Champaign pumps more money into downtown

By Erin Renzas

More than a year after the opening of One Main and deep into attempts to overhaul the downtown, the City of Champaign continues to invest in the area.

Since 1994, Champaign has distributed $2.8 million in public investment, resulting in over $17 million of private investment into the downtown area, said TJ Blakeman of the Champaign planning department.

The Bacaro and Persimmon Grocery, 113 N. Walnut St., was granted $23,000 of public investment funds for its $120,000 project, nearly 20 percent of the total cost. 34 Chester Street, still under construction, was given $75,000 in public investment funds, more then 15 percent of the project’s total cost. Boltini Lounge, 211 N. Neil St., was granted the maximum $100,000 and totaled $580,000.

Current city policies and programs primarily have provided for rehabilitation and renovation of existing downtown buildings, not for the construction of new buildings, such as One Main, downtown Champaign’s first newly constructed development in more than two decades.

While One Main has experienced more popularity and interest then ever imagined, the city does not have enough monetary resources to promote new downtown construction, Jon Sokolski, CEO of the One Main development, said.

“I think people like the way downtown is going,” Blakeman said. “We are always looking for opportunities to gain more redevelopment and more interest in the area.”

Beginning in 1992, the city adopted the downtown area plan. The proposal’s goals for the downtown area included bringing more residential housing to the neighborhood, encouraging an urban feel, as well as beautifying and promoting renovation and restoration.

In 1981, the city adopted a tax incentive financing district, centered on downtown. The program provided financial incentives to building owners in blighted areas to upgrade their structures. The tax incentive programs capture money by devoting all property taxes above one-third of the fair market price of a piece of property to promote redevelopment. In 1994, this program became the redevelopment incentive program, which grants up to $100,000 for redevelopment efforts.

“A lot of buildings in our TIF district – I don’t want to say all, but almost all – have used TIF funding to help renovate,” Blakeman said.

The tax incentive financing funding, however, is only accessible for renovation of existing buildings, making projects like Sokolski’s One Main a rare occurrence, Blakeman said.

“TIF funds specifically can’t be spent on new construction,” Blakeman said. “Even if they could, with construction downtown, some might look at $100 grand and say that it isn’t even a drop in the bucket.”

One Main, financed privately, received few incentives, Sokolski said. One Main, which began as a much smaller development, hosts 23 luxury condominiums and several businesses.

“We didn’t get a deal or hand out,” Sokolski said. “We worked with the city to make this a reality. There were icky moments, and there were very complex moments, but we had to come to creative solutions. It had to be a win-win situation.”

Downtown redevelopment is not only a trend in Champaign, but nationwide, said Jill Frick, communications director for the International Economic Development Council.

“This desire to revitalize and redefine downtown is definitely one that has become increasingly popular over the past decade and, more so, in the past five years,” said Sheri Stuart, program officer at the National Trust Main Street Center.

The Main Street Center provides guidance for community-driven, comprehensive methodology used to revitalize older, traditional business districts throughout the United States.

“The downtown is the heart and soul of the community, both because of its historical significance, but also for economic purposes,” Stuart said. “How your downtown looks can dramatically impact your ability to draw industry and visitors. It is really a reflection of the health of a community.”

Whether a community is a “Main Street town” or not, most of these cities face similar issues, but must learn to face those issues in a way that is consistent with preexisting city policy and programs, Stuart said.

One of the issues often ignored is how to bring people who still live in the suburbs into the downtown, Frick said.

“Downtowns have to say ‘We may not have a Wal-mart, but we have something else,'” she said.

While states do provide some downtown revitalization programs, much of the time redevelopment programs are handled better at the local level, Stuart said. Statewide programs in Illinois include design assistance for historic buildings and financial programs that provide small matching grants to help businesses get renovation projects started.

“Sometimes it is difficult for states to work effectively on programs that must so uniquely fit a community,” Stuart said.

Champaign measures success and return of investment of these programs on whether the buildings are going to be viable for an extended amount of time at the end of the renovation and if they can be adaptively reused, Blakeman said.

“When it comes to saying if these programs are successful, some of it is just opinion and interest in downtown,” Blakeman said. “I think that is how we measure the success of our programs, not necessarily by business retention.”

The programs are working, said Flora Faraci, owner of Jane Addams Book Shop, 208 N. Neil St.

“Business is always up and down, but this year there is a lot more interest in downtown,” Faraci said. “I think anything that draws attention – be it One Main or anything else – is good for downtown.”