Downtown development on the rise

By Chrissy Peluso

Slowly but surely downtown Champaign has been growing into a vibrant, new community. Over the past ten to fifteen years, the downtown area has gone under a revolutionary transformation. Since the creation of the Tax Increment Finance District in 1981, there has been a slow, but steady increase of growth and revenue in the area.

By utilizing financial incentives to bring development into the district, the city helped transform a desolate area of town into a thriving economic center that has become a regional draw for entertainment and nightlife. From the uber- chic Soma lounge to the fine dining of Bacaro to the poetry readings at Verde, the change in the downtown area can be seen everywhere and in almost every type of venue. Everyone can see it and feel it; they recognize the major factors and look to see how this evolution can progress through the future.

Changes can also be seen in the numbers. According to the city’s 2003 Downtown Comprehensive Plan Update, from 1995 to 2000 sales tax revenues grew more than $100,000. The Equalized Assessed Valuation of the TIF district also grew over $6.8 million from 1980 to 2000, according to the update.

City planner T.J. Blakeman cites the creation of the district as one of the groundbreaking changes that opened the door for growth and development. There has been a steady increase in sales tax revenue since then, Blakeman said.

Another landmark change that was a catalyst for growth is the One Main development. Jeff Mellander, president and CEO of Precision Graphics and local developer, said he is still amazed by the new building.

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    “The One Main project has made a huge impact on the downtown,” he said “It’s really amazing to me that they were able to fill all that space in just a year.”

    He also said it’s great because it shows other developers that large-scale projects can be done.

    “I don’t think we’ve seen the limit yet to the saturation down here,” he said.

    Mellander, who describes himself as a small time developer, said he’s continually impressed with the level of grandeur the new developers are working on.

    “It’s fun to see it go from small scale to the bigger scale things that are cropping up now,” Mellander said. “The explosion of One Main from start to finish…just watching that construction project go up was one of the most impressive projects. I think it was brilliant. Their vision was right.”

    A third and pivotal catalyst for change was the end of caps on liquor licenses for the area. To help stimulate growth, the city ended caps and rewarded developers with liquor licenses if they spent over $100,000 on renovations.

    “The city encouraged the creation of bars,” Blakeman said. “That was a policy that really transformed the downtown into an entertainment destination.”

    Mellander echoed Blakeman’s statements.

    “(The opening up of liquor licenses) is the most successful outcome. That, and the outdoor seating,” he said.

    Beyond the changing of codes and licenses, there has been one other catalyst, people.

    “There have been a few key entrepreneurial developers that have really kicked things into gear,” Casey Rooney, Champaign County Regional Planning Commission Economic Development Manager, said.

    People like Cody Solkinski, the man behind the One Main development, are really pushing things forward, he said.

    “He’s making it happen for his children,” Rooney said.

    Others, like Lisa Meid, president of the Downtown Association, point to everyday people as the movers and shakers as well. She said another factor that influenced change was the increase of people living in downtown. Increasing residential occupancy has helped the community in many ways, Meid said. People moving in increased the sense of viability. The 24-hour culture helped people feel safe and just helped set things going, she said.