Laying the groundwork: Ceremony officially starts Rantoul sports complex project

Close to 30 people gathered for the groundbreaking for the new $20 million Rantoul sports complex Tuesday afternoon. In total about 140 people attended the ceremony.

RANTOUL — The state of Illinois has earmarked half a million dollars in capital appropriations for the new $20 million artificial turf sports complex that will be built in west Rantoul.

It marks a start for a project that State Sen. Scott Bennett (D-Champaign) promises to benefit not only central Illinois but the state as a whole.

Bennett was one of the speakers at an event to formally recognize the construction project Tuesday afternoon

Flanked by heavy equipment ready to begin the groundwork when conditions permit, a group of close to 30 people of all ages gathered around golden shovels for a groundbreaking ceremony. They were among about 140 people who attended.

The sports complex, which is slated for opening next year, is projected to provide an economic booster shot.

Said Mayor Chuck Smith: “It will be a driving economic force in our community. It will create and allow retail and service development, a total of 82 acres in commercial property and 150 acres of residential property. The overall possibilities are unlimited.”

Bennett must be warm-blooded. Braving temps in the low 40s with brisk winds, Bennett, who wore no coat, said he couldn’t “really be cold” when he saw how many cars and people had showed up for the occasion.

He said he remembers his first conversation with Smith, who drove him around town and told him of his memories and vision for the town. Bennett said he remembers the Rantoul of yesteryear when he would catch a weekend movie at the Wings theater and “thinner days” working out at Forum Fitness Center. The town for years was also home to Chanute Air Force Base.

While The Forum is still going strong, The Wings and Chanute Air Force Base are long gone. It’s time for the town to move ahead, said Bennett and several other speakers.

The ceremony marked the second held in west Rantoul this month. On Jan. 3, a ribbon-cutting/grand opening was held at the new Shields Auto Center, north of the sports complex site.

State Rep. Mike Marron (R-Fithian) said he hopes Tuesday’s groundbreaking is the first of many in Rantoul — looking ahead to economic development.

“This really is a key moment that ushers in a new era in the story of Rantoul — a story I’ve ...  been following for a long time,” Marron said.

“It’s really an event that marks the turning point where we have a lot of really, really good things that are starting to happen in this community.”

Recreation Department Director Luke Humphrey said the ceremony took place almost to the day on the one-year anniversary of when he started putting “pencil to paper on an idea that had been sitting on the shelf for many years.”

The sports complex, which is projected to draw traveling sports teams from a 400-mile radius, will also be geared toward local residents.

Village officials have said the complex will be open to Rec Department and other community-related activities, including baseball, softball, soccer, football and other sports.

RTHS athletic director Travis Flesner said the village has made it clear that it wants to involve local youth.

“The village really wants to work with us and help get our sports out there,” Flesner said, noting there have been talks regarding baseball, softball and soccer possibly playing at the complex.

“We would love to play some of our games out there, and playing on artificial turf would be awesome. Them reaching out to us and other local schools and teams shows us they want us and the community to be able to benefit from this and not just travel teams from outside of the area.”

Rennick Riddle, a student at Rantoul’s J.W. Eater Junior High School, was one of four Eater students who took part in the groundbreaking.

He said planned construction of the sports complex excites him “because it’s going to give us a better option for sports.”

Riddle, who plays baseball, said other area youth athletes are also excited by the prospect.

Eater student Olivia DeBusky said she is on a traveling softball team and estimated she plays 30 games a year.

“I was excited” she said when she heard about the facility.

Bennett said the new facility will draw people from a wide area — “people who want to spend the weekend with the family.”

“They don’t want to go to Chicago and Indianapolis. They want to spend their money right here where they make it,” Bennett said.

The sports complex will be paid for from private contributions, sponsorships, donations and grants, with the bulk of the funding coming from bonds paid for from income generated by the village’s tax-increment financing fund.

Heavy equipment Jan. 15

Heavy equipment is ready, when conditions permit, to do site preparation for the new Rantoul sports complex.

Village Administrator Scott Eisenhauer said there is “a great possibility” of seeing additional state dollars for the project. And federal grant and foundation dollars might also be forthcoming.

Eisenhauer said the village has been in talks with companies interested in sponsorships. He said those talks will now ramp up with the groundbreaking ceremony and Bennett’s announcement of the $500,000 state contribution.

Available sponsorships would come in the form of naming rights for fields (paying for half the cost of a field would total $1.5 to $2 million), the park as a whole, scoreboards, concession stands and signage.

“People who we hadn’t initially thought (of) for a sponsorship have been very interested in being a part of it,” Eisenhauer said. “We have been surprised, just as I think we’ll be surprised by the number of different ways the park is used.”

He said the village has also been pleased with numbers “from some of the early bids in construction.”

Mid Illinois Concrete and Excavation, a local firm, got the bid for the site excavation — Eisenhauer saying it came in below the amount budgeted. After site work excavation, the “underground work” will begin for sewer lines and utilities.

Rantoul Press Sports Editor Ryan Birch contributed to this article.