Community gets glimpse of preliminary conference center plans

CHAMPAIGN – Preliminary drawings of the University of Illinois' new conference center show a building that can easily accommodate gatherings of 500 or more.

The conference center, planned for the south side of St. Mary's Road across from Assembly Hall, would be a single-story structure featuring a 7,500-square-foot ballroom, a junior ballroom, several conference and breakout rooms and a "board room" for more formal meetings.

"It's properly configured to handle more than one conference at a time," said Clark Wise, director of the UI's Capital Administration and Development Division.

In describing the project Thursday to the Champaign County Convention & Visitors Bureau board, Wise said the building "has the UI stamped all over it architecturally."

By that, he meant the building has brick facing and limestone accents, features common to buildings across campus. A sloped metal roof would cover the central portion of the building.

The plans had yet to be reviewed by Chancellor Richard Herman, President B. Joseph White and the board of trustees, so some changes could be made before the plans become final.

Wise said the 7,500-square-foot ballroom should accommodate 500 for meals, 800 in "theater-style" seating or 350 to 400 in "classroom-style" seating at tables.

Conference participants could also gather outside in two courtyards on the north and south sides, he added.

The main entry would be on the north side, with a major hallway running the length of the building. The hallway would get light from above through transom windows and lend itself well to exhibition space, Wise said.

Wise said Herman has pledged that the conference center will treat community customers the same as university customers, with UI groups getting no discounts or preferential treatment.

"We feel this is a wonderful opportunity to engage the community in conferencing in a way that's not been done in the past," he said.

Last fall, the board of trustees approved an $11 million budget for the project, and that figure "is still holding true," Wise said.

If the board approves the plans by Ratio Architects, bids could be put out in July, and construction contracts could be awarded in September, he said. Construction could start this October and be finished by September 2007.

A privately owned five-story hotel and restaurant are expected to be built at First Street and St. Mary's Road, just west of the conference center. Plans call for 200 parking spaces for the conference center and about 250 for the hotel and restaurant, Wise said.

The conference center could expand to become a convention center if an Olympic sports arena seating 6,500 is eventually developed to the east, Wise said. If that's built, consideration may be given to putting a detention pond just south of the arena.

Wise noted that plans call for extending Fourth Street south to Hazelwood Drive and extending Hazelwood from First to Fourth. Later, he said, Fourth is expected to be extended farther south to Windsor Road.

Craig Rost, Champaign's deputy city manager for economic development, said the new hotel and conference center, when combined with other hotels being developed nearby, "takes us to a new level" in terms of accommodating meetings and conventions.

Rost noted the renovated Hawthorn Suites is only a few blocks away, and a new Hilton Garden Inn and Homewood Suites are being built at Neil Street and Kirby Avenue.

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