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COVID and higher costs push youth soccer leaders into scaled-down sports complex in Bloomington

 Illinois Fire Juniors plans to build two turf soccer fields with lights at the Sale Barn soccer complex in Bloomington, with plans for more fields if the club can raise the money.
Eric Stock
FC Central Illinois plans to build two turf soccer fields with lights at the Sale Barn property in Bloomington, with plans for more fields if the club can raise the money.

Youth soccer leaders in Bloomington-Normal have scrapped plans for a 100-acre sports complex in north Normal.

Instead, FC Central Illinois (formerly the Illinois Fire Juniors) plans to build a smaller complex at the Sale Barn soccer site in south Bloomington.

Club secretary Jeremy Kelley said the 60-acre site will enable the organization to move out of Community Fields near the Central Illinois Regional Airport. The soccer club has been trying for years to find a new location to replace Community Fields because the Federal Aviation Administration considers the site to be too close to CIRA.

“It will be enough to run our club operations, run soccer in the area and run some tournaments, but certainly not anything to the scale of a Rockford or some of these other facilities that have these every weekend,” Kelley said.

The soccer club changed plans because the cost to build on the north Normal site would be more than expected and fundraising efforts struggled due to the pandemic.

“COVID hit us harshly. We lost some donors. We had some problems getting more donors coming in and moving forward. We heard from a lot of business owners understandably concerned that (money) is tight,” Kelley explained.

Last year, the club reported it had $3.5 million in cash, pledges and in-kind donations and needed about $3 million more to complete the first phase at the north Normal site. Kelley said the club lost many of the donations because they were tied to the north Normal project, adding the club will add two turf soccer fields with lights at the Sale Barn site and add more fields if the club can raise the money.

“How much further we can go from that, I don’t exactly know yet,” Kelley said. “That’s a decision we are going to have to look at next summer, based on our financial position and what loans and what donations have come in and how far we can go.”

FC Central Illinois presented the 100-acre site in north Normal near Route 66 and Veterans Parkway in 2020 after it became clear there wasn’t enough private investment to build a $43 million indoor-outdoor sports complex.

The proposed complex in north Normal was touted as a site that could host other sports, including football, lacrosse and cricket. Kelley said he hopes the Sale Barn site will be large enough to accommodate additional sports and bolster economic development, but said that may depend on the size and scope of the final project.

“The reality is the bigger site and the previous plans we had would have done a better job of serving other non-soccer components than this site, but we are very open and would like to have those other sports,” Kelley said.

The club plans to ask the Bloomington-Normal Airport Authority for what Kelley calls a final one-year lease extension to use Community Fields in 2022 as it begins to transition to the new site — though he said the club plans to have soccer at the new location next summer.

The club also will need to apply to McLean County for a special-use permit at the site. The Sale Barn complex is across the street from a residential area. Kelley indicated the lights will enable the soccer club to hold games until 9-10 p.m. on weekends for tournaments and games and practices until 9 p.m.

Kelley said the club has generally received positive feedback from neighbors, but said the club's efforts so far have mostly been focused on the logistics of acquiring the property.

“We have not gone door-to-door and engaged with the neighborhood out there, but we are hopeful everybody realizes this is a positive, not only for the kids in our club, but also for the community as a whole,” he said.

Even though the new site is not nearly as big an economic driver as the plan the soccer club envisioned before COVID, Kelley said he’s optimistic the community will help support a project that will enable youth soccer to continue to thrive in Bloomington-Normal.

“It’s a huge step forward for us and while I’d love for it to be 10 steps forward for the community, we are not going to be able to do that on our own,” he said.

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Corrected: October 25, 2021 at 5:22 PM CDT
WGLT previously misidentified the soccer club as Illinois Fire Juniors.
Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.
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