RANTOUL — The director of O’Fallon parks and recreation said the Rantoul Village Board faces a “hard decision” when it votes next week on whether to approve construction of an approximately $20 million sports complex. But she said it would be worth it.
“It’s a wonderful thing you can do for your community,” said Mary Jeanne Hutchison, who has overseen construction of that southern Illinois community’s sports complex since 2005.
There’s one difference, though. O’Fallon started with natural grass on some of its fields. If she had it to do over, Hutchison would have made all the fields artificial turf like Rantoul is proposing to do.
“This year we got dinged hard. We had seven rainouts on baseball,” Hutchison said. “That’s about a half-million-dollar hit to the community.”
The village board heard an exhaustive presentation at this week’s village study session outlining the benefits to the community.
O’Fallon’s population has grown from about 25,000 a decade and a half ago to about 32,000, Hutchison estimated. She said until a year ago when a new hospital was built, the city’s parks department was its No. 1 employer.
Three hotels have been built since the town’s sports complex was created, giving O’Fallon about 1,200 hotel rooms. Hutchison said three residential subdivisions have sprung up around the sports park.
“Like any park, they want to be close to that,” Hutchison said, “so they can go out and walk on the trail ... or go out and kick a ball around.”
Like O’Fallon’s, Rantoul’s sports complex would be equipped not only with sports fields but also with a walking trail and a playground area complete with a splash pad, Rantoul Rec Director Luke Humphrey told the village board. A site has also been set aside for a possible veterans memorial.
The board heard a report from real estate officials who said potential business developers have been calling since the village announced it was considering creating the sports complex.
Hutchison said the O’Fallon park has half a million users annually.
“They stay at our hotels, and they eat at our restaurants,” she said.
“When we first started, the restaurants would call and say, ‘What are you doing? We have to know when these tournaments are going on.’ They were getting bombarded (with customers). “So we started posting tournaments.”
The sports complex would seek to bring teams from a 400-mile radius with families traveling to watch their children play baseball, softball, soccer and other sports.
“These parents open up their billfolds and the money just flies out,” she said. “Sports is a $50 billion business now.”
Hutchison said the O’Fallon park hosts about 30 tourneys a year. Her department employs about 100 young adults for about eight months of the year — some working two hours a week and others working 20. It also employs 15 people fulltime.
She called Rantoul “perfect like us” in its location next to an interstate. The Rantoul site would be built south of Walmart on a 60-acre tract.
“As long as they can get to you, and being midstate is even better.”
Hutchison said O’Fallon’s downtown has also benefitted from the development. The community built a downtown facility that hosts a popular farmers market with 30 vendors that has boosted businesses there.
A marketing shot in the arm
The Rantoul property is owned by the Warner family.
Zach Wetherell of Coldwell Banker Commercial said the family asked Coldwell to market the lots near the interstate about a year ago, but there wasn’t much interest.
“Since this sports complex was announced ... we have an entertainment center, two strip (malls), a Mexican restaurant (and) a local hotel developer” that have expressed interest.
Wetherell said he spoke to a gas station developer who didn’t think Rantoul would be a good location for development until he heard about the sports complex.
“I had his eyes and ears from then on,” Wetherell said, adding, “There’s a lot of really good things that are allowing me to go out on not just a local level but also a regional and national level and tell the story of Rantoul and the great things that are going to be coming.”
Tom Harrington of Coldwell said the sports complex would serve as an anchor for development that “will drive a lot of traffic around the site. It makes our job a lot easier.”
He cited as examples the Carle at the Fields and Carriage Center developments in Champaign that have attracted many other businesses to those locations.
He said there is plenty of land available for development in that area in addition to the 60 acres for the sports complex.
Ryan Reid of Visit Champaign County said about a dozen tournament organizers told him at a recent conference that they would be intersted in holding the tournaments at the sports complex.
“One said, ‘I would leave Chicago in a heartbeat if it meant all the competitors from Indiana, St. Louis and Chicago could meet somewhere in the middle.’ That’s the big selling point. We’re in the middle,” Reid said.
He said Champaign County can’t compete for most tournaments because of its lack of turf fields.
“We’ve lost tons of tournaments” because of that, Reid said.
Byrne and Jameson General Manager Jameson Sheley — the man who would oversee construction of the complex — said it would include eight baseball/softball fields, two t-ball challenger fields and eight soccer/football/multi-purpose fields. There would be three buildings for concessions, restrooms and maintenance, a splash pad, playground and 800-plus parking places.
Humphrey said the baseball/softball fields will be 315 feet down the lines and 390 feet to center field — designed for use by players up to college-age.
“We’re definitely going after a segment of the traveling industry,” Humphrey said, adding that shorter temporary outfield fences could be brought in for younger players.
The complex would be able to host regional and supersectional tournaments.
The plan also includes potential for an indoor facility, and a site would be equipped with electrical service to host food trucks. Berms will be created on which fans can watch the games.
Humphrey said since the board’s last meeting, the village has received seven verbal commitments or letters of intent from organizations interested in booking tournaments beginning March 2021.
“When you look at these organizations, the complex will be in high demand from March through October,” Humphrey said.
The village board, which meets Tuesday evening, will be asked to approve a not-to-exceed contract with Byrne and Jones for $16,513,792 for surveying and design, earthwork, storm and sanitary sewers, electric service and the completion and stabilization of all fields.
The remainder of the work will be made available for bidding by local contractors at a cost ranging from $4 million to $7 million.
Village Administrator Scott Eisenhauer said if the board OKs the proposal, discussions will proceed with potential donors and sponsors, vendors and partners.
He said earlier the goal is to have private contributions, sponsorships, donations and grants pay for part of the cost, with the bulk of the funding coming from bonds paid for from income generated from the village’s tax-increment financing fund. Local athletes would be able to use the facility at no charge.