Denny Kingren and Cody Kietzman

Paxton Fire Chief Denny Kingren, left, and Cody Kietzman, president of the Paxton Area Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors, listen to Paxton-Buckley-Loda school board member Steve Pacey speak about his concerns about their proposal to lease ground behind PBL High School for the siting of a gigantic flagpole with a huge American flag.

PAXTON — A single tear dropped from Paxton Fire Chief Denny Kingren’s right eye as Paxton-Buckley-Loda school board member Steve Pacey listed off his concerns about allowing a 150-foot flagpole to be put on school grounds as a symbol of the community’s patriotism.

Kingren was clearly upset by the former judge and lawyer’s comments, even if he tried to mask it.

Just minutes earlier, Kingren was beaming with excitement as he spoke about his desire to see the massive flagpole that would wave a 30-by-60-foot American flag installed on PBL High School’s west side, a couple of hundred feet north of the PBL Panthers’ football field.

“I get chills every time I talk to somebody about the project, because I think it will be just so grand,” Kingren told the seven-member board. “I think that between Chicago and Effingham, we’ll be the talk of the area.”

Kingren was joined by Cody Kietzman, the president of the Paxton Area Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors, at Wednesday’s school board meeting to seek the board’s approval to allow the chamber to lease a portion of the high school’s lawn for the next 20 years and put the flagpole there. Under the lease, the chamber would pay the school district a fee of $1 each year, provide liability insurance and be responsible for maintaining the flagpole and replacing its 1,800-square-foot flags.

The board ended up approving the lease agreement, but not before Pacey went on his tirade.

“I don’t think anybody opposes this idea; this is a great idea,” Pacey began. “It will put Paxton on the map, and I don’t think there’s much doubt either that the best location for this flag in terms of visibility for the thousands of people who go by (Paxton) on (Interstate 57) is right here in the school’s backyard. And I commend Chief Kingren and his fire department for coming up with the idea, which will certainly benefit the city of Paxton.

“But my concern, which was raised back in December, is still present. This is an open invitation to an unknown number of people, who have neither a connection with the school nor the community, to be on school property 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. And a good deal of that time is when our school is in session, and when our students are either going to or from school or are outside on the school grounds and involved in a number of different activities.”

Pacey was referring to the possibility — an unlikely one, he admitted — that travelers on nearby I-57 would see the flag and want to stop in Paxton and come onto school property to view it up close.

“The likelihood that there will be a problem is pretty remote,” Pacey continued, “but I don’t know how wise it is for this governmental unit or any other governmental unit to invite problems that don’t presently exist. ... I don’t dispute that the likelihood of a problem occurring ... is pretty remote, but it would only take one incident — one single incident — to make all of us here regret that we ever issued that invitation.

“Whether people stop or not, or how many stop, is irrelevant. It’s an open invitation to come onto school property, and I have a concern with that.”

Pacey was not finished, suggesting that a more appropriate scenario would be for the chamber of commerce — whose function, he noted, is to promote commerce in Paxton — instead put the flag on a business’ property by the I-57 interchange.

Pacey then raised concerns about how if the chamber of commerce were to disband someday or was unable to afford to continue to maintain the flagpole and flag, the school district would be stuck with the responsibility.

“This will be a permanent landmark for the city of Paxton, and eventually — when the volunteer group (assisting the chamber with maintaining the flagpole and flag) kind of fades away or when the chamber, because it doesn’t have the resources, the budget or the personnel to maintain it over the indefinite future, (is unable to continue to do so) — eventually it will fall onto the school," Pacey said. "It’s on the school’s property, and it will fall to the school to maintain and repair and do whatever needs to be done.

“And I’m not sure I’m interested in committing (the school district’s) taxpayers who don’t reside in Paxton to maintain a flag which basically is for the benefit of promoting Paxton. I mean, the reason why it’s being proposed to be (placed) here is so the maximum number of people — thousands a day going up and down that interstate — can see that flag and say, ‘Oh, there’s a patriotic community. Paxton, I want to check that place out.’

“I’m all for patriotism, but the location of this flag is not a measure of somebody’s patriotism. The concerns I have are concerns which I don’t think can be answered. I think eventually it will fall to the school, and I’m not interested in taking the chance of the one unlikely occurrence where somebody who we’re inviting to come onto this property (visits the landmark) and something goes bad. So I’m not going to do that. That’s all I’ve got to say.”

‘I feel it’s about patriotism’

A teary-eyed Kingren then immediately stood up and responded.

“Steve, I’m not wanting that flag out here for the city of Paxton as much as just what it stands for,” Kingren said. “I think if you took a vote from the people I’ve talked to, (you’d find) people think it would be the neatest thing in the world to put that flag out here. And I don’t think it’s about growing business in town. ... I feel it’s about patriotism. I feel it’s about, with the way our world is today, people want to see (a symbol of American pride).”

Kingren also said he would bet money that the community — whether it be the city, the fire department or another group — would step up to make sure the flagpole and its flags continue to be maintained if the chamber of commerce were to cease to exist.

“The people I’ve talked to, 99.9 percent of them feel, ‘Whatever it takes, put it up,’” Kingren said. “People want it to fly and they’re behind it.”

