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SPRINGFIELD - A House panel Tuesday approved a plan to let the state trade 2,000 acres of parkland in Perry County to make way for a resort that some believe could rival Branson, Mo. as a tourism hot spot.

Lawmakers say the proposed development, which would use land currently a part of Pyramid State Park, could generate $100 million in investment and 2,500 new jobs for the state.

In return for the land, the developer would purchase a nearby tract of equal size to keep the 19,700-acre park at roughly the same size.

State Rep. Dan Reitz, D-Steeleville said that, despite the plan advancing unanimously, the project is still a long way off.

"All this (legislation) does is gives the Department of Natural Resources the authority to look at this," he said. "It's all speculative right now."

The project is being spearheaded by the Glen Carbon-based Toney Watkins Company, which was founded to develop a "state-of-the-art destination and convention resort to cater to both the business community and families alike."

Representatives from the company directed all questions to its chief, Toney Watkins, who did not answer calls.

In addressing a panel of lawmakers, Reitz said the resort could one day boast three golf courses, an amphitheatre and a theme park.

Along with Reitz, state Sen. Dave Luechtefeld, R-Okawville, has been talking with developers about the project for over two years.

The two lawmakers say the Blagojevich administration also has been involved in the project, helping to plan road improvement projects in the region, as well as compiling a package of incentives to aid the company in its quest.

But spokesmen for a handful of agencies involved in the project would say little about the extent of that planning.

"We're certainly aware of the project and we're talking to the developers," said Andrew Ross, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, which is the lead state agency on tourism and economic development issues.

"We're certainly always looking at ways to increase tourism," he said.

Ross declined to describe what types of incentives might be available.

Similarly, a spokesman for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources said the agency which oversees Pyramid State Park was still reviewing the proposal.

"We're not playing any role right now," said DNR spokesman Chris McCloud, who also couldn't say whether there was any precedent for the state to give up state park land to private developers.

Luechtefeld said the Illinois Department of Transportation, meanwhile, has been asked to review what roads would need to be widened in order to avoid choking traffic jams on the two-lane roads that crisscross the rural region.

Under one concept being discussed, Illinois 127 would be widened and a bypass would be built around Pinckneyville, which is east of the proposed site. Also being eyed as a potential interstate connector is Illinois 154, which connects Pinckneyville with Interstate 57 near Sesser.

The legislation, which now moves to the full House, is Senate Bill 778.


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