The battle of the sister cities

Champaign County organization hosts name competition

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Courtesy of Visit Champaign County

The mayor of Urbana, Diane Marlin (left), and the mayor of Champaign, Deborah Feinen (right), wear the shirts sold in the “Champaign-Urbana” vs. “Urbana-Champaign” competition.

By Faith Allendorf and Nicole Littlefield

In Central Illinois, a decades-long battle like no other looms over the cornfields and University buildings. The competition ignites passion within those who are most concerned with its competitors. Peace can only be brought by the results. 

The contenders? Champaign-Urbana vs. Urbana-Champaign. 

For over 100 years, residents of both Champaign and Urbana have playfully bickered over one important question: Should the sister cities be called Champaign-Urbana or Urbana-Champaign? 

To answer this undying question, as well as raise money for the Champaign County History Museum, a few community representatives put together a friendly, community-wide competition that ran during the end of 2022. 

The plan was to sell two different T-shirts: one for Champaign-Urbana and one for Urbana-Champaign. Whichever shirt sold the most would determine the winner. The proceeds would go to the county museum. 

The competition was the brainchild of Visit Champaign County, an organization that “promotes the community as a destination to visit, live and work,” according to Terri Reifsteck, the vice president of marketing at Visit Champaign County. 

Reifsteck said the idea for the contest came up during an event where she and others from Visit Champaign County were discussing the question with new residents. 

“We have a line of T-shirts already that we sell that promote the community … that are not Fighting Illini based or University of Illinois based and are just community focused,” Reifsteck said. “We joked that, ‘Oh, we should make a T-shirt about this and make it a contest and add it to our existing line.’”

Visit Champaign County enlisted local artist Ralph Roether to create a design for the T-shirts. To understand the history behind the names, the organization also recruited the history museum. The mayors of both Champaign and Urbana were involved as well. 

TJ Blakeman, president of the museum’s Board of Trustees, also agreed to help after Visit Champaign County reached out. 

“I offered to write a historical account of the divide between Champaign and Urbana to accompany the event launch, and in exchange, they would donate a portion of their sales to the History Museum,” Blakeman said in an email. “This was a win-win for us.”

Those who wanted to represent their side of the debate could choose a shirt that had either Champaign or Urbana on top of the other. There is a little badge at the bottom of the shirt that says either “UC” or “CU” on it. 

On the design, there is also a reference to a significant component of the debate’s long history: Wright Street. Wright Street serves as “the most well-known divider between Champaign and Urbana,” according to Reifsteck. 

With the design created and the T-shirts ready to go, the light-hearted community competition began. Game on. 

Another significant component of the debate — a fact that Team Urbana-Champaign uses to its advantage — is that the University’s official name is the “University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.” 

“I think ‘Urbana-Champaign’ is a University creation,” said Deborah Feinen, the mayor of Champaign. “The majority of the University is housed in Urbana, and at some point, they began saying that they were the ‘University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.’”

The University officially began using “Urbana-Champaign” around 1906 when it was petitioned by the Champaign Association of Commerce and citizens from both communities to officially list a location in its name. Although there is no record of the petition going anywhere, the University began using “Urbana-Champaign” shortly after.

But for Feinen, none of that matters. To her, preferring “Champaign-Urbana” comes naturally since she has spent most of her life in Champaign.

“I’m a townie, and I grew up here,” Feinen said. “I spent my first few years in this community in Urbana, and then I moved to Champaign.” 

Reifsteck also said she is part of Team Champaign-Urbana.

“I love both communities equally, but when I explain where I live to people, I typically say Champaign-Urbana,” Reifsteck said. 

Of course, Diane Marlin, the mayor of Urbana, is Team Urbana-Champaign.

“We’re small, but we’re mighty,” Marlin said.

At the end of 2022, the competition closed, and the votes were tallied — some of which came from out-of-town University alumni and past residents.

A winner was chosen: 94-82, Urbana. 

“I didn’t think we would win this, but we did, and I think it just speaks to help people feel about the community,” Marlin said. 

Feinen said she is just happy to be part of a paired community that is able to get together to do things like the competition. 

“It was fun rivalry,” Feinen said. “We (Champaign and Urbana) cooperate together, and it was a fun thing to do, but there really isn’t any animosity over either one. We’ll get them next time.” 

In total, the competition raised $712, which will be going to the history museum.

“Our museum exists purely through memberships and donations … this truly is a community-led not-for-profit organization,” Blakeman said. “This money will go into our general fund that will help support our historic home, the Cattle Bank, as well as help us operate the museum four days a week.” 

Marlin said that as the competition has lasted for decades, the rivalry was all fun and games. In the end, it was about supporting the community.

“I want to assure folks that there is no (official) Champaign-Urbana or Urbana-Champaign name,” Marlin said. “It was just lighthearted competition, and we had fun with it.”

 

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