the only family they have." To encourage a more homey environment, Bied has relaxed the staff dress code, and she allows pet visits. When told her employees nominated her for Best Boss, Bied quickly overcame her shock: "I shouldn't be surprised--you recognize people, they recognize you." (PS)


Best Waiter
Jeff Clay
Clay's Popeye's Bar-B-Q
1121 E. South Grand Avenue, 522-0386

Jeff Clay's daughter was named this year's Best Waitress. Guess who was named best waiter?

Clay works for his wife, Mary, the true talent in the kitchen at Clay's Popeye's Bar-B-Q. He became a waiter seven years ago, at the age of 51, after spending most of his life as a coal miner. If given a choice, Clay says, he might even head back to the mines--it pays better. But dealing with people can be more fun.

A great waiter knows how to pull out of an embarrassing spot. Clay recalls once mistaking a male customer for a female. "I told him I was sorry and had just looked at his long hair and earrings, but I should have paid better attention," he says, laughing. Clay acknowledges this awkward part of the job: a waiter has to smile even when he doesn't feel like it. (TM)


Best Dentist
Robert Hurd
2325 W. White Oaks, 787-1748

Robert Hurd learned to be a dental technician in the Army. For the next decade, he practiced the trade in Springfield. "But as I made those crowns and bridges, I kept wondering where they were going," he says. The answer led him to become a dentist.

Twenty-seven nominees in this category received multiple votes. The citizens of Springfield either have bad teeth or they're happy with the work being done. Hurd says he knows what's at the root of his popularity.

"It's important to me to put people at ease," he says. "People fear pain. I try to be as gentle as possible." He's even taken a Dale Carnegie course to help him out. And he's succeeded. Many of his 3,000 patients have been with him for his entire 26-year career. Some even return from as far away as Las Vegas and San Francisco to keep their appointments. (TT)


Best Bank Teller
Debbie Bryant
Bank One
1 E. Old State Capitol Plaza

Debbie Bryant, a teller at Bank One, handles thousands of dollars a day. But for her, the money's only paper. The important part of her job is dealing with the customers.

Bryant looks back on her 13 years as a teller with no regrets. She's proud that many customers know her by name. She's the type of teller who gives children suckers, and isn't offended when some bring the candy back at the behest of their parents. She says her secret is simple: the customer is always right. (TM)


Best Free Checking Account
National City Bank
Main Branch One Capitol Plaza
753-7100

Most banks offer some form of free checking, a service that varies little from institution to institution. But it's the small details that make the difference. National City, which has 20 ATMs in Springfield and seven branches, requires only a $50 deposit to start a free checking account.

The perks are many: no minimum balance, unlimited check writing, online banking, a Visa bank card, and access to National City's 1,600 ATMs nationwide. National City will also keep copies of canceled checks at no cost. While there are some catches (no overdraft protection and a fee if the account is inactive for 180 days), National City's convenience is a big draw, say Best of Springfield voters. (PS)


Best Barber Shop
Beggs Barber Shop
2623 S. Sixth, 525-1244

Barber David Beggs doesn't take appointments--he accepts only walk-in customers. This antiquated method ideally suits a retro business, says the 29-year-old Beggs, who inherited the storefront shop from his father. "My dad was a barber from 1950, and I learned from him. My dad was the first to cut a flat top in Springfield. We still do a lot of flat tops." Fades are also popular, short on the top and sides, a little longer in front. The charge for a haircut rose last year for the first time since 1985: from $6 to $7. He works efficiently. Most customers barely warm the seat in the time it takes to work his magic. Beggs says he averages nine haircuts an hour. The shop is open 7:30 to 5:30 Tuesday through Friday, 9 to noon Saturday. (JC)


Best Therapist/Masseuse
Donna Felton
241-5300

Donna Felton says she's in the "quality of life" business. Some people come to her with chronic pain due to such physical problems as arthritis. Others are feeling the strains of stress and grief. "Emotional pain may be felt throughout the body," Felton says. "The body remembers what the mind forgets." Felton's a "wounded healer" who suffered with chronic pain for years. Traditional medicine provided little help. "When you talk about pain to a doctor, they usually don't even touch you," she notes. She felt there must be an effective alternative, and she found it in therapeutic massage. (DK)


Best Local Cell Phone Service
Cingular Wireless

Lots of players in this field--Sprint PCS, Verizon, Nextel, Amica, AT&T, and PrimeCo, just to name a handful. But Cingular Wireless gets the top vote among the readers of Illinois Times. An analysis of Cingular's various plans offers some clues as to why many people believe it's number one. It offers nationwide long distance with a network that includes most of the country, and its rollover plans allow customers to transfer unused minutes to the next month. Individual customers can choose from eight to nine different rates, depending on which features they want. Businesses have several choices as well, so employees can use company phones and share anywhere from 2,500 to 100,000 minutes a month. Include wireless Internet and small business solutions, several store locations in Springfield, a bunch of digital features, prepaid plans, and several choices of slick phones, and it all adds up: Cingular is singular. (PS)


