Like it or not, our community’s economic driver is the University of Illinois. Being a charter member of the Big Ten Conference, athletics are, and will always be, extremely important to its comprehensive mission. While it is true that the major sports teams have been god awful the past decade, history shows us that this is an aberration, and the infrastructure for success remains in place. Athletics should remain a high priority because of the sheer economic upside and potential, not just for the University, but for the entire community.
Ask any restaurateur, or hotelier, or bar owner, and the answer is almost universal: when the teams are winning, the cash registers are ringing. We need for our sports programs to succeed.
A Division I Hockey team, with an arena in Downtown Champaign, would go a long way in helping this concept return to a reality.
More tourism, more people, more hotel stays, more money spent in Champaign County. All positives.
So, we should accept that a proposal for a Division I hockey team and an arena is a good thing for our community, right? Hockey is a sport consumed by a far broader audience than even the absolute best and most successful programs inside of what Illinois Athletics has to offer right now. Golf, tennis, and volleyball, to name a few, win games. But they are non-revenue generating, and carry smaller national audiences than a sport like hockey. On a college campus like this one, there is room for all of it.
We say bring that Division I hockey team and its multi-use facility to Downtown Champaign, so it sits not far from campus, and not south of campus, as the feasibility study mentions. Seems even better, especially paired with a developing Midtown, situated between Campustown and Downtown. Sure, the cost might be higher based on total expenses, and taxing districts, but this is a long term investment for the community. Even if the south campus plan is cheaper (less taxpayer money in this area) in the building process, that doesn't mean it is a better long-term decision for the community.
However, a few questions remain: Is this what we want? Or is this what we need?
Below: renderings for the Downtown Champaign location from the feasability study published at whyillinihockey.com:
We’ve been over this years ago when there was discussion of a minor league baseball team coming to Champaign. Sounds cool, right? We want a cold beer, a hot dog, and a baseball game (good for all ages) in front of us as much as the rest of you. That plan didn’t work out for a variety of reasons — a facility like that can’t sit during winter without much happening — but it didn’t stop people from asking “why not Champaign?” when it comes to exploring community additions in this realm.
It does appear that there’s legitimate momentum to get a project like this one done. Minor league baseball was a pipe dream in a lot of ways. It’s different this time. Not one, but two, initial visioning proposals have been put forth. It brings forth something that would be a good next step for our growing community and economy: a multi-use convention center that provides more sheets of ice for the greater metro area, could host concerts and events, and one that is leased as a hockey arena to the university. Sign us up. That sounds like a boatload of fun, and is something that doesn’t exist here already. Downtown Champaign is void of a facility like this, and thankfully, that rendering isn’t an eyesore.
There are definite cons. Going beyond DI hockey, this would provide more opportunity for youth leagues and more all-ages and family-friendly activities to take place here. That said, hockey is a pretty expensive sport to have your child participate in — one of the most expensive youth sports out there. If we're talking about hockey leagues here, a lot of families are eliminated right away.
This con, mixed with the never-ending parking debates, historic buildings and businesses being razed, elimination of other DI sports at U of I, to name a few. There are plenty of downsides. While athletics appeal to a wide array of members of the community, that doesn’t make it the right answer to plug in and say “mission accomplished.”
One thing is certain: We’re talking about the University of Illinois, so, we’re talking about money. Earning money on hockey is vital to the success of a project like this one. Selling the arena to a corporate sponsor seems vital. But the U of I certainly is asking the question: “How can we earn money when we’re not earning on hockey?”
The U of I would own and control the facility, best case scenario, per the study:
Ideally, if Illinois were to start a Division I hockey program, it would control its own facility, whether that is on- or off-campus. Collegiate Consulting endorses the downtown location and recommends a two-to-three-sheet ice complex with an aggressive plan to rent the facility during non-varsity practice and competition. Projected initial net revenue for renting such an auxiliary facility is estimated to start at $355,440 per year.
This facility couldn’t be rented by just anyone, so an “aggressive plan to rent the facility” seems like some empty language. Events that seem feasible in a space like this would cost a lot of money to put on — which eliminates a lot of potential use for it when it isn’t watching people slap around a puck around on ice. Hopefully they have the foresight to make the ice space versatile (as in, can it be a basketball court, or something else?), so it can be easily converted. It seems like they do.
Versatile space is a plus. Placing the arena near businesses and hotels (another is forthcoming) that would benefit from this development does sound appealing and profitable. It would provide a space for conventions, conferences, tournaments, events, and any number of other tourist-driven activity to happen. Theoretically, it would add jobs to the community as well. It would be nice if there was an artistic component — a space for potential art exhibitions, performances, and the like.
There’s versatility planned in this development:
The sports facility is one component of a $200M development that would have broad implications for the downtown district. Other features of the development include a luxury hotel and large conference center; 135 residential units; 120,000 square feet of office space; 60,000 square feet of retail space; and expansion of the MTD terminal. MTD is a partner in the project and has applied for several federal grants to assist with ancillary costs.
All sorts of questions pop up from community members, which we’ll speak for/as:
Will the residential units be affordable? Will MTD get these grants? Can local businesses afford the retail or office space? Would these new businesses cannibalize the ones that exist just down the street? Why can’t we build a properly-funded children’s museum (Orpheum, we know you are underfunded)? Why can’t there be a decent park and green space? Why can’t we have a grocery store? Why isn’t there affordable housing around this area?
We could go on and on about what is missing from this area of Champaign. That’s a broader discussion.
There seem like there are a ton of question marks left, but maybe, just maybe, Champaign-Urbana could be a community that embraces hockey. Is this the lynchpin that holds a development like this together? This is a big reason why the original $95M Downtown Champaign development merged with the Illinois Terminal expansion from which to begin, so there is steam to the project.
We shall see, but just tacking “feasible” onto something doesn’t mean it is deliverable.
Smile Politely’s Editorial Board is Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, Patrick Singer, and Seth Fein.