Search for new Central: A renewed push for Dodds

Search for new Central: A renewed push for Dodds

CHAMPAIGN — When Champaign Park District Board President Joe Petry proposed this spring that the school district consider Spalding Park for the new Central High School, he made one thing clear:

Dodds Park was not on the table.

But the issue has not gone away, and in some respects it appears to have gained momentum.

School board members insist it's the park board's call but talk openly of the advantages of the 100-plus-acre site along Bradley Avenue, more than twice the land the district says it needs for a high school.

Prominent community members continue to talk up the idea, and the school district sent a letter earlier this month to the park board outlining the obstacles with the Spalding site — chiefly, cost (too much) and space (not enough).

"It just seems to me there's a lot of people looking at Dodds," said developer Peter Fox, who insists he's "not in the mix" of the discussion but has had many conversations in the community about Dodds.

School board President Laurie Bonnett deferred to the park board but loves the idea of the Dodds site, and both she and Fox called it "a game changer for this community."

"Is it off the table? Spalding wasn't even on the table ... so how do you tell me Dodds is off the table? I don't know, either," she said Tuesday.

When school officials approached the park district in June about the possibility of considering Dodds, they were told to first examine Spalding Park thoroughly, "and after you have done that please come back to us," Superintendent Judy Wiegand said.

"We are getting close to that point on Spalding," she said. "At that point, we will go back to the park district and let them know."

Petry, who was vacationing in Wyoming last week, emailed this statement to The News-Gazette: "The Park Board has authorized the discussion of only one park for possible collaborative use with the school district for a new high school. That is Spalding Park. Therefore, it is the only park on the table for discussion. It would require a consensus of the Park Board to add any other parks for consideration."

Newt Dodds: 'It's silly'

Judging by park commissioners' comments last week, that might be a long shot. Board Vice President Alvin Griggs was amenable to at least listening to a proposal from the school district. But he and others insist Dodds is not on the table.

And board member Jane Solon said, "Dodds Park is our signature park. Under no circumstances would I consider Dodds Park for this."

The Dodds family strongly opposes building a school at Dodds, home to the Olympic Memorial, trails, gardens and numerous soccer and softball fields popular with Champaign families. It was named for Donald Dodds, who served on the park board for 43 years.

"We have one of the finest recreational parks in the state of Illinois. It won a couple of awards. It's hugely successful in the community. To take away an open space like that, which took 20 years to become as established as it is, and say you're going to do that somewhere else is ... it's silly. That's my feeling," said Dodds' son, contractor Newt Dodds, a park board member himself for 38 years.

Besides space, the advantage of Dodds Park is its proximity to Parkland College, backers say. Central already has dual-credit courses and other shared programs with Parkland, and Dodds would allow students to take advantage of them more easily and possibly expand their options. It would also save the school district money, because transportation costs would be lower and the district wouldn't have to duplicate Parkland's automotive and vocational facilities, Bonnett and board member Kerris Lee said.

"All they've got to do is cross Perimeter Drive and they're at Parkland," said board member John Bambenek.

Fox said the proximity to Parkland would give students still in high school the opportunity to pursue college studies or experiment with a nursing or technical career that could lead to jobs with good pay. And that's good for the community.

Citing the proposal for a new UI-Carle medical school, Fox said, "the community really needs to look for game changers."

Dodds argues that it doesn't make sense to mix high school students with the adult population attending Parkland.

"They should have their own campus. Create it and live with it and support it," he said, calling the site at Interstate Drive "a good choice. They have plenty of room to do what they need."

Fox said the primary concern he hears among potential voters is that any school site help the community overall.

"I think there is a fairly strong level of interest in people having something that doesn't further add to the suburban sprawl. So whether it's Dodds or Spalding or a renovated Central, there's a fair number of people, including myself, who would like to see something like that really help the community," Fox said.

"I don't think the community needs more growth on the perimeter. I think it needs to take care of the central section," Fox said. "I would rather see us clean up some of the issues we have that we've built over the years as opposed to just tearing up another cornfield."

Spalding: Cost concerns

Ultimately, any decision about Dodds Park is the park district's to make — not the school board's, said Dodds, who fears the park board may be forced to acquiesce.

"They shouldn't even be considering it," he said.

The land for the park was acquired at the same time Parkland College purchased the adjacent property for its site in the 1960s. Dodds said it cost millions to develop the fields and irrigation system in the park.

It's not just the family name, he said. "What bothers me is that they're using something that wasn't intended for a school. It was intended for recreation," Dodds said, noting that he has a similar objection to the use of Spalding. "We need more parks."

Park district Executive Director Joe DeLuce said the park board asked the school district to "do whatever they need to do to evaluate Spalding Park. They've asked about Dodds. The park district at this time has not authorized any negotiations or anything dealing with Dodds Park."

If Spalding doesn't work out, the school district would have to ask again, he said.

Bonnett said she wants to be sensitive to the Dodds family's concerns.

"I understand that naming rights are important. But I also hope for the good of our community we can all come together," she said.

Fans of Dodds Park will obviously have concerns, Lee said, but there's probably plenty of room to keep some soccer fields there.

