Park district planning for Spalding makeover
CHAMPAIGN — Two years after its swimming pool closed, Champaign's Spalding Park remains a neighborhood hub.
More than 100 people could be found at the park on a midweek afternoon, enjoying the sunshine.
Chris Jordan, 16, of Champaign was among a dozen youths shooting hoops on the park's basketball court. Most of the teens and preteens said they play pickup games nearly every afternoon, firing jumpers until nightfall.
"I'll come out here and bust everybody out here dunking the basketball," Jordan said. "It's fun beating people in basketball. I can't believe people were thinking of tearing this all down for a high school.
"I live around the corner, and my friends all live in the area. All I have to do is call one person, and everyone comes here to play ball. This has been my park for a couple years, and I didn't want anybody to take it away."
Cameron Hodge of Champaign said he lives a few blocks away from the park.
"The best thing about Spalding Park is this basketball court because it's a place I can play with my friends," he said.
On the park's east side, the Franklin Middle School baseball team was holding a practice.
Eighth-grader Cale Apperson tugged on his cap as he waited to snag fly balls.
"I really like this field. I'm glad people decided to keep the park and the baseball field here so we have a place to play," Apperson said.
Baseball dads Dan Wurl and Ken Wilund of Champaign sat in lawn chairs watching the action.
They both like the fact that the park is across the street from the school, and they both think a new high school should be in the middle of town.
"I didn't realize that this area was one of the options for the new high school," said Wilund, "but I think building here would have been a better option than building north of Interstate 74. Any time you build something more centrally located, it is better for everybody."
Not far away, about a dozen young men and women, largely in their teens and 20s, practiced tricks on their skateboards at Spalding's skatepark, with a boom box blaring out music in the background.
Jared Sinnes, 24, of Urbana was demonstrating how the "half cab rock 'n roll."
"I've been coming here four or five times a week ever since the skate park was created over a decade ago," Sinnes said. "I began to worry when I heard they were looking at taking this land away for a new high school. I went to a lot of meetings and have been against tearing down the skate park. I'm ecstatic about the decision to build the new high school elsewhere."
Michael "Boobie" Robinson, 25, of Champaign said he brings his skateboard to Spalding Park three or four times a week.
"When I first started using the park, it was mostly older teens and adults doing tricks. Today we have a lot more younger kids using the park."
Robinson said he is glad the skate park won't be razed for a new high school, but he also opposes building near Interstate Drive.
"I live behind the Wal-Mart on Prospect, and I don't want to see a new high school out there," Robinson said. "I went to Central, so I know what it is like. There would be no pluses to living across the street from the high school. Too much drama."
Not far away, parents and baby-sitters watched children on the playground.
Tiffany Sallee, 21, of Champaign, was watching her two children, ages 3 months and 2, at the park.
"I've lived around here for eight years, and the park has gotten a lot better for the kids," she said. "I feel a lot safer here today than I did eight years ago."
Jasmine Henry, 29, of Champaign, was there with her four children, 3, 8, 10 and 11.
Henry said she is happy the neighborhood won't lose Spalding Park, where she played as a child.
"I would have been mad," she said. "I want a place for my kids to make memories as special as the ones I experienced when I was growing up here."
Park district officials are planning a $4.1 million renovation at the park.
"We're excited about the future of Spalding Park," said park board President Joe Petry. "We have been aware that we have needed to reinvigorate that park space."
"I think Spalding Park is very important both for the city and for the park district," said board Vice President Al Griggs. "The people have been telling us very loud and strong that they love that park and want to keep it."
"We put our plans for Spalding Park on hold for a little bit while we were talking with the school district about Central High School," Petry said. "Now that the school district has made its decision, we are reverting to our plan to make Spalding something that every resident can be proud of."
Park leaders want to build a 20,000-square-foot activity center building where the swimming pool once was.
The district has applied for a state grant to pay for 75 percent of the proposed $3.3 million center.
"We envision it as a space where different organizations can come and have different types of activities, whether it be table tennis, archery or something else," park district Executive Director Joe Deluce said. "And our district would be able to set up our own activities there, including special recreation, senior programs, potluck meals and things like that."
Petry said the construction of the activity center is dependent upon the district receiving the grant.
Other improvements on tap for Spalding Park:
— A splash pad, which Petry described as an upgraded version of one already in place at Hessel Park.
— A picnic shelter north of the tennis courts.
— A playground on the park's west side.
— A new path system throughout the park.
— Spalding's skate park will be expanded.
— The district is also considering adding an outdoor, year-round ice skating rink.
The district has applied for a second grant to pay half of the estimated $800,000 non-recreation building costs.
The timeline for the project will depend, in part, on if and when the district gets the two grants, but construction could begin in 2015 and could be largely completed by the fall of 2016, Petry said.