Downtown development brings influx of new workers

David I. Moore, of Champaign, reads a newspaper outside of Cafe Kopi on his break from the Champaign County Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday. Amelia Moore

David I. Moore, of Champaign, reads a newspaper outside of Cafe Kopi on his break from the Champaign County Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday. Amelia Moore

By Christina Peluso

In the expanding culture of business in downtown Champaign, a major growth factor is the increase of professionals in the area.

“One Main had a profound impact,” Lisa Meid, president of the Downtown Association, said.

Volition, the gaming company located in One Main, brought in 140 employees to the downtown area. That’s the biggest one-time import for a work force, Meid said.

With the influx of residents and employees comes tremendous growth for businesses. According to the city’s 2003 Downtown Comprehensive Plan Update, residential growth increased 58 percent from 1990 to 2000. All these factors have helped stimulate the growth.

Though everyone is satisfied with the current growth and development, many are already looking to the future. Many see logical steps to make the community more diverse.

“Now I think we have to look a little beyond the bars and nightlife,” said Jeff Mellander, a local developer.

The downtown area needs to focus on other incentives to get businesses and retail in the area, Mellander said.

“We want to be a well-rounded group of people,” he said.

Mellander said he would like to see more residential development, much like the two apartments he just completed above Radio Maria.

“It’s great to see lights on the second floor,” he said.

Meid cited those same goals as developments she would like to see in the near future.

“I would really like to see second-story development,” she said. “The demand for living space in downtown is there.”

She cited Mellander’s new apartments as an example.

“Jeff’s new apartments were leased several months before they were done,” she said.

Mellander’s comments agreed with Meid’s. Mellander never even ran an advertisement for his new apartments, he said.

T. J. Blakeman, city planner, said he would like to see more office headquarters in the area.

“We need to get more companies that would be willing to locate in downtown,” he said. “More offices mean more employees, which means more foot traffic. There’s only one problem: land availability,” Blakeman said.

“I think it’s necessary. We need more offices. It creates a more diverse economy down here,” Blakeman said. “I love that downtown is an entertainment district but I wish it could be more.”

It would be great if more people could live and work here, he said.

Blakeman said he would also like to see retail move into downtown. Currently there is retail, but each is a unique situation, Blakeman said.

“There hasn’t been a lot of interest, but I hope that changes,” he said. “It’s a new thing. It’s going to take a shift of thinking in the retail outfits. For now they’re going to go where it’s proven. They’re going to go to the mall. It’s a safe bet.”

City Council member Ken Pirok said infill is another important project. Infill means using existing space and improving on it.

“We’re hoping to entice developers with new programs such as the Infill Redevelopment Incentive Policy,” Pirok said.

Colleen Braun, assistant to the City Manager for Development, said sometimes infill redevelopment is very expensive and thus needs encouragement. The city is hoping to entice developers by helping financially to get the project off the ground, she said.

Though many local officials are quick to focus on what needs to happen next, they are ecstatic about the growth that has already happened.

“The downtown has really blossomed,” Pirok said. “It really is a full-scale entertainment and regional draw.”

“The people, the development, the synergy of both things…it’s hard to say what really came first, but it’s really being noticed,” Pirok said.

Pirok also said the energy and excitement is not exclusive to Champaign and Urbana.

“It’s definitely widespread. It’s definitely a regional draw. There are people here all around, from up to 40 to 50 miles away. It’s a very diverse crowd,” he said.

Meid is impressed by sheer growth.

“It really is phenomenal and it must be phenomenal to everyone around the area. It’s an amazing amount of growth,” she said. “But maybe the greatest achievement is watching the existing businesses grow and adapt.”

She also enjoys seeing the camaraderie of the business owners and developers of the Downtown Association.

“The spirit of community has grown. It’s been great to watch the Downtown Association grow and market the downtown as a whole,” she said.

Mellander also said the sense of community is exciting.

“That’s what’s nice about the downtown. It’s a neighborhood. You start to notice people and get to know them. It’s a tight little community,” he said.

Mellander, who was a member of the Downtown Steering Committee 15 years ago, said it has been amazing to watch that committee’s goals come into existence.

“The primary goal was to make the downtown area a 24-hour environment,” he said, “which the city did a great job of accomplishing.”

The city also completed the goal of beautifying the streetscape and creating a themed design that made the area more residential, he said.

“The goals that came out of that steering committee were really a solid base,” Mellander said.