"I think it's a great way to preserve a park," he said. "What better way to pay homage to the Dodds family to show that we think enough of it to get an educational facility there?"

Bambenek and Lee said Dodds would provide an "infill" location that would have far fewer acquisition and demolition costs than Spalding.

"I think it would be a great site in a lot of ways," said school board member Kristine Chalifoux, "but whether it's available is up to the park district. Hopefully, they will give us plenty of notice if they are going to lean that way."

Spalding wasn't an option, either, at one point, Lee said, and "people's minds change. We want to welcome that."

Chalifoux said the letter to the park district said "Spalding is smaller than what we really need and it will be really expensive," though she added, "We like the in-town location."

News-Gazette staff writer Tim Mitchell contributed to this report.


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EdRyan wrote on July 13, 2014 at 7:07 am

For all this noise the school will end up being built at the northern site which is really the only place you'll get the school you want for the cost.  Champaign simply is not that big so the northern site is plenty central enough and close to everything because Champaign simply isn't all that big.

Other school districts have faced the same issues and have build where adequate land was available.  Paris, IL is building a considerable distance from the old school building as have some consolidated schools in IL and IN.

jdmac44 wrote on July 13, 2014 at 10:07 am

Something I've been thinking for awhile, but I've hesitated in sharing because I thought it was too late to offer a suggestion...why don't we build one large highrise highschool for all of Champaign?  The only reason that I can think of why we had two before was to accomodate more students who walked or biked to school, but obviously in this day and age we're willing to bus an entire school population and many more students drive than fifty years ago, so what's the point of keeping two schools?  This way they could economize on facilities and equipment as well as faculty and staff (yes I know the teachers union would be strongly against it, but the U of I (of which I'm a staff member) has figured out ways to cut back on personnel without layoffs, such as allowing natural attrition to take place without replacing workers or offering voluntary buyouts.  They've managed to reduce personnel on a much larger scale than Unit 4 would have to.)  Looking at the area of Centennial H.S., I don't see a great wealth of space that could be used to build, but I do see enough that with some flexibility that a school could be built there while students continue to attend Centennial and Central.  Perhaps the first stage could be to build a parking deck for students and staff and then use the remaining horizontal space saved for the schools foundation?  It's understandible that people are upset when an entire highschool facility is brought to their neighborhood or park, since there's going to be space for parking and athletics, it's a huge use of space, but by combining the two schools, I think we can reduce the sting to the community significantly.

bmwest wrote on July 13, 2014 at 11:07 am
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Has anyone checked with Associated Transfer & Storage? Their warehouse at 2309 Bloomington Rd is on 62 acres just north of Dodds. They might be interested in the Interstate Drive land, although I have no clue how much rebuilding their facility there would cost. The existing warehouse foundation and utilities might be able to be repurposed for the high school. We could still share athletic facilities with Dodds, ideally with a road connecting the two across the tracks.

MSJ66 wrote on July 13, 2014 at 11:07 am

The issue is the $100 plus million for me regardless of site. Will probably vote NO regardless but the idea of ruining a beautiful park by putting a school at Dodds will make it a definitive NO. This school board seems to really be running around aimlessly. Buy overpriced land before having a definite site or before voter approval of financing and now bouncing from one location to the other trying to basically figure out how they can passify enough people to get the referendum on a ridiculous tax increase passed.

Lostinspace wrote on July 13, 2014 at 5:07 pm

I would say, with all this floundering around and poorly thought-out proposals, we should wait for a new school board.  I can't imagine voting for anything at this point.

Hometownproud wrote on July 23, 2014 at 3:07 pm

Personally, I dont think we're giving this board enough credit. I've been following this situation for years and now that something is finally being done to build a new high school and improve our community, i'm dissapointed to see the community's lack of support.

1 of the most common arguments i've heard against building a new central is "It's not Central anymore". Please direct me to the perfect 50 plus acre field in the middle of town and tell me why it's not being used currently. The board has evaluated numerous sites, and DID choose the land on interstate drive, they did buy it, but that's because that is what they're elected to do. Their jobs were to find a sizable piece of land that met the certain criteria. If there is anyone to blame it's past school disticts for not land banking.

May I remind the community that when Centennial was 1st built it was also in the middle of no where, but now Centennial is technically more centrally located then Central.

To my knowledge, the spalding park site was brought to the board by the park district, the school board did not request it. The school board merely evaluated it just as it had done the other sites which is what they're elected to do.

I understand people's frustration and angst, but there is no solution that will please everyone. Dodds park has it's pros and it's cons. The school is next to the college, enabling dual credit courses, teacher collabs, and more. Then again the school is on the westside of town though, but to each their own. 

The school board bought 80 acres not just for central, but to possibly build another school on the site as well. If dodds were to be chosen, you wouldnt need 80 or 47  but rather 38 because the school board wouldnt demolish all of dodds, and some of the baseball and soccer fields could be used by the high school, instead of making new ones.

in short, the board knows what they want. They want a new school for our kids, as there is need for one. They want to get the ballot passed somewhere because if the community keeps voting no it's not going to solve the current problem.

If Dodds were to become available i perosnally would support it, other wise the olympian drive site has my vote. Champaign is growing, and down the road those won't be cornfields forever.