Group to begin looking at how to bring minor league baseball to town
CHAMPAIGN — It's January, but baseball season starts next week for Tony Johnston and his exploratory committee.
Johnston and the group of business people and baseball experts on Jan. 30 will begin working through the details of Mayor Don Gerard's hope to build a minor league baseball stadium in Champaign. In a year or two, he hopes to have a business plan to present to the city.
"The idea is to put this team together, an exploratory committee together, to come up with a scope and, for lack of a better term, a best practice for the city on what we think can be successful in a town of Champaign's size," Johnston said on Monday.
Gerard's desire to build a baseball stadium in Champaign dates back to his spring 2011 campaign for mayor. He believes a minor league baseball team would bring jobs to Champaign and inject dollars from other East Central Illinois communities into the local economy.
Gerard put Johnston in the game to lead the exploratory effort — he is a vice president of Software Solutions in Shelbyville and has coached Gerard's son in Little League.
Other baseball teams have tried and failed to call themselves Champaign's hometown club, but the exploratory committee will be operating under a new premise, Johnston said. Teams in the past have played at Illinois Field, a 3,000-seat stadium designed for the college team.
Whether it has been a factor in other teams' demises has been debated, but alcohol is not sold at the University of Illinois-owned baseball stadium.
Gerard's "vision was a little bit different than some of the other attempts that have been made in the past," Johnston said. The new exploratory committee will consider "the idea that if you have a good facility, you have a better chance of getting a team."
That means the committee will look at other towns with successful minor league teams and examine why they have lasted.
Among a multitude of details, the committee would have to decide on where to locate the stadium, how many seats it needs, how many "skyboxes" it needs, whether it needs restaurants or a strip mall and how the stadium could be used during the offseason. The list goes on.
"I think what we would come back with is a business plan for the facility involving the baseball team as the primary tenant of the facility," Johnston said.
Of course, building a stadium is not free. Gerard has spoken of using city money to make the establishment of a minor league team more affordable for a private business and possibly even retain public ownership of the stadium itself after it is built.
Those are more of the details the committee will need to work through.
The meetings of the exploratory committee are not intended to be public, Johnston said, and the committee will disband after a year or two once it has a proposal for the city. At that point, the idea will be put in the hands of the public.
And Johnston hopes the committee can put together that proposal sooner rather than later.
"I would hope it would be more on the year side than the two-year side," Johnston said.