CHAMPAIGN — After more than a century of bouncing from one practice field to another, the Marching Illini will get a permanent practice facility in 2014.
The nation's oldest collegiate band will share a new artificial turf field with the Division of Campus Recreation near First Street and Gregory Drive in Champaign, adjacent to the existing tennis courts and basketball courts. The new turf will replace the grass field there now.
"We haven't had a permanent practice field in the history of the Marching Illini," said a jubilant Barry Houser, Marching Illini director and assistant director of UI bands.
The project is a three-way partnership among Campus Recreation, the College of Fine and Applied Arts (which includes bands) and University Housing, officials said.
The housing division is building a new residence hall on the southeast corner of First and Gregory as part of the Ikenberry Commons redevelopment.
The project includes underground drainage work to help alleviate flooding in the area, which involves tearing up the playing fields.
Last spring housing officials shared their plans with Campus Recreation, which had experienced some flooding on its fields, said Director Robyn Deterding. Campus Recreation had been hoping to install more artificial turf fields in that area like the ones south of Stadium Drive, so housing agreed to prep the fields if Campus Recreation would cover the $3 million cost of the turf, she said.
"We saw this as a good collaboration. They were going to be taking the fields pretty much apart, so from a cost standpoint they would be doing some of the work that would be needed to put turf fields in there," Deterding said.
At the same time, talks were underway to find a permanent practice site for the marching band, which has been shuttled among several different fields in recent years.
Deterding contacted the College of Fine and Applied Arts in May with an offer: Campus Recreation would share the field with the band if the college agreed to share maintenance and replacement costs.
Deterding had talked with recreation directors at Michigan State and Ohio State who'd made similar arrangements with band programs on their campuses, and the collaboration worked well, she said.
Artificial turf typically lasts 10 to 15 years, but when band practices are added the expected life shrinks to eight years, she said.
"It's an excellent way to help the band, which is a huge group on our campus," Deterding said. "And our students are going to get more fields."
The grass fields there now, primarily used for flag football, are only available six months of the year because they're torn up so much during the fall semester, she said. The turf fields, by contrast, can be used 10 to 12 months a year, depending on the weather, she said.
The artificial turf soccer fields south of Stadium Drive were installed several years ago and have needed far less maintenance, said Gary Miller, associate director of operations for Campus Recreation. They're used by UI students, local high school teams that want to schedule a night game or regional play, and Little Illini soccer tournaments, he said.
Students will be able to use the new turf fields for soccer, flag football, lacrosse and other activities on a drop-in basis or through intramurals, Deterding said. The fields will be lighted and fenced, with facilities for equipment storage.
"It's a win-win-win for everybody," Deterding said.
The fields, which stretch from First to Oak Street north of Stadium Drive, are divided into three parts. The band will use the field at the east end of the block, she said.
A permanent observation tower for the band director will be installed at the north end of that field, so that Houser won't have to rent a portable scissor lift for practices, officials said. The band is working with the college to raise donor money for the tower, though Houser wasn't sure of the cost.
The Marching Illini have been trying for years to secure a lighted field with a durable surface that they can use on a consistent basis.
The band is allowed to use the Memorial Stadium field on Tuesday nights and Saturday mornings, Houser said. On other days it practices on the grass field south of the Business Instructional Facility on Sixth Street, or the adjacent field just south of Huff Hall.
For several years during construction of the Business Instructional Facility the band was moved to the South Quad, just north of the UI Stock Pavilion, but conditions weren't ideal. In a petition drive last summer, band supporters complained about the potholes, bare patches and even an electrical box in the middle of the practice area. The band was allowed back on the Sixth Street field that August.
The first UI marching band organized in 1868, a year after the school was founded, and the university bands program — the first of its kind — was established in 1907, Houser said. This year the Marching Illini band has 370 members.
The project is scheduled to start Jan. 1 and be wrapped up by next summer, with the fields available by August 2014, officials said.
Campus Recreation had money in its reserve funds to cover the work, Deterding said. About 75 percent of its funding comes from student fees, and the rest comes from rental fees, memberships and other revenue sources, she said. Her department is still working out details of the cost-sharing with the College of Fine and Applied Arts. The housing project is being funded with revenue bonds repaid with student housing fees.