Youth soccer leaders in Bloomington-Normal have announced plans to build a 100-acre sports complex in north Normal, months before they are set to lose the soccer fields they have used for years.
Jeremy Kelley, secretary for Illinois Fire Juniors, said the soccer club has purchased farmland near the intersection of Route 66 (Shelbourne Drive) and Veterans Parkway and plans to begin development this fall. The group presented architectural drawings during a virtual meeting with the media on Wednesday.
The club said it has raised $3.5 million in cash, pledges and in-kind donations for the project through a fundraising campaign it called "Big Field. Big Dream. Big Impact: The Campaign for Community."
Illinois Fire Juniors led a soft launch of the campaign in May 2018. Kelley said since similar efforts to build soccer facilities over the last decade never got off the ground, seeing specific plans will help encourage more people to donate to the campaign.
“In our fundraising conversations, we’ve heard people say, ‘Is this real? Is this legit? We’re here to say we have 100 acres of land and the money to get started. This is happening. This is real,” Kelley said.
He said the site will include synthetic turf if enough money is raised, along with lights, bathrooms and concessions.
He added the project needs $3 million more to complete the first of three phases. The first phase includes leveling the site, building a retention pond and creating 10 full-size soccer fields. The second phase, which would include seven youth fields, would cost an additional $3 million. The third phase would include an indoor training facility that also could be used for games. Kelley said that site would cost between $3 million and $15 million. He said fundraising will determine the size and scope of that building.
Kelley said the facility also will accommodate other sports, including lacrosse, cricket and football.
Erika Hunt, one of the fundraising co-chairs, owns Scribbles Center for Learning in Bloomington. She said Scribbles has contributed $50,000 to pay for construction of a playground on site. Hunt said the site’s multiuse capability is part of the selling pitch.
“This provides the opportunity to do much more, reach out and partner with other sports around the community as well as (making it) a regional center that will attract teams and families and kids from around the Midwest,” Hunt said.
Kelley added the site would be used to attract regional tournaments, which he said would bolster its economic impact.
Kelley said he doesn’t believe trying to fundraise in the midst of a pandemic and resulting recession will be a setback. He said the project is a reminder that the pandemic will one day be over.
“This is kind of a signal we are returning to normal. We are getting out there,” he said. “We’re conscious of some of the potential financial situations, but there is a group out there that’s ready to go.”
Illinois Fire Juniors zeroed in on this project after discussions to build a $43 million indoor-outdoor complex in Bloomington-Normal fell through. Government officials said the price tag was too steep without substantial private investment.
Kelley noted this project will be funded with no government dollars.
“Why there were some critics with some of the past plans, everybody we’ve talked to on this plan, we get a lot of head shaking saying, ‘This is great,” Kelley said. “We are ready to move forward and we think the community is ready to move forward with us.”
The club has been exploring playing options as its lease with the Bloomington-Normal Airport Authority to use Community Fields in Bloomington ends at the end of the year. The Federal Aviation Administration has asked Central Illinois Regional Airport to vacate the land because of its close proximity to the airport.
Kelley said if the group is able to use turf, it could have fields ready as early as next year, but grass fields wouldn't be ready until 2022. He said the timeline for phases two and three will depend on fundraising.
Kelley said the club plans to ask the airport authority for a one-year extension on its lease at Community Fields.
The project also needs approval from the Normal Planning Commission and Normal City Council.
Illinois Fire Juniors is affiliated with the Chicago Fire professional soccer team and has nearly 2,000 travel and recreational soccer players.
“Partnering with the Chicago Fire, the IHSA, areas high schools, and our local universities provides even greater opportunities,” Tim Koch, president of Illinois Fire Juniors and the Prairie Cities Soccer League, said in a statement. “We know this is a unique moment in time where if we dream just a bit bigger and get this right, we have a chance to positively impact our entire community.”
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