CHAMPAIGN – Was it all "pie in the sky?"
When the University of Illinois Research Park was proposed a decade ago, supporters talked of the park's potential to have 5,000 employees within a decade, or even five years.
The actual number of people working in the park is not even close to those original expectations.
Today 1,469 people work in the park. That includes full-time and part-time workers at private companies, at the I Hotel and Conference Center, at university units in the park, plus student interns. Of the total, 1,138 work for private companies and 331 work for the UI. Excluding interns, 827 are private-sector employees and 210 are UI employees. Employee counts include those who work in EnterpriseWorks, the UI business incubator which houses startups founded by university-affiliated people such faculty, staff and students.
"Maybe the prospect of that many jobs that quick was a little pie in the sky, but I think we still have the groundwork there for it to be a major job producer," Champaign Mayor Jerry Schweighart said.
Longtime Champaign City Council member Tom Bruno remembers city planners years ago talking about "some jaw-dropping number" of employees, which hasn't materialized.
The current total isn't "earthshaking," Bruno said, but the research park boasts successful businesses that weren't there five years ago.
"Could it have been better? Yes. Am I disappointed? No," he said.
The number of people who work in the UI park is actually above the national median for university parks, according to a 2007 study. The survey by the Association of University Research Parks found the median university research park has 750 employees. About 80 percent of research park employees work in the private sector, 11 percent are employed by colleges and universities, 6 percent are government employees, and 3 percent are employed in businesses supporting other park tenants, such as shops, restaurants and day care centers, according to the survey.
Several years ago, when trying to answer the question of who was buying all the new homes in the Champaign area, Busey Bank vice chairman and economist Ed Scharlau learned 60 percent of the homes purchased in the area were bought by people who worked for small companies that Scharlau said he had never heard of.
"That's what awakened me to the impact of small, entrepreneurial companies, spinoffs related to the university," said Scharlau, who was on the original research park board of managers, which has oversight of the park.
A small startup company may employ only five or 10 people, but they're significant to the local economy because they tend to employ higher-paid professionals, Scharlau said.
"These are not minimum-wage jobs," he said.
Indeed, they are not minimum-wage jobs, but fewer employees work in the UI research park than park boosters originally had hoped for.
"It might have been a number that I picked out of the air," said Peter Fox, who with Clint Atkins of Fox/Atkins is the park's developer.
Fox said he still believes the park can employ 5,000 people, or even 10,000 when it's fully built out.
Despite the tech bubble burst of 2000 and the current recession, some companies in the research park have expanded their space and increased their staff, Fox said. State Farm Insurance, for example, started with three full-time employees and seven students and, after a recent expansion, now has room for up to 126 employees.
Many of the State Farm's workers, however, are students and part-time employees in the company's consumer research center. The number of full-time employees at State Farm is now at 17.
The 5,000-employee mark is still attainable, according to Richard Herman, who until late October was chancellor of the campus.
To reach that number, the UI should focus on recruiting well-funded industries to the park – currently, energy and biotechnology companies, Fox said.
Although several research park companies are involved in software development, Fox said he would like to see more from the hardware or computer chip side of the computer industry. Nanotechnology, an area in which UI researchers have been involved, is also hot, he said.
"If we're going to get to 5,000 people, we need to be engaged in one of these areas," Fox said.
It certainly won't hurt to have a multimillion-dollar petascale computing facility across the street from the research park. The supercomputer Blue Waters, being built inside a new building at Oak Street and St. Mary's Road, is expected to come online in 2011. The presence of Blue Waters will create jobs because just having the supercomputer here will attract other companies, Schweighart said.
The UI business incubator EnterpriseWorks is also a help, he said. Helping businesses in their early stages and working to keep them in the area will help generate jobs.
Bruno said he'd still like to see the park achieve the 5,000 jobs threshold, but he acknowledged it may never happen. He also said the recession shouldn't be used as an excuse.
"It would have been unrealistic to think that the economy wouldn't have ebbs and flows," Bruno said. "We don't need an excuse. It's going, it's growing. It's not setting any records, but there's nothing wrong with it."
Employee density is another issue. Some companies at the park have just a handful of employees, such as Archer Daniels Midland, which employs two full-time employees and about eight interns. Others, such as Yahoo, are quite a bit higher, with 79 full-time employees plus three interns.
