Traveling through Cahokia, IL, southwest down Falling Springs Road, just before it reaches the junction of Camp Jackson Rd., on the left side, there is an overgrown parking lot. A sign near the roadside in the lot reads, “North Lot Faculty and Staff Parking.” Following that sign, a series of red and white buildings, some squat one-story affairs and some nearly warehouse sized, emerge out of the greenery and crowd up to the roadside. The first time I saw that place, I was riding in a truck with my husband, a native and lifelong resident of the area. Having a long-standing interest in abandoned places, I was curious about this complex of tumbledown structures. I asked if he knew anything about it. He replied along the lines of, “Yeah, that’s Parks College. Well, that was Parks College.”
When you mention Cahokia to someone, if they have ever heard the word in the first place, they likely associate it with the Cahokia Mounds. Situated 10 miles north east of St Louis, the mounds are the remnants of the largest pre-Columbian settlement north of Mexico. Though archeologists have determined that these mounds originated with a much earlier Mississippian culture, early European explorers to the area dubbed the structure the Cahokia Mounds after the more recent Cahokia people, members of the Illinois Confederation. The Village of Cahokia itself was founded in 1699 by missionaries from Quebec. Over the next 200 years, the Village of Cahokia continued to grow, reaching a peak population of just over 20,000 people in the 1970s. Since then, both its population and economy have been in decline. Today, the Village of Cahokia, soon to become Cahokia Heights through a merging of Cahokia, Centreville and Alorton, sits along the bank of the Mississippi River, suffering from the same economic downturn that has affected many cities and towns across the United States over the last 40 years. Much like its neighboring city of East St. Louis, with which it shares a ZIP code, in Cahokia vast numbers of commercial and residential structures lay abandoned. In midst of all of this sits the roughly 114 acres of abandoned buildings and open fields that once made up Parks College.
Parks College was founded in 1928 by Oliver Parks. Parks, a former Chevrolet salesman, decided to open the school after learning to fly himself, and finding the available flight instruction in the St. Louis area lacking in depth and duration. From its founding, Parks College continued to flourish, and from 1928 to 1997, Parks College at Cahokia played a key role in both civil and military aviation training and development. It was the first federally certified school of aviation in the US. For a deep dive into the history of Parks College from its founding to 1990, I recommend Parks College: Legacy of an Aviation Pioneer by William Barnaby Flaherty, S.J. Among its alumni number many executives of national airlines, engineering and defense companies, high ranking US military officials, and most notably Eugene Kranz, NASA’s second Chief Flight Director during the Gemini and Apollo programs, including Apollo 11.
The years that Parks College was open in Cahokia are certainly filled with many stories. The story I am interested in, however, is what happened to the Cahokia campus when Parks College moved. Parks College, as an institution, still exists. Now known as Parks College of Engineering, Aviation and Technology, it occupies McDonnell Douglas Hall on the campus of St. Louis University (SLU) in St. Louis, Missouri. Though the move across the river occurred in 1997, the groundwork for change was lain back in 1946, when the school’s founder Oliver Parks gave Parks College to SLU. This gift sealed the fate of the Cahokia campus.
Money was an essential, and unsurprising, factor in the fate of the Cahokia campus of Parks College. In late 1994, the Bellville News Democrat (BND) makes the first public mention of the potential move of Parks from Cahokia to St. Louis. In the article, U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello states that he has written and telephoned the then president of SLU, Rev. Lawrence Biondi, in an attempt to persuade him to leave Parks in Cahokia. The article mentions that the primary motivation for the move is as a cost-saving measure for SLU. The cost savings of having Parks housed onsite at SLU in one building, rather than in Cahokia in a rambling, multi building campus, did not, however, provide the necessary financial boon to SLU. SLU wanted to sell the Cahokia campus.