Pacey then reiterated his feeling that having the flagpole in the proposed location is not just about patriotism but also about getting people to visit Paxton.

“The reason why it’s the best location right out here behind this building is that so more people will notice it,” Pacey said. “Who’s going to notice it? It’s the people who are coming up and down the interstate who are going to notice it.”

That prompted a response from Kingren: “How about the people coming to our football games?”

“They’re going to notice Paxton,” Pacey responded.

“No,” Kingren said. “They’re going to notice this Paxton school has a big flag.”

“OK,” Pacey responded.

Pacey then voted “no” on the lease agremeent as the other six board members voted “yes.”

Show of support

In response to Pacey’s concerns, board member Shawn Young noted that, regardless of whether a huge flagpole is on school grounds, the school district is unable to prevent people from coming onto school property.

“If a car pulls off the interstate now and decides to come down back to the maintenance shop (behind the high school), we don’t restrict that,” Young said. “I’m just stating a point.”

Earlier, Young voiced his support for the project and thanked Kingren and the chamber for pursuing it.

“As a board member, I whole-heartedly support this project as far as the way it’s going,” Young said. “I think the way our state of Illinois and country are right now, we need to show as much patriotism as we can.”

Despite Pacey raising similar concerns in December as he did Wednesday, Kingren said at the start of the meeting that he “felt real positive about the way (the board) has accepted the plan.” Kingren said so many community members have shown support and excitement about the project, too.

“Everybody’s just really, really, really behind the project,” Kingren said. “I hear very little negative about it. For the most part, people just give me a thumbs-up and say, ‘Go for it.’”

Kingren: Site is ideal

While alternative locations in the city have been considered, Kingren said it was the decision of himself and his firefighters to try to get the flagpole put by the high school because they felt it was “a more beautiful place, just because of the surroundings.”

Kingren said he hopes that by having it at the school, students will “take possession” of it, use it for various events, and even help volunteer to lower and raise the flag when necessary.

“I think youngsters will have a good feeling every day when they come around and see that and think, ‘My school’s part of this,’” Kingren said. “I think it will really work on their hearts a little bit and they will be proud to say, ‘We have one of the biggest flags flying around our school.’ I think it will be neat for them to be able to say, ‘It’s ours.’”

Other than possibly having to replace flags at an estimated cost of $1,350 apiece up to four times a year and repainting the flagpole once every 20 years, Kingren said there would not be much maintenance involved.

Kingren said that to protect the flag, it also might need to be lowered when winds exceed 50 or 60 mph. The flagpole can withstand winds of up to 90 mph, Kingren noted.

Kingren said he doubts the flagpole would create any kind of “safety issue” at the school.

“I personally don’t feel we’re going to have a lot of people who are flying down the interstate and throwing their brakes on and coming over here to check it out,” Kingren said. “I feel people are going to admire it and like it, but I personally don’t see it being any kind of a real detriment to the school in any fashion or for the kids’ safety or anything.”

A sight to behold

Standing 50 feet taller than both the water tower on Paxton’s west side and the Hardee’s restaurant sign, the flagpole should not only be clearly visible to fans attending the PBL Panthers’ home football games at Zimmerman Field, but it should also stand out as one of the most noticeable landmarks along the highly traveled I-57 corridor.

“You’re going to be able to see it from a long distance away,” Kingren said. “I’d say you’ll see it four to five miles out.”

The flag will be illuminated with four lights installed at the flagpole’s base. A sketch created by a landscape architect from the University of Illinois who is assisting with the project shows a circular memorial potentially being built around the pole.

Bricks would be placed in the memorial-type structure, which would be linked to the high school’s rear parking lot by a 50-foot-long, 10-foot-wide sidwalk.

The memorial’s bricks would recognize donors for the project. Kingren said it is anticipated that at least 600 4-by-8-inch bricks will be sold for $100 apiece, as well as some 8-by-8-inch bricks for $250 each, to memorialize veterans, police officers or firefighters, for example.

Kingren said he hopes the fundraiser can generate the initial $35,000 to $40,000 needed to fund the project and have the flagpole and flag put up by Flag Day on June 14, 2020.

Donations toward the purchase of the flagpole and flag are already being accepted at The Frederick Community Bank in downtown Paxton, and some $1,800 has already been donated, Kietzman said. The account is under the name of the nonprofit organization Paxton PRIDE to allow the donations to be tax-deductible. To donate, checks may be written to “Paxton PRIDE” with “Grand Old Flag” or simply “Flag” listed in the memo line.

The project’s next steps

Before the flagpole can come to fruition, the Paxton City Council still needs to grant a variance to allow it to be 150 feet tall and obtain the approval of the Illinois Department of Transportation and Federal Aviation Administration to allow it to be at its selected location.

Also, the chamber’s board of directors will need to sign off on the lease agreement.

In approving the lease agreement, the school board decided to add language to the contract to allow the school district to opt out of the agreement and move the flagpole if needed as a result of any future construction project.

Also, language will be added to allow the school district to have the option of either taking on the insurance and maintenance responsibilities itself or finding another organization to do so in the event the chamber were to disband.