Downtown developer: 'Nice to have some encouragement'

Downtown developer: 'Nice to have some encouragement'

CHAMPAIGN — The developer of the downtown site that could someday be the home ice of a Division I college hockey team had a feeling his proposed location would get the nod over one pitched for south Champaign.

You may have noticed the big "I" flag flying Thursday at the spot south of the downtown MTD terminal, said the developer responsible for it, Hans Grotelueschen.

"I'm super excited about it," Grotelueschen said of the news Thursday that a feasibility study commissioned in part by the National Hockey League recommended the downtown site be where a potential University of Illinois varsity hockey team play its home games. "It's nice to have some encouragement from the university folks."

There's a lot of work ahead, Grotelueschen told The News-Gazette on Thursday, while UI athletic director Josh Whitman answered questions at a news conference across town about the possibility of adding hockey to the UI's varsity roster.

"What is nice is that we have some public acknowledgment that allows us to move forward in a concrete fashion," Grotelueschen said.

For now, hockey remains a club sport at the UI. For it to join basketball and football as a full-fledged Division I varsity sport will mean a financial investment that's "a big number," Whitman said Thursday, likely more than $50 million.

But if enough investors are found, Illinois would play its games in downtown Champaign, not at the locations developer Peter Fox proposed in recent months for a sports facility. In January, Fox revised his original idea — to build a facility on St. Mary's Road across from the State Farm Center — with one that would add onto the UI-owned I Hotel and Conference Center.

UI athletics officials had reserved comment on the dueling proposals until the results were in from a feasibility study conducted by College Hockey Inc., commissioned in part by the NHL and its players union.

Among the factors that favored Grotelueschen's proposed site: the restaurants, bars and hotels in or near downtown that would enhance the gameday experience of college hockey and the fact that the UI's student population is migrating north to the Green Street area.

Asked Thursday what relationship the UI would have with Grotelueschen if the project were to move forward, Whitman said: "As of now, I think it's unlikely we would own the land or own the facility. It would probably be more of a lease relationship. We're exploring some different public-private partnership options that exist out there.

"As you start to look at some of these more ambitious building projects, it's a more cost-effective way and more of a nontraditional approach."

The news was welcomed by Champaign officials, including Mayor Deb Feinen, who cautioned that the city still has a lot of work to do.

"We're working on the feasibility from our side and just whether or not it's going to work economically from a city standpoint," said Feinen, adding that Grotelueschen hasn't submitted a request for incentives yet. "We don't know what the ask will be."

The city has been doing due diligence related to Grotelueschen's project — which calls for a hotel and conference center that also would include apartments, office space, parking and more bays for MTD and intercity buses — and will now add the potential hockey arena to that as well, Feinen said.

"I think it could have a large impact on our city," she said.

Feinen said the city didn't necessarily prefer one proposal over the other.

"That's a University of Illinois decision," she said. "We're happy to have developers at both sites who want to choose Champaign as the home for their development."

Feinen, an avid Chicago Blackhawks fan, said she's personally looking forward to a D-I hockey team.

"How exciting would it be to have a D-I hockey team at the U of I?" She said. "I love hockey, and I'm just really excited at that possibility."

Equally excited was Karl Gnadt, managing director of the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District. The proposed multimillion-dollar downtown site would include an addition to the MTD's Illinois Terminal.

In a statement Thursday, Gnadt said: "We are ecstatic that the Illinois Terminal expansion site was chosen as the proposed site for a hockey facility for the University of Illinois. A project like this — that brings together public and private investments — will be good for transit, good for the downtown and good for the entire area."