The brief and bitter days of midwestern winter are drawing to a close, and the breeze brings with it balmy promises of spring. We Illinoisians are no strangers to a harsh winter spent cloistered from the cold, but this spring thaw carries with it a sense of waking from an overlong hibernation. As the outside temperatures rise, we are also seeing the world slowly stirring after nearly a year of isolation. There’s no better way to enjoy the intersection of warming weather and social reconnection than through one of humanity’s oldest institutions — live sports.
 


An aerial shot of a soccer field, with green turf and white lines. Photo by Cole Carpenter. Photo by Cole Carpenter.

For the sports fan who is itching to return to the bleachers, Champaign County will soon have brand new facility equipped to host a myriad of events. About a half mile from the I-57 exit in Rantoul, a 60+ acre plot of land is currently being developed into a massive sporting complex that is slated to open later this spring. The new development will boast eight different baseball and softball fields, eight multi-purpose fields — designed with soccer and football in mind —two T-ball fields, three hospitality buildings, and a playground complete with a water area called “the Splash Pad”. All of the fields will be fitted with premium artificial turf to help standardize play and minimize cancelations due to weather.

A blue and red play structure on a concrete slab. It is surrounded by dirt. Photo by Cole Carpenter.Photo by Cole Carpenter.

The facility is on schedule to open for its first big event — a youth baseball and softball tournament — on Friday, April 16th. The new site will not only offer a high-quality experience to the players and the fans but will serve the broader community in several ways. In a sense, this complex will function as a huge community park. The current calendar of events relegates most large-scale use of the facility to Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, leaving the fields wide open for public use throughout the week. Further, even during the scheduled tournaments, with over 800 parking spaces and more fields than you can shake a stick at, there will be plenty of room for everyone who wants to enjoy the amenities.

A subtler, but potentially far greater, benefit of this new facility is the economic impact on the surrounding area. The Village of Rantoul has struggled economically in recent years, while Champaign-Urbana has been experiencing a booming expansion over the past decade. As the University of Illinois grows in size, high-rises have started sprouting like weeds and our community is rapidly urbanizing. While this is beneficial in many ways, it can become difficult for smaller, nearby towns like Rantoul to attract new businesses or tourism. The city of Rantoul recognized this trend back in 2016 and realized that they needed to act.

To fully appreciate this decision, one must look at a larger trend. American cities are growing while the rural communities shrink. Whatever combination of factors might be causing this trend, many small communities have been unable to sustain themselves in the face of mass migration. How can a small-town hope to compete with the resources and attractions of a nearby city? As their population dwindles, fewer local businesses can survive, which in turn makes the benefits of city life become even more attractive. It’s a vicious cycle.

There is, however, one resource that small towns have in abundance and which urban areas distinctly lack. Space. As Americans flock toward regions with higher population densities, land in those regions becomes a hot commodity. Meanwhile, many small towns are finding themselves with a surplus of land. How a town uses that resource can make all the difference.

Many small towns have turned to massive corporations for help, hoping that a new super-center store will provide the economic boost they desperately need. However, such ventures are often the killing-blow to struggling local businesses and ultimately funnel money out of the community. The upcoming Rantoul Family Sports Complex is taking a different, more thoughtful approach to reinvigorating Rantoul’s economy.

An aerial view of two football fields with green turf and white and yellow lines. The yardlines are numbered in white. Photo by Cole Carpenter.Photo by Cole Carpenter. 

The complex itself will offer basic amenities on-site — concession stands, restrooms, etc. — but a large part of their mission is to increase traffic and revenue at many local businesses. High school athletics is a major part of Central Illinois culture and, during the competitive seasons, thousands of students — along with their families — travel around the state every weekend. The Rantoul Family Sports Complex is positioned perfectly to draw dozens of nearby schools in for tournaments and games. Now, even when Rantoul High School has an away game, two — or four, or six, or twenty — teams from nearby schools can be playing in Rantoul.

While the future is never a certain thing — something we have all been acutely reminded of over the last year — the planned opening and benefits of the Rantoul Family Sports Complex are already looking good. They are on time to open this April and they already have a very robust calendar of events (which can be viewed here) reaching all the way into October. Ultimately, citizens of Rantoul, and all of Champaign County, can look forward to a wonderful new community space opening up this spring, a perfect addition to the local landscape.

Top photo by Cole Carpenter.