The Cairo Project -- a report by the students of the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

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What is the Matter with Cairo?
Abandoned medical records.

Photo by Jason Holland.

The medical record room of Cairo's Southern Medical Center. Records and medical equipment were left
behind when the hospital closed in 1986.

Part Three

In 2003, Gov. Rod Blagojevich announced his “Team Illinois” program to help poverty-ridden communities with high illiteracy and unemployment. He included Cairo as one of four communities. Then, last year, Governor Blagojevich made Cairo one of 21 communities in the state to receive federal funding for the Delta Center's after school activities.

Team Illinois helped tear down an abandoned high school and remove asbestos, but much of downtown Cairo remains in a state of decay.

One political intervention that has had an effect was the 2005 call by U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D.-Ill., for state and federal agencies to collaborate in an attempt to clean up the abandoned and asbestos-ridden Southern Medical Center in Cairo.

The medical center stood empty for years. Patient records were strewn on the floor and empty children's incubators abandoned when the medical center staff left in 1986.

This time there was action. The cleanup was finally begun in April 2007.

Former mayor and current public housing director James Wilson said state and federal legislation aimed at the town has been helpful.

He appreciates the help from public institutions such as Southern Illinois University Carbondale, whose students have helped with setting up tourism sites and working on architecture for some buildings around town. Robert Swenson, an architecture professor, is currently expanding his study of the town by sending students to inventory abandoned buildings.

But with articles about the city's impoverishment and dysfunctional city politics running in every newspaper - from Carbondale's Southern Illinoisan to the Chicago Tribune and New York Times - some people in town have grown bitter towards outsiders.

Is Cairo Utility Co. an Answer?

Some city officials think that breaking the lease with Cairo's utility company could help the city rebound.

Even though the money from the utility kept the city afloat, the financial arrangement with the private group that runs it is a source of discontent. Critics who want to break the lease say it is a sweetheart deal. The amount paid the city under the lease is fixed over the term of the lease, even though electric rates continue to rise. That provides the private group a guaranteed and growing profit.

Wilson called the Cairo Public Utility Company the town's greatest blessing and worst curse. Illinois Power sold it to the city just after World War II. For several decades, the city council sat as board of directors. It regulated rates to the point that by the 1980s utility officials believed the council in danger of running the utility company into the ground, along with the rest of the city.

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