RANTOUL — When the Lenz Field & Sports Complex opened in 2009 in Jacksonville, a town of about 18,000 about 35 miles west of Springfield, the town was in need of a boost.
“Like Rantoul, we had our challenges,” Jacksonville Mayor Andy Ezard said.
EMI stopped making CDs, DVDs and cassettes in Jacksonville in 2004, a Lundia shelving plant closed in 2007, and ACH Foods left in 2009.
“We didn’t have an Air Force base leave town, but we had manufacturers leave town,” said Ezard, who’s been mayor since 2009.
Tom Lenz opened the first field in 2007, expanded to three in 2009, and the private sports complex now has six baseball fields. It attracts 1,000 teams a year and sells out 80 percent of the weekends it’s open, Lenz said.
“If you can make it go in Jacksonville, Ill., then you must be doing something right,” Lenz said of his private sports complex.
While Ezard said it’s not a huge employer, the indirect benefits to the town have been tremendous.
“It’s just a lot of sales tax revenue from shopping and gasing up the car, and at restaurants and hotels,” Ezard said. “It’s really helped our economy just from that aspect.”
And he said, “the visitors it attracts is constant,” calling Lenz Field “an economic driver for our community.”
But Lenz said with more sports complexes popping up, teams aren’t traveling as far and are staying in hotels less often.
“We’re getting less and less overnight teams a year,” he said. “These teams are more regional than they used to be.”
Visit Champaign County is hoping the $20 million sports complex Rantoul approved last week will bring in lots of revenue from visitors.
“They’re staying in hotels, eating in restaurants, they’re shopping, buying sports equipment they forgot,” said Jayne DeLuce, CEO of Visit Champaign County. “The trickle-down effect of tournaments economically is off the charts.”
She thinks it can help turn Rantoul’s economy around.
“Rantoul needed repositioning as a former military town,” DeLuce said. “For the residents ... it’s going to create new restaurants, retail, hotels, and all of those things create jobs.”
“New businesses will pop up, and the existing businesses will be supported by more foot traffic,” Visit Champaign County