To be fair, SLU’s interest in liquidating their Illinois property holdings was not, in and of itself, unreasonable. What was unreasonable, however, was their asking price. When researching this project, I was reminded of a common scenario in the reality tv show Pawn Stars. On the show, members of the public often come into the shop asking outrageous and unreasonable prices for their “treasures” and are often upset when they are brought back to earth by Rick Harrison, who lets them know, in no uncertain terms, that they have atrociously overvalued whatever they brought to the counter. Unfortunately, the cast of Pawn Stars wasn’t around to bring SLU back to reality on their asking price. In the year 2000, during one of many attempts by outside parties to purchase the vacant campus, the property was appraised by the Southwestern Illinois Planning Commission at $2.4 million. SLU’s asking price: between $9 and $10 million. By 2004, the property was valued at $ 1.459 million by the St. Clair County Tax Assessor's Office. SLU’s new asking price at that time: $8 million. By the time SLU finally did sell, to the Village of Cahokia, they only received a fraction of their asking price, though Cahokia likely did pay more than the real value of the property to acquire the defunct campus.
SLU’s unwillingness to sell the Cahokia campus of Parks College at a reasonable and realistic price killed a number of projects, projects that could have economically and socially benefited and stabilized the Village of Cahokia. These include, in 1997, the attempt to open what would be called the Metro East Academy, a regional high school academy for the study of math and science. Also in 1997, SIUC began discussions with SLU about purchasing the property to convert it into a satellite SIU campus in Cahokia. Between 1999 and 2002, Lindenwood University made multiple attempts to purchase the property to open a branch campus. In 2000, the Cahokia Development Authority is formed and $750,000 is put aside from the Illinois FIRST fund for the redevelopment of the campus. Also in 2000, the Parx Foundation is formed in an attempt to raise money to convert the former campus into an aviation theme park. In 2001, Illinois Rep. Young filed amendment to 110 ILCS 205/9.25 with a clerk. The amendment reads: “Amends the Board of Higher Education Act. Requires the Board of Higher Education to study the establishment of an international aerospace science center at Parks College in Cahokia, Illinois.” By 2002, Cahokia Development Authority chairman told the BND that he did not think SLU was serious about selling the Cahokia campus. Kathleen Brady, then vice president of facilities management and civic affairs at SLU countered that none of the offers to buy have been accepted by SLU because SLU has a fiduciary responsibility to Parks College. In the end, every potential buyer abandoned their attempts. All the while, the campus sat empty.
During the period after the move, when SLU owned the Parks College in Cahokia campus, the campus itself was upkept and secured by the university. The buildings and grounds were maintained, and the property was patrolled by private security to ensure that no damage could occur to the unoccupied structures. Though empty, Parks still looked like a place that could be repurposed and reopened. Unfortunately, in 2003, the Illinois Board of Higher Education dealt a blow to the options for reopening the campus by cancelling grant money. The reason: the campus had sat vacant for five years. The lack of grant funding limited the repurposing possibilities of the campus, eliminating potential re-uses as an educational institution. And yet, SLU still needed to sell. Enter stage left: Village of Cahokia.
Though a great deal of blame could be, and was, laid squarely in the lap of SLU for what happened (or failed to happen) to Parks College in Cahokia, the true chaos and mismanagement that left the campus in its current state began when the Village of Cahokia purchased the campus from SLU. To say the details of the purchase were murky is an abysmal understatement. In 2005, the Village of Cahokia passed an emergency bond measure to purchase the property. This bond measure was not put on a ballot for vote by the residents of the village. The amount of the bond measure: $8 million. The price the Village of Cahokia paid to SLU to purchase the campus: $4.73 million. The remaining balance was to be put toward redevelopment of the campus, a redevelopment that never came to fruition.
Reading about the purchase, it is initially unclear what, exactly, the Village of Cahokia was purchasing. In February 2005, it was publicized that the village would only be purchasing four buildings near Camp Jackson Rd., while a newly formed Parks Business Campus LLC would purchase the remaining buildings, and SLU would be keeping the 65 acres west of the campus, a former runway and current agricultural field. Later that year, Gundaker Realty, a real estate company from across the river in St. Louis, is mentioned as the developer for the open acreage next to the college, the afore mentioned airstrip cum soybean field. By 2006, Parks Business Campus LLC had completely disappeared from the public record, and a Gundaker Realty spokesperson blamed problems related to “due diligence” as a contributing factor to their unwillingness to purchase and develop the vacant field. In the end, it appears that the Village of Cahokia did, in fact, purchase the entire campus, including the runway, and only ever had plans and arrangements, all of which failed in the end, to sell of other portions of the property for redevelopment.
Now, perhaps the purchase of Parks College was made in the genuine hope to get the property back into local hands so that development could happen. Unfortunately, the purchase happened before adequate planning and oversight of the property could take place. In late 2005, former Village board member Leroy Darnell slammed then Mayor Frank Bergman, the man responsible for spearheading the deal, for massive mismanagement of the purchase. He cited the lack of a pre-purchase appraisal, the lack of any community input or voting on the use of the sight, and the lack of concrete plans for the use on the 48 acres of the property not slated for sale to Gundaker Reality. As mentioned previously, the Gundaker deal never came to fruition, so in reality, the entire property was purchased by the village with no concrete understanding of the state of the property, no community oversight, and no finalized deals for development. Taken together, this all sounds like a pretty poor gamble. There may have been another factor though, one that was not immediately obvious: trains.
To understand driving in the Village of Cahokia, as well as its neighboring communities of Sauget and Dupo, is to understand waiting for trains. Viewed from above, these three communities are crosshatched by rail yards and rail lines. Having spent a great deal of time driving in the area, I can personally attest to the frustration of being 5 minutes from a destination, only to be caught behind a train traveling at 4mph (the trains travel at extremely reduced speeds in the area due to its density and industrial nature) and waiting half an hour to proceed. Trains cross main vehicular arteries of the area multiple times every day and night. Not only does this create a massive backup for local residents and businesses, but it creates safety concerns if emergency vehicles cannot reach their destinations. Because of this, train overpasses can be a major relief to residents of the area. One such overpass, located on Camp Jackson Road, just northwest of its intersection with Range Rd. was in planning for around 20 years before the purchase of the Parks College campus by the Village. Plagued by endless delays, it seemed as though the overpass might never be built. Part of the issue related to property easements necessary to the construction of the overpass. In August 2005, in an open letter to the BND, St. Clair County Board District 26 member Ron Tapley wrote, “Ninety percent of the real estate has been purchased and easement rights have been completed. The major development of the former Parks College that Mayor Frank Bergman has spearheaded will have a positive effect on the overpass project.” Though little else is mentioned of the relationship between the overpass and the Parks College campus property, the overpass was completed a scant 4 years later, after 20+ years of waiting. Is it possible that part of the motivation for the haphazard and hasty purchase of the property was to ensure completion of the overpass? Further, is it possible that part of the reason for the lengthy overpass construction delay was the inability of the Village of Cahokia to get easements on the property while it was held in the private hands of SLU? Perhaps.
Overpasses and real estate development deals aside, as of 2005, the Village of Cahokia owned the 114 acres of the former Parks College campus. With that purchase came upkeep of the property which was formerly bankrolled by the funds of SLU. As it turns out, on top of failing to appraise the property or finalize development deals ahead of the purchase, Mayor Burgman failed to understand and account for the maintenance cost of the property itself. From 2005 on, the campus went into rapid decline. With the exception of articles about the YMCA deal, which we will cover soon, the majority of the media coverage around Parks College comes either around the Mayor’s mismanagement of the site and misuse of Parks security guard force or via community writers decrying the increasingly run-down, burnt out, and robbed campus.
In 2006, Mayor Burgman told the BND that he was caught by surprise by the maintenance costs of the site. The article cited the following costs for upkeep: “$13,245 for security guard salaries, $22,551 for heat and electricity, and $3,115 for maintenance, repairs and materials.” In an effort to cut costs, the Mayor planned to have non-essential buildings mothballed, in hopes of bringing the maintenance cost down from $9727 to $5000 per month. Though his cost cutting measures would suspend certain services to the college, one measure protection was supposed to remain: security. Security surveillance and patrol of the campus was supposed to be done by two Village employees. Unfortunately, over the coming years, it became apparent that there was, in fact, little to no security at the site, despite security guards for the campus remaining on the Village’s payrolls. In 2008 there was a major dust up over both overscheduling and overpaying city employees assigned to the campus, and the alleged use by the Mayor of campus security for personal protection. News about town held that the Mayor had the two Parks security guards surveilling and protecting his home, rather than the campus. Reporters from, and community writers to, the BND confirmed the total lack of security at the site. In a June 2008 BND article, the author relates, “During three nightly visits and two stops during the day recently, reporters did not spot any security guards or their vehicles. On one nightly check, a reporter drove through the narrow lanes that wind among the former college's 23 buildings, stopping several times to loudly call out, ‘Hello!’” No one but other curious explorers were to be found at the site. To this day, one can wander about the campus unaccosted by anything more than broken glass and poison ivy. This lack of security had drastic consequences for the facilities that once housed Parks College.
From 2007 to 2012, the BND is peppered with articles and entries in the anonymous community input column Sound Off concerning Parks. They all relate to theft, destruction, and general degradation of the campus. In 2007, the first major theft happened on Christmas eve. Security assigned to the campus had the night off. During their absence, $61,500 in windows and brass were robbed from the campus. Oddly enough, according to the police report, there was no sign of forced entry, leaving open the question of how the thieves gained access. In 2008, the campus is broken into again and stripped of copper. The Mayor refused to cite this instance as theft, as the previous break in, as well as destruction by asbestos inspection crews, made accounting of newly missing materials impossible. In 2007, 2009, and 2010, Sound Off writers all noted the continuing decline of the property, often citing how it directly conflicted with claims the Mayor made around the purchase bringing business and development back to Cahokia. In 2012 a Kansas City man was convicted of the theft of brass mailboxes from the campus. After 2012, mentions of the campus in the news dwindle. It seems as though the wholesale destruction of the campus is simply taken for granted at that point. Today, doors and windows stand open to anyone brave (or foolish) enough to venture into the dilapidated structures.
Two structures, of the numerous on the property, were refurbished. In 2007, the YMCA announced a partnership with the Village to open a YMCA branch in the former Parks College gymnasium. The partnership had Cahokia paying for the full renovation of the building and the purchasing of equipment, while the YMCA would pay for upkeep and future expenses. The Village paid $1.5 million to renovate the structure and purchase equipment for the gym. One year later, in January 2008, the Cahokia YMCA opened. It was to operate under a 25 year lease. An important part of the deal was a clause that allowed the YMCA to leave the site if revenues were not high enough. Three years later, in 2011, the YMCA left, leaving Cahokia footing the operations bill for the facility. The gym is now sporadically open to the public. The sole success of the entire property, in terms of remodel and reuse for business, is a small building located at the corner of Falling Springs Road and Camp Jackson Road. Remodeled back in 2013 by the owners of Stingers Pizza, one of the two businesses occupying the building (the other is Ultimate Tax Service), this building and the two businesses it houses are the only tangible artifacts of the promise made by Mayor Bergman back in 2005, the promise that the purchase of the campus would bring business back to Cahokia.
With the exception of the Stingers Pizza building and the former YMCA gym, the campus is still for sale. Since 2018, CENTURY 21 Advantage Real Estate has managed the listing for the site. The property is simply called “Falling Springs Rd - 500 Falling Springs Rd.” The advertisement lists 84 acres of land available for commercial development. The accompanying blurb mentions the property as the former site of Parks College, and notes that 14 of the 84 acres contain, “250,000 SF of existing buildings that may need to be removed.” Looking at the state of the campus buildings today, the concept of renovation seems unlikely. Roofs are collapsed, walls are torn apart, nearly every window is broken, rubbish litters the site, and both humans and the natural elements have taken a devastating toll on these once beautiful structures. I fear that all those buildings hold in their future is a bulldozer. The high flying dream of what the former Parks College campus could have been are indefinitely grounded.