Best Day Care
Building Blocks
729 E. Carpenter, 523-2273
805 S. Chatham, 698-8877
770 Apple Orchard, 528-8028

Illinois Timesreaders voted Building Blocks as the best in Springfield for child care, but if you're planning to enroll your kid you'll have to wait for an opening. Kristy Laurenzana, director of the Carpenter Street facility, thinks parents are lining up to get in because the staff is committed to excellence, there's an educational curriculum for children two and older, and the fees are inexpensive--ranging from $110 to $145 a week per child. Hours are 6 a.m. to 11:45 p.m., depending on the location. (TM)


Best Place for a Kid's Birthday Party
Chuck E. Cheese's
2369 S. Macarthur, 793-1046

Everyday is a party at Chuck E. Cheese's, where children of various ages celebrate their birthdays with pizza, cake, tokens, games, and a big mouse. If the screams of delight could be measured when Chuck E. Cheese and his companions take the stage, the winner of this category is no surprise.

Steve Boehler, manager of Springfield's Chuck E. Cheese's, says more than 250 birthdays are celebrated at his site every month. A hostess attends to each birthday party, and party packages include the items mentioned above plus decorations. Package prices range $8.99 to $10.99 per child. (TM)


Best Place to Take Kids When It's Raining
Jungle O Fun
3031 S. Koke Mill, 787-0707

Rain, snow, and sleet are all wonderful excuses to escape to Jungle O Fun, a children's fantasyland. The maze of slides, tubes, and play equipment welcome romping kids. Owner Greg Irwin says his business thrives whenever it's too cold, too wet, or even too hot outside. The game room and jungle gym are specially geared for children three years and up, he says, and parents are invited to join in the fun--they need as much of a break from the bad weather as their children. Group and birthday packages, special school-night rates, and other deals are available. Jungle O Fun is open 11 to 6 on Sunday, 10 to 6 on Monday, and 10 to 9 Tuesday through Saturday. Admission is $3.50 for children ages 2 to 4, $6.50 for kids 5 to 17 years old. Adults are free. (TM)


Best Outdoor Playground
Washington Park
1500 South Grand West

Washington Park doesn't have the largest playground in Springfield: Lincoln Park and the new westside Century Park have more equipment. But Washington's playground has always been popular, especially since it installed safer and more colorful equipment, says Springfield Parks and Recreation Executive Director John Linxwiler. "All of our slides are hooded now," he says. "They meet all the new safety standards." But a small section of the playground retains the original equipment. Maybe some people return for the risk. (JC)


Best Public Pool
Franklin Nelson Center Pool
Lincoln Park
1601 N. Fifth, 753-2800

Barry Woodworth, director of operations at the Nelson Center, pretends to be mystified about what makes the center's pool a favorite in Springfield. "Maybe it's the deck!" he says, surveying the broad expanse of gray concrete overlooking the pool. "Maybe it's the snacks at the concession stand," he jokes again. It's hard to imagine the pretzels, hot dogs, and slushies are any more alluring than those at other public pools. It's possible that the 120-foot water slide might have a little something to do with the vote.

Two stories high and spiraling to splashdown in a 348,000-gallon lap pool, the slide draws 500 to 600 kids per day between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Their youngest siblings can paddle nearby in the wading pool, only about a half-foot deep, and enjoy their own island-themed slide in water aerated by two spouting animal fountains.

And, yes, after sliding to their hearts' content, of course they can enjoy a soft pretzel on the deck. (DR)


Best Grocery Store
Schnucks on Montvale
2801 Chatham, 698-2980

Just as gas stations aren't merely gas stations anymore, Schnucks on Montvale is not just a grocery store. It's also a pharmacy, a flower shop, a deli, a bank, a video store, a bookstall, a liquor store, and a photomat. Groceries, though, are still its bread and butter. It has a large and varied produce section, including many organically grown vegetables. Its Schnucks line, along with other generic products, is comprehensive and cheap. For example, you can buy a gallon jug of laundry detergent for only $3. The place is big, but customers feel neither overwhelmed nor cramped. Aisles are wide and attractive. Homebound or busy people can even shop online and have it delivered. Most of all, Schnucks staffers are competent, helpful, and abundant. Wise shoppers with time will always visit more than one store. But for those in a particular hurry, Schnucks also cooks. (TT)


