CHAMPAIGN — Exploring the potential of Mayor Don Gerard's minor league baseball stadium is now a bona fide city project after it got the minimum amount of city council support this week to become an assignment for city staff.
To this point, a committee of volunteers assembled by Gerard had been on the project. On Tuesday, they passed their report to the city council, which said in a 5-3 straw poll that it wanted to continue discussions on where a stadium might go and who might finance, build and operate it.
Those are big questions to answer before the project can go any further, and some council members said they would not be interested in financing the project with taxpayer dollars.
But making development incentives available — just like the city would for other projects — might be another story.
The first step for city administrators will be figuring out what options they have as far as property where they might encourage a private investor to come in and build a stadium.
"We can't even think about stealing second base if we don't take a little bit of a leadoff," Gerard said.
Council members Deborah Frank Feinen, Michael La Due and Vic McIntosh, the three who voted against moving forward on Tuesday night, had different reasons. None said they would stop a minor league baseball proposal if it came from the private sector — in fact, they would be happy to have a stadium in Champaign.
But they worried about what it could mean for the city if they supported it now without a pre-existing proposal from a private investor.
McIntosh worried that, although Tuesday's discussion was about hypotheticals instead of actual proposals, it could ultimately lead to more city money being spent on a risk as big as a stadium.
"I just can't support this because I don't see a stopping point," McIntosh said.
La Due was not against the idea either, but he said that encouraging projects like this is exactly what city administrators already do. Economic development incentives from the city are available, and if private investors see an opportunity, they could already move on it.
"I don't think there was any impediment existing that we needed to remove," La Due said.
Gerard first started talking about the idea last summer, just a couple months after he had been elected mayor. He later set up an exploratory committee to prepare a report for city officials on the feasibility of the stadium.
The report described the stadium as more of a theme restaurant for families to enjoy a night out — no one really goes to a minor league game to watch the team win or lose, it said.
The report envisions a $20 million facility with 5,000 to 6,000 seats and 10 to 15 luxury boxes. It could be leased to a minor league team for anywhere between $222,000 and $333,000, according to the report, and the stadium owner could sell the naming rights for $150,000.
The key to success would be ensuring a vibrant fan experience, the report says. That could include gate giveaways, family-friendly attractions and discounts.
Tony Johnston, the chairman of that committee, told city council members that a minor league baseball stadium is different from most development projects. Private investors do not typically offer to build a stadium, he said. It usually takes encouragement from the local government.
"It wouldn't happen," Johnston said. "It needs facilitation from the city for it to happen."
Council member Tom Bruno said when he first heard Gerard talking about the idea last summer, he thought it was a bit "far-fetched." But the more he thought about it, the more he started thinking about the potential benefits, he said.
And he worried that a no vote on Tuesday to deny even exploring the idea would be a missed opportunity.
"I'm not sure we ever want to do this," Bruno said. "But I know I don't want to pull the plug on the idea at this early stage."