A general rule of thumb for office buildings is roughly four employees per 1,000 square feet of office space, said Laura Frerichs, associate director of the park and former vice president of Fox Development. The research park's ratio is closer to 2.8 overall, she said.
That's partly because some buildings still have vacancies, she said. The SAIC building, which is fully occupied, has 235 full-time employees in 63,500 square feet of space, for a ratio of 3.7. Some companies also employ student interns, so the numbers fluctuate, she said.
"The buildings are at the same density of a typical office building once they're full," Frerichs said.
Jobs by the numbers
— Full-time and part-time University of Illinois employees working in the research park: 210
— Interns working at UI offices in the park: 121
— Full- and part-time employees working for private companies in the park: 827
— Interns working for private companies in the park: 311
— Total full- or part-time employees: 1,037
— Total interns working in the park: 432
— Total workers in the University of Illinois Research Park: 1,469
Source: UI Research Park
Key figures behind the research park
The University of Illinois
The University of Illinois owns the land in the research park. It leases land to the local developer, Fox/Atkins, for a 50-year period, and has the option to renew the lease for another 25 years. The developer builds and manages the buildings.
Avijit Ghosh, former UI business dean, is the UI's vice president of technology and economic development and part of the university administration. His office oversees the park. He is the director and an ex officio member of the research park's board of managers.
Laura Frerichs, who reports to Ghosh, is the associate director of the park. She previously worked for the developer, Fox/Atkins, as a vice president, working to recruit new tenants to the park.
Ravi Iyer is the interim vice chancellor for research on the Urbana campus. His office supports technology transfer initiatives, which is when professors have ideas they want to take to the marketplace. Until recently, the vice chancellor for research was a voting member of the research park's board of managers. It's now an ex officio position. The previous vice chancellor, who was also on the research park board, is Charles Zukoski.
Richard Herman was chancellor of the Urbana campus throughout most of the park's recent development. He resigned in October.
The University of Illinois Research Park LLC (limited-liability corporation) is a university-related organization and is governed by a document approved by the UI Board of Trustees in 2000. The composition of the board, as well as the number of members, has changed several times since it was established. And with a new board of trustees governing the UI, along with a new board chairman (Christopher Kennedy), more changes could happen in the future.
The research park board of managers started with about a dozen members, including representatives from state government, industry and the university. Originally its duties were to govern the research park on the Urbana campus, but over the years the board of managers has come to oversee two other research parks in Illinois, including the Chicago Technology Park in the city's medical district and the DuPage National Technology Park in West Chicago.
Earlier this year, then-UI Board of Trustees Chairman Niranjan Shah restructured the board to have three voting members be UI trustees and three other voting members have backgrounds in business. Shah has since resigned from the board as has Trustee Ken Schmidt, who served on the research park board of managers since the beginning.
Ed McMillan, a business consultant from Greenville who also has served on the UI Alumni Association and UI Foundation boards, has chaired the board of managers for several years.
When he was named by Gov. Pat Quinn to the UI Board of Trustees earlier this year, McMillan said he offered to step down. However, he said, he will remain on the board unless the UI board chairman decides otherwise. McMillan said he hopes to have some resolution soon on how the board of managers will function.
In addition to McMillan, the current board of managers includes Pat Daly of the Chicago real estate firm The Daly Group. Newcomers Rod Johnson, a business consultant with Northbrook-based The Pivotal Factor, and Rick Stephens, chairman of the board of Horizon Hobby in Champaign, were appointed earlier this year.
Peter Fox is the president and founder of Fox Development Corp., a Champaign firm that has built and managed several properties in Champaign, including the Shoppes of Knollwood and office buildings on Fox Drive. Fox partnered with fellow local developer Clint Atkins – whose company The Atkins Group has developed subdivisions and shopping centers in Champaign-Urbana – to create Fox/Atkins Development and bid for the research park.
In 2006, an entity called Champaign Research Park LLC purchased two of the research park buildings from Fox/Atkins.
The firm behind the LLC is Chicago-area Romanek Properties. Fox/Atkins continues to manage the buildings for Champaign Research Park LLC.