Best Hardware Store
Noonan True Value
801 N. Grand Avenue East, 528-1513

Few small, locally owned stores can manage to compete with the national behemoths. But Noonan's, a perennial winner in this category, has found a way. It's carved out a niche market in the rental business. It offers competitive prices on seasonal goodies like rock salt and topsoil. It has the kind of character that only a longtime family owned and operated business can have. Plus it has more square feet of sales area for each parking space than any store in town. But most of all Noonan's has what you need. Recently, I had to do some delicate hammer work on old picture frames. At another hardware store, I found a plastic 12-ounce Stanley mallet for $20. Noonan's not only had a house brand plastic mallet, but it had the mallet in three sizes. I took the eight-ouncer for half a sawbuck. (TT)


Best Radio Host
Sam Madonia
Weekday mornings 6 to 9 on WFMB
1450 AM/104.5 FM
Call-in line: 529-1450

Teaching high school in Lincoln is a fulfilling experience, says Springfield native Sam Madonia, but nothing beats being on the radio. He got hooked in 1973, when he began doing a part-time sports radio show on WFMB. Thirty-three years later he moved up to the station's morning-drive slot. "It's a challenge to convince potential listeners that a talk show on 'FMB can be something other than sports," Madonia says. Monday through Thursday is dedicated to current events, but sports usually takes over on Friday, when he previews the weekend's high school games. His morning show has originated from many local venues and as far away as the Bahamas. "I try to find unique people with a story to tell," says Madonia. "Our demographic has a lot of professionals, people involved in politics. We don't get as many calls as others, but we are free from political bias." A registered Republican, Madonia works full-time for the Illinois Secretary of State. "I could be a jerk, but that's not my style," he says. "Respecting the guest and the audience is a big thing with me." (JC)


Best Actor
Gus Gordon

Cincinnati born and bred, Gus Gordon came to Springfield in 1990 to work as a TV weatherman on Channel 20. "I took about a year to get comfortable with the station and my schedule and to understand the lay of the land here," he says. Then he acted in a play at Muni. Since then, he's appeared in theaters throughout central Illinois, including the Little Theater in Sullivan. "Jack Connors, my boss, supported me from the start," Gordon says. "He realized a good public relations opportunity." Gordon's wife, Claire, and five-year-old daughter, Amy, have joined him onstage. "My two-year-old son, John, doesn't act yet. He's still deciding." Gordon says he was a shy guy before joining a high school production of Dickens' A Christmas Carol. "If I hadn't had the guts to appear in that play, I never would have made it to television." In 1999 the Gordons launched their own theatrical production company and developed a Web site (www.gordonproductions.com) to share news of the local theatrical scene. Next month they'll be presenting My Way: A Musical Tribute to Frank Sinatra in New Salem (call 632-4000 for tickets and show times). Don't expect to see Gordon on the Great White Way anytime soon. "I'm tremendously happy here," he says. "I can't imagine being anywhere else." (JC)


Best Antique Store
Barrel Antique Mall
Exit 90 off I-55, 585-1438

In the burgeoning world of antique malls, the Barrel rolls on. This is the third time in four years that it's been named best antique store. Its 125 dealers offer everything from stuffed elk heads to Pez dispensers to Lincoln collectibles. Even with all that stuff, the mall is neat and tastefully arranged. It doesn't have much furniture on sale these days, but that's fine with regular shopper Sharon Heflin--she's on the lookout for little treasures. Cindy Warrington, whose Blue Parrot vintage clothing shop is an original tenant at the Barrel, looks at the matter more analytically.

"Antique buying reflects the economy," she says. "When times are tough, people buy quality. When times are good, they buy fun things. These days they're buying 'smalls.' " (TT)


Best Resale Shop
Goodwill Industries
1333 Wabash, 793-3113
2531 N. Dirksen, 753-3620
800 N. 11th, no phone

In a town full of thrift stores and garage sales, people still count on Goodwill for a good deal. With its brand-new Northend outlet, Goodwill now has three locations in Springfield, and it gives a lot more to the community. The international nonprofit uses nearly 86 percent of its revenue to provide job training and employment services. That's what originally attracted regional executive director Larry Hupp. "It's a business, not a handout," says Hupp, who joined the organization in 1981. "Right now we are serving 150 people with disabilities, and we added another 20 when we opened up the new facility." Hupp's region runs from Quincy to Danville, Effingham to Bloomington; aside from the three shops in Springfield, there are stores in Champaign, Bloomington, and Jacksonville. Springfield also has ten "drop boxes" for donated items. A recent restructuring allowed Hupp to lower prices on all merchandise and offer occasional half-price days on top of that. Store hours are 9 to 7 Monday through Saturday, 9 to 6 on Sunday. "People in Springfield recognize a bargain," Hupp says. "If I weren't in the business, I'd shop here." (MW)


