FACES OF 2013 Gas station land not yet needed, but owner’s life turned upside down
By Dave Gathman email@example.com January 5, 2014 8:02PM
Eminent domain is the term that is being used to take a third of the property Tung Tran's Shell gas station sits on at McLean Boulevard and Lillian Street in Elgin. Due to the Route 20 interchange plans, the station will be unable to have fuel because the underground fuel tanks are in the path of the widening of McLean Boulevard. March 28, 2013 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 7, 2014 6:13AM
This is another in a series of stories on people and events that shaped our local communities in 2013.
ELGIN — Tung Tran, the Vietnamese-American who lost his business to the Route 20 and McLean Boulevard construction project last summer, remains unemployed and financially struggling. He remains resentful toward the Illinois Department of Transportation, but he maintains a sunny disposition and a positive outlook toward life as he and his wife raise a baby born soon after the station closed.
Tran came to America after fleeing communist Vietnam at age 10 with 102 other refugees in a boat. His family dreamed of someday owning their own businesses in far-off America.
After earning a degree in hotel and restaurant management, and working for years in restaurants and nursing homes, Tran achieved that dream nine years ago. He bought the former Hansen’s Shell service station and convenience store at McLean and Lillian Street. Until last summer, he says, he often spent 12 hours a day, seven days a week behind the counter.
Then, as IDOT continued its four-year-long project to convert the nearby McLean-and-20 intersection into a “single-point urban interchange,” Tran learned that part of that project would include taking over the gas-pumping part of his land so that the intersection of McLean and Lillian can get new turning lanes, bike lanes and a median.
Not only did the eminent domain legal proceedings mean Tran would be left without enough space to run a gas station, but he says the state paid him less than the business was really worth because state officials argued he could have gone on operating the business as only a convenience store. Finally, after a construction crew leader said contractors might start working in the Lillian Street area as early as July, he shut down the station on June 16.
“Everything they paid me went to the bank or to my lawyers, except for about $50,000,” Tran said. So since June, he said, he has been applying for work and living off the $50,000 as he supports his wife and five children, age six months to 17 years.
“My brother has helped me make the monthly mortgage payments on our home in Berwyn,” he said.
At one point, Tran said, he signed up to sell insurance for a company, but “that didn’t work out.” Meanwhile, he has sent out resumés applying for various jobs in retail, hotel or business management.
Ironically, the state’s contractor did not actually tear out the station’s gas pumps and dig out its underground storage tanks until well into the fall, and still has not begun widening the streets.
“If I had known that, the station could have stayed open for months longer,” Tran says.
One bright spot, he says, is that his wife gave birth to a daughter about the time the station closed. They named her Tatum.
“It’s good that I’ve had this time off to be with the baby. But it’s bad because I don’t have the income to support her,” he said. “I was not some absentee owner who just lets a bunch of employees run my place. This was my job that they took away.”
Meanwhile, a number of other businesses also have been displaced by the coming work along McLean. And one that goes on operating — the 80-year-old JB’s Pub, at the corner of McLean and Lillian across the street from Tran’s gas station — faces an uncertain future after the state took ownership of much of its parking lot.
Jeff Corn, owner of the Dunkin’ Donuts shop at McLean and Main Lane, sold to the state, and the state tore down that building in 2012.
Owners of the strip mall just south of the Shell station — which formerly included a pet shop, the Elgin One Hour Cleaners and a Radio Shack store — sold to the state, and the mall has been torn down, too.
Also doomed is the strip mall at the edge of the Elgin Mall shopping center on the west side of McLean Boulevard. It now stands empty. But most of its businesses arranged to move to nearby vacant storefronts that aren’t in the way of the road-builders.
Lemus Auto Repair, in a former gas station at McLean and Main Lane, will lose about half its front parking space but is being offered for sale. Owner Gilbert Lemus has said the garage can continue to operate using the remaining parking space.