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