Best Boutique
The Wardrobe
830 W. South Grand Avenue, 528-5785

Stuffed with casual and dressy clothing, the closets at the Wardrobe offer something for everyone. Candles, Cole-Haan shoes, hand-crafted jewelry, and bath and body products, are also available. If it isn't in stock, owner Kim Dixon says, she can order it. Dixon, who purchased the boutique in September, deals with hundreds of vendors. She even stages "trunk shows," during which a clothing representative presents a complete line and takes orders at the end. Hours are 10 to 6 Monday through Friday, 10 to 5 Saturday, and noon to 4 Sunday. (TM)


Best Weight Loss Clinic
Weight Watchers
2581 MacArthur, suite B, 800-651-6000

In 1963, a woman named Jean Nidetch was worried about her weight. She figured there were a lot of people just like her, so she set up a support meeting in the loft of a New York City movie theater. Today her enterprise is the world leader in weight loss: Weight Watchers International. Each week in the U.S. and Canada alone, 20,000 Weight Watchers meetings serve 670,000 health-conscious dieters. Springfield had one of the first Weight Watchers centers, in the Town and Country Shopping Center (another group meets once a week at the Center for the Arts). Though the number of members drops every summer, local manager Irene Salz says, the Springfield outlet still sees more than 1,200 people each week. "It is so fun to watch them change and grow and build their own self-esteem," Salz says. A long-time member, Salz has been with Weight Watchers 21 years. "I plan to keep going as long as I feel I can make a difference. If someone's helped, then it's worth it." (MW)


Best Tennis Courts
Washington Park
500 South Grand West

If you are looking for a place to practice your backhand, Washington Park is the ideal spot.

There are 12 courts at the park; six are lighted. To keep the courts in great condition, players are charged a nominal fee: $1.50 for singles for the first hour and $1 for doubles the first hour. You can play after an hour at no extra charge as long as no one is on the waiting list. It costs $2 to turn on the lights, which will last an hour. An extra 25 cents keeps the lights on for another fifteen minutes. Court hours are from 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.

In March, a fire destroyed the field house and tennis pavilion near the courts, but park district officials are looking to replace the building. Plans for a new pavilion include a recreation room, pro shop, restrooms, and showers. (TM)


Best Basketball Courts
YMCA
701 S. Fourth, 544-9846

Lanphier High School
1300 N. Eleventh

Head to the YMCA.

Minutes from downtown, air-conditioned, and clean, these basketball courts provide enough room for two full-court games at a time. (Kids can play six half-court games, and adults can play four half-court games.)

And check out these hours: the YMCA is open 5 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. But call before stopping in--court hours vary by season. Daily passes to the Y cost $2.50 for children, $4 for high schoolers, and $10 for adults. Season passes begin at $8.50 a month for children and $27.27 a month for adults. According to Illinois Times readers, the best outdoor courts are found at Lanphier High School, off-school hours, of course. (TM)


Best Youth Sports League
YMCA Soccer League
701 S. Fourth, 544-6623

Children of all ages sprint up and down the soccer fields at the University of Illinois at Springfield. They're playing the YMCA Soccer League, which has been around for 36 years. The league annually enrolls about 3,400 children, ages 4 to 14.

When the weather turns cold, games head inside at Soccer World, 2700 West Lawrence. (TM)


Best Adult Sports League
Four Seasons
1901 Truman, 525-8765>

Three divisions, each with a half dozen teams, each team with a minimum of six players--sheer numbers could explain why volleyball at Four Seasons sports complex and tavern was voted Best Sports League for Adults. Softball actually attracts more participants at Four Seasons, but, hey, this volleyball league is beach volleyball, and the league is co-ed. (DR)


Best Health Club
Fit Club South
3631 S. Sixth, 787-8348

The new Fit Club South has more than 100 pieces of cardio equipment, two dozen different cardio classes, a 20-person jacuzzi, 16 TVs viewable from treadmills, a half dozen types of weight machines, a full range of free weights, two swimming pools, saunas, free child care--in short, everything you need except an excuse not to exercise. You'll have to come up with that yourself. (DR)


Best Bed & Breakfast
Inn at 835
835 S. Second, 523-4466

It's enough to make you wish you lived anywhere but Springfield. That way, you'd have a good excuse to reserve a room in The Inn at 835. You and your honey could choose your favorite among the dozen or so suites, each beautifully decorated, most featuring two-person jacuzzi tubs, some also with super-size showers with mind-boggling possibilities. Located within walking distance of downtown and every tourist attraction this side of New Salem--in what was built to be Springfield's first luxury apartment house--Inn at 835 features all the nicest amenities of a great B&B: gourmet breakfasts, wine in the evening, plush bathrobes, French soaps. But unlike most B&Bs, Inn at 835 also includes the kind of niceties found in contemporary hotels: hair dryers, cable TV, an iron and ironing board in each room. The two worlds mesh completely in the guest lounge, where there's Internet access, a manual typewriter, and an accordion with music stand. Rates range from $99.99 to $189.99 a night. (DR)

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