City development increases

Manager Leslie Bettridge smiles behind the register at Persimmon on Wednesday afternoon. Austin Happel

By Christina Peluso

This is the second part of a three-day series chronicling the economic growth and development in Champaign.

Part Two – Downtown Champaign

With the resurgence of growth in Champaign, the community is abuzz. People, both young and old, are excited about the new restaurants, bars, businesses and job opportunities. While the redevelopment began downtown, it has spread to the outlying areas of the city.

The industrial parks are growing, new hotels are being developed and the research park is expanding. Still the most prominent display of the resurgence in growth can be seen in the downtown district.

In the downtown Tax Increment Financing district, the assessed value area has grown $7 million since 1981 and is now at $14.5 million. Downtown Development and Research Center President, Larry Alexander said there is a trend of growth in downtown districts throughout the United States. Though he acknowledged the trend, as do other experts in the area, Alexander said there is no way to collect statistics or data to show the trend because there are no grounds for gathering them.

Downtowns are very individualistic, Alexander said. On the general whole, there was a down cycle in downtown districts until 10 or 15 years ago, he said. Since then, Alexander said there has been a great deal of growth, especially in the last four or five years.

Alexander, who has been president of the Downtown Development and Research Center since 1974, said each downtown must be studied individually because there are too many variables to make generalizations.

“There’s a world of difference,” he said. “There are no formulas or patterns.”

President of the International Downtown Association, Dave Feehan, agreed that resurgence of downtowns has been a growing trend. Downtowns have been suffering since World War II, Feehan said. It was not until the 1990’s that downtowns really started coming back to life, he said.

One of the main changes, Feehan says, was the decrease in crime. After crime went down people started moving back into downtowns and the residential space started growing, he said.

Growth of residential spaces has been a goal of the city of Champaign for quite some time and recently entrepreneurs have been investing in the market. One Main is the largest of new residential spaces, with 23 condominiums. But other smaller ventures have also been happening throughout downtown.

Both Jeff Mellander, President and CEO of Precision Graphics, and Bob Osiek, a longtime business owner in downtown Champaign has recently renovated second floor spaces for apartments.

Part of what is bringing in all the new residential space is the increased activity in the downtown.

“Downtown Champaign’s revitalization has been extraordinary,” said Joan Dixon, Community Foundation of East Central Illinois Executive Director and member of the Big.Small.All Champaign County Steering Committee.

The downtown is vibrant at 9 a.m. because of coffee shops and it is great at lunch too, Dixon said.

Champaign City Planner T.J. Blakeman agrees that the vibrant atmosphere has made a huge impact. Blakeman noted the outdoor caf‚-licensing program as one of the biggest accomplishments in downtown Champaign because it brought people to the area. It also made visible changes. People started seeing other people, which added to the atmosphere and curiosity about downtown.

“It started creating hype in the community at large,” Blakeman said.

One of the entrepreneurs that helped bring that excitement and renewed sense of vibrancy to downtown is Jon “Cody” Sokolski, co-owner and developer of One Main. Numerous community members, city officials and businessmen name Sokolski’s $20 million investment in the One Main building as the most important development in downtown Champaign in the past five to 10 years.

One Main brought the first new construction to downtown Champaign in more than 40 years. It also brought an influx of jobs with the gaming software company Volition. It also brought new retail, a stylized new building to the center of downtown and a scenic streetscape.

Sokolski, also co-founder of The Hub, believes that Champaign will grow even more. He thinks that Champaign is a great place to live because it has the amenities of a bigger city without all the added problems of traffic and high cost of living.

“I like the quality of life here,” he said.

Sokolski says that Champaign is unlike other Midwest cities because there is so much to do.

For Sokolski the next step is a new project, a new building that boasts 62 condominiums, three floors of office space, one floor of retail and parking. Sokolski is also looking into bringing a hotel into downtown Champaign.

“Times have changed,” he said. “The hotels want us.”

A hotel in downtown Champaign would give visitors a sense of the community and let them experience the flavor of the area, Sokolski said.

For Sokolski, who grew up on the upper east side of Manhattan, the new developments and growth in Champaign is exciting.

All we have to do as a community is position ourselves, he said.

Jill Frick, Vice President of Training, Certification and Communications at the International Economic Development Council also said there is a trend in downtowns to change the focus.

“Downtowns are redefining their identity,” she said.

Frick said that one of the new trends in downtown is to focus on arts, entertainment and specialty retail, all of which are happening in downtown Champaign.

Others in the community say it is the developers that truly changed the downtown district.

Colleen Braun, Assistant to the City Manager for Development for the city of Champaign, cites entrepreneurs’ willingness to make daring business ventures as a landmark catalyst for growth.

“People (were) willing to take a risk in downtown, especially when it wasn’t a cool thing,” Braun said.

Lisa Meid, former president of the Champaign Downtown Association and former editor of The Hub, also agrees with Braun.

An amazing amount of people putting their own money into private development makes a big difference, Meid said.

Notable entrepreneurial projects besides the One Main development include Radio Maria, Boltini Lounge, Cowboy Monkey, Guido’s Bar and Grill and Bacaro.

All investments, part of the TIF district, were joint ventures of public and private capital. Redevelopments such as Cowboy Monkey consisted of $65,000 in public investments with a total project cost of $405,000. Boltini Lounge took the largest amount of investment. $100,000 of public investment, with a total cost of $580,000 garnered the chic lounge that resides in place of the vacant building.

Meid also notes that long-standing business owners have really helped the downtown because those businesses were there long before downtown Champaign became in vogue.

“Maybe the greatest achievement is watching the existing businesses grow and adapt,” she said.

Paul West, co-owner of Caf‚ Kopi, says his caf‚ has been an institution in downtown Champaign.

“We are one of the anchors of this whole downtown renewal revitalization,” he said.

Flora Farachi, owner of Jane Adams Bookshope, which has been in downtown since the 1980’s, says the Champaign Downtown Association has also brought improvements to the downtown area.

“They’ve (the Champaign Downtown Association) been very helpful,” Farachi said.

The group was formed ten years ago in response to a downtown street festival.

Aimed at improving downtown, the group fundraises for events and helps promote the downtown as a whole. The Champaign Downtown Association, as a whole, is made up of business and property owners in downtown Champaign.

It’s very much a grass roots organization,” Farachi said.

Osiek says the Champaign Downtown Association is a great organization because it is run by the private sector. The downtown association is not funded by the city, he said.

“That’s the special thing about this organization,” he said.