By the end of the year, 21 soccer fields on airport-owned land along Ireland Grove Road will be off limits due to FAA regulations and so the debate is ramping up about whether to seize the opportunity and go big, as in a multi-sport complex in one location, or to update existing fields and green space at schools and parks to fill the void.
You might not realize it, but soccer is the most popular sport played by all ages in Bloomington-Normal. There are Adult Parks and Recreation teams, youth and travel teams, high school and college teams, plus indoor soccer played by kids and adults at places like Game Time Gym. It’s a big business and this soccer mom thinks Bloomington-Normal is leaving money on the table. Fusion travel club President Brenda Seger points out soccer is a recession-proof sport. "People will pay money for tournaments in lieu of spending money on vacations for their family. In May, we'll expect another 3,000 to 5,000 people to come in [for an annual tournament]. We can bring the money for the city if a complex is built."
Fusion Soccer Club Roots for Multi-Sport Facility
Fusion Soccer Club is a non-profit competitive travel soccer club which hosts one tournament a year that attracts as many as 3,000 players and their families. Club leaders say they could host many more tournaments but they are limited because Community Fields doesn't have lights or other amenities.
Fusion soccer club plays on Community Fields which has no lights, no water, and no amenities. Seger says because of that, Fusion hosts only one tournament a year. "We are only allowed to do one because we share the fields with PCSL (Prairie City Soccer League). We just have the time or the daylight because there are no lights out there so we really can't do any more," she said in making the case for investment in a multi-sport complex.
Prairie City Soccer League which has more than 100 teams for kids in kindergarten through high school. Last fall there were 225 kids on a waiting list. Fusion, PCSL and Bloomington High school all use Community Fields on 60 acres near the Central Illinois Regional Airport.
The biggest user hopes to score support
It’s estimated as many as 3,000 families could be affected by the of 21 playing fields by the end of the year. PCSL President Frank Schuler says while looking for a solution, why not think toward the future and consider a bigger complex to accommodate other sports that are growing in popularity? "Also include those folks out there from rugby and lacrosse that can bring economic impact to this community other than soccer." He adds, "They're looking for places to play just as much as we're going to be looking for places to play."
Enter the Bloomington-Normal Convention and Visitors Bureau and its Sports Commission which last June gathered a group of 14 stakeholders which it lists as supporting a multi-sport complex including Illinois Wesleyan and Illinois State Universities, the Illinois High School Association, the Central Illinois Cricket Association, Special Olympics, ruby and lacrosse teams among others.
Matt Hawkins of the commission says a 2009 feasibility study for the town of Normal and the sports commission found a $16 million facility with 25 fields could generate a minimum of $10 million a year in business for hotels, restaurants and other shops. "It's going to generate a significant amount of income for years to come and we think the eventual return would justify what the city and town could potentially put into the project."
Financing is unclear
Hawkins says it would be a mix of financing; a public-private partnership that could include a one percent increase in the hotel-motel tax to generate an estimated $300,000 a year. He says that would still keep the Twin Cities’ rate below other Central Illinois cities. Hawkins says he’ll know more about financing needed when Bloomington-based developer Dave Stark presents his plans for 200 acres north of the Crossroads Center, east of Wylie Drive and College Avenue.
Coming soon to a council chambers near you
Stark has hired The Kim Group, a Peoria real estate company to assess community needs and come up with a design to present to both Bloomington and Normal councils as early as next month. Stark’s proposal is for the same land that was part of a failed project floated two years ago for a 26-field complex plus a community center on a separate site in Bloomington. The Bloomington council rejected the idea of using part of a one percent sales tax hike for the development.
Katie Kim says the presentation from then-developer Jeff Tinervin and businessman Dave Magers lacked critical information about economic impact. "The presentation that I saw was missing some data that I think would have been critically important to express to the community as to what this would bring."
The 2009 feasibility study came up with the $10 million a year economic impact by looking at similar, multi-sport complexes in Kansas, Iowa and Missouri and a variety of demographic and income trends. As for design of the complex, Kim says it could be phased with outdoor fields built first, followed later by a building for indoor sports such as basketball, football and cricket.
District 87 is not a fan
But, one major stakeholder doesn’t think a multi-sport complex is cost effective. District 87 superintendent Barry Reilly, whose high school soccer team practices at Community Fields, says he would rather see money spent on laying turf on fields at Bloomington High School, Normal Community, Normal West and even Central Catholic. "We have a lot of maintenance that goes on for the natural turf field and there's not a lot of hours that kids get to be on it," he said.
He admits a robust communication plan would be needed but thinks there's an opportunity to share and collaborate. "In this case if you put artificial turf on there they would get a lot more out of it and we could open it up to the community much more than we do today.
Reilly has identified 57 green spaces throughout Bloomington-Normal that could be enhanced for play or practice and he says half of them already have some ability for play. He thinks putting money into schools is a better approach to economic development. "When people come into town and when potential employers come in and see our schools, it says something. It leaves an impression on them and I want nothing more than when they drive out of here say, 'Wow, they really pay attention to their schools.'"
Another opponent weighs in
There is one soccer organization that tends to agree with Reilly. Millennium youth soccer was created in 2014 by parents of PCSL kids who weren’t getting any playing time. Co-founder Fernando Cornejo says their model of using volunteer labor and private donations works. They serve 160 kids on four acres next to Good Shepherd Church along Streid Drive south of Oakland Avenue.
Cornejo says his club doesn't want to see tax dollars support it. "It would allow us to grow and expand as a club. Probably the biggest concern is a tax increase which we are not in favor of. " He thinks private investors could make it happen. According to Cornejo,"There are a lot of private companies within this community which could help but I don't think all of the stakeholders have been at the table."
Key council members are trying to bring players together
Kathleen Lorenz whose daughter played club soccer is also the town’s rep on the Convention and Visitors Bureau and the sports commission. Normal two years ago supported using a portion of a sales tax increase for a complex and community center in Bloomington. Lorenz says there is an opportunity to collaborate and take advantage of Bloomington-Normal’s assets, including dorm rooms and interstate access to host regional and national tournaments.
Bloomington alderman Scott Black, who was against the Tinervan-Magers proposal, now sits as the city’s rep on the Convention and Visitors Bureau board. He thinks a collaborative effort might actually give Bloomington-Normal – as he put it – “the best bang for the buck” but he admits it will be a tough sell in this political climate. "Taxpayers are demanding less spending and more collaboration. I think there's an opportunity for a public-private partnership. There is no proposal on the table yet. We haven't seen the final numbers." Black wants to get plenty of public input. "I'm advocating for take a look, get the feedback from the public and make the best decision at that time."
Mayor Renner Willing To Partner
Mayor Tari Renner says the city is in a better place financially than it was when the previous proposal, using sales tax revenue, was considered. He is open to working with the town of Normal to make something happen on the west side but he recognizes the relationship between the two is still strained from previous sales tax discussions which included … as he put it … “a lot of miscommunication.” Renner doesn’t expect the council will take up the issue until after the municipal election in April.
Meanwhile one Fusion player who is headed to college in the fall on a soccer scholarship, Allie Mitchell, reminds taxpayers that soccer is worth the investment. "Soccer helps kids feel connected and that is so important, especially for kids who don't have that good home life and don't have that security and safe place at home. This gives them that."
Airport Authority leaders say another extension of the FAA waiver isn't likely and the only way soccer clubs losing their fields might have a chance at changing the agency's position is if organizers have a scheduled date for groundbreaking and financing in place for a new complex elsewhere.
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