Apartments, office space boost outlying business in Champaign

Sheila Johnson (right) and Norma Curtis, both from Gilman, exit Ann Taylor Loft on Wednesday afternoon. Regina Martinez

By Christina Peluso

With many downtown and Campustown businesses in Champaign flourishing, there is a lot of new focus on the growth of businesses in outlying areas.

“Companies are seeking communities with high-tech resources,” Laura Frerichs, vice president of business development in Champaign said.

Champaign has the work force they are attracted to, she said.

“People don’t necessarily need to work in a downtown anymore,” Frerichs said, “There is a reality of the silicon prairie.”

Other major growth contributors are the Supervalu produce distribution center and the Wal-Mart on Prospect Avenue. Both are huge new employers in the area that are said to have brought over 400 jobs to the city.

The redevelopment of the old Chancellor Hotel is also a major new project. It will be renovated into a Hilton Garden Inn. A Homewood Suites by Hilton is also in the works. City officials hope this will add to the regional draw of the area.

While city officials are happy about all of the growth, they do not want it to be completely market-driven.

“We try to balance it out as much as possible,” City Planner Cac Kamak said.

The city wants a balance of residential and commercial use, he said.

“We try to open ourselves up for input and guidance. When we’re making policies, we’re trying to promote development,” Kamak said.

“We try to keep our doors open,” he said. “What’s happening in Champaign currently reflects that.”

The city stepped in after awhile in the growth hot spot of North Prospect Avenue.

“We had to draw the line at some point in terms of land use,” Kamak said.

“We want some residential development,” Kamak said. “We also want to see old buildings in that area redeveloped.”

Though the city has certain goals, it does not want to force the private sector in any particular direction.

“It’s not about pushing the people… it’s about creating an environment,” he said. “There’s constantly going to be areas that need attention and resources.”

As a result, there have been new residential developments sprouting up near North Prospect Avenue.

The Ashland Park subdivisions are one of the newest residential developments near Prospect. Developed by the Atkins Group, the subdivision will have 160 single-family homes and 300 next year, Mike Martin, director of development for the Atkins Group, said. Other residential growth includes new apartments just off Marketview Drive and multi-family housing by Interstate Drive.

The Atkins Group is working on new office spaces as well. The Pinehurst Office Park will accommodate 30 to 60 office buildings. It will be located near the Interstate Research Park and will cover 40 acres.

The Atkins Group did not specify any clients. They do some recruiting, however, the group does not necessarily wait to find clients before working on a new project.

“Everything’s about speed,” said Mark Dixon, director of real estate for the Atkins Group.

It takes five to eight years to finish a project, so the group must always look ahead.

“Just general growth of the community warrants new office space,” Dixon said.

Another key factor is low interest rates.

“We’re trying to capitalize on that,” Dixon said.

He said there has been a great deal of growth lately.

“Firms have outgrown their facilities, which is great for us,” Dixon said.

“There is also an emergence of companies in our area that have never serviced here before,” he said.

Dixon also said the magnitude of the population is contributing to the growth. “There’s a population here that’s been overlooked for a while,” he said.

While the Atkins Group does not have any other projects under construction, it does have plans for the next few years.

“We’re always looking ahead,” Dixon said. “It takes years to acquire land, put in streets and power.”

The developers have to work closely with the city for their projects to come into existence. The development group has been working with the city of Champaign for 16 years and they say communication is vital.

“They’re pro-business but they want it close to town. They’ve had problems with sprawl. Overall, both developers are happy to work with the city and are pleased with not only their growth, but also the growth of the entire community.

“I think it’s great,” Martin said.

Dixon was also enthusiastic but emphasized how each area of growth needs to work together.

“The key is to have housing for employees. They work hand-in-hand,” he said. “There’s a diversity of housing being built. By hitting all those levels we’re able to offer people those opportunities…because owning a house, that’s the American dream.”