Lurking Beneath the Surface of Blackwater North
The stillness of tree lined Skunk Hallow Road in Jo Daviess County Illinois, twenty miles from the beautiful Palisades along the Mississippi River, will soon be shattered by gunfire. Not the gun fire of wild turkey hunters but the gunfire from a new training facility for the most powerful mercenary army in the world, Blackwater USA.
I had a view of Blackwater's new Illinois facility that is usually reserved for the hawks circling overhead. I stood on-top their climbing/rappelling/shooting tower looking down at the bulldozers busy moving tons of earth to create more shooting ranges.
On eighty acres in this isolated corner of Illinois, one hundred miles from Chicago, Blackwater is creating another large training site. This site will eventually, according to Blackwater North's vice deputy Eric Davis, compare to their headquarters in North Carolina. They have a full schedule of classes ready to roll beginning April 9th with a pistol shooting course that is already three over capacity. The first three weeks of courses are filled and the others are filling fast.
According to the Jo Daviess County zoning officer Blackwater is planning to do the same type of training that a small group called The Site who trained a few Illinois police officers previously, so "they do not require a special use permit because the property was grandfathered in when zoning codes were established in 1995.
Linda Delvaux, JoDaviess county zoning officer told a source that there are limits on what Blackwater can and cannot do. She said they can't buy any more land for this site without getting a special use permit, which would require a public hearing. Also their
"Pro-shop" can't be open to the general public, only to people taking classes. People nearby, which might number 10 and most of them are over two miles away, can make complaints about noise, damage to property, animals, or increased traffic, etc.
In January Blackwater paid a visit to the Village Township Trustees and also to the county board. According to a resident they said hello we're your new good neighbors and we're happy to be part of the community.
When I drove into their Blackwater North site off the country road I could see immediately that they were doing far more than what they were telling their neighbors. Just inside the gate the bulldozers were busy moving earth, also near the combat town were several cargo containers along with a large CAT front-loader. As Mr. Davis told me, "We've got a lot going on."
"Everything they offer in North Carolina will be offered here except for the high speed driving portion. We don't have a track yet. We'd like to buy some of the surrounding acreage so we could put one in." He said with his mild southern accent looking out across the grassy area to the tree lined ridge.
I told him that I thought they may not be staying around since they only had a one year lease according to Dave Whittrock one of the owners.
"A year's lease with option to buy at the end of the year." According to Mr. Davis the lease began in September of 2006. "We're staying. They're not going to let it go now. I mean we've got just in moving earth alone a half million dollars invested." That's not counting anything else."
The anything else would be the fiber optics they had to put in because they are over 50 miles from any type of adequate computer connections to meet their needs. Which means they easily have close to a million dollars invested in this secluded rural location.
He said of their North Carolina headquarters that they owned 6,000 but leased another 6,000. "We're starting out like they did 10 years ago." He said kicking a stone with the toe of his boot. "But we're getting there."
While he led me in the direction of the pro-shop in a large modern metal building a few feet from the tower, he told me that they were flying up two instructors from North Carolina for Monday's class. When I asked if they had a helicopter pad he replied, "We will eventually."
Once inside there are office areas and a break room with a stack of empty pizza boxes. One of the two high school girls answering the phones is his daughter who has spent half of her life with him overseas while he was a marine responsible for embassy security in 17 African countries. "I was with the marines for 22 years. I worked directly for the State Department."
I was told earlier in a phone conversation over 30 days ago that they would not be having a submachine gun class because they did not have "a permit for that kind of instruction." Now he highlighted for me on a copy of the course schedule the submachine gun class. A Heckler & Koch weapons course. Their catalogue description of
the five day course reads; "This course is designed to develop understanding and tactical proficiency with H & K MP5, or UMP weapons." They will be offering both an instructor course as well as an operator's course; the first Scheduled for April 30th is full. He told me that 21 of their 25 courses were open to anyone and that only five are for active duty law enforcement and active duty military.
I asked about buying something from the pro-shop expecting him to say no because of what I was told about the zoning restriction but I was surprised when he said sure, "I'm always willing to take your money." So I made a purchase and got a written receipt.
I asked about sales tax he said that Blackwater had business licenses and tax identification numbers in all 50 states.
When we got outside I asked if I could take some pictures from the tower and he said sure again. So we climbed the tower where I had a good view down onto the entire Blackwater North 80 acres. When I asked if Blackwater's construction company was doing the work I saw below he said no that it was contracted out to a local company. "You got to figure out which side your bread is buttered on. We live in the local community it's better to spend local dollars." So even though Blackwater's construction company is upset with them and even though the bids were similar they went with the local company. "We get to make the decision because we're here on the ground. So whatever decisions we make they (Blackwater N.C.) go with it."
"That down there is our classroom building." What I saw was a double wide portable classroom better looking than any I've seen at any public schools.
Unlike the zoning officer and the resident's report on the county board meeting Mr. Davis claimed that work was behind schedule due in part to the weather and also due to "the county gave us the run around too. Trying to get all the permits. The county probably backed us up forty days. I had to get my EPA permit, Illinois Historical Preservation permit, I had to get other permits, and I had to get this permit and that permit. Every permit took thirty days." He says as he zips his coat closed.
Driving down the lane past the computerized Blackwater designed and built target system, out onto the country road again. I notice the sign on the fence across the street reads, "Illinois Wildlife Refuge Area." I stop to take in the beauty of Spring coming into this natural valley, some of the buds beginning to show on the branches, hawks still circling, hidden in the trees deer stand watching. The bulldozer roar begins to fade in the distance as I pass over the crest of another hill.
Reflecting back on my visit to Blackwater North I realize more fully the fact that often more is going on than one sees on the surface. And I think about a bumper sticker on the front of their pop cooler in the break room that read: "Sniper: You Only Need One Shot."
What becomes of our souls when we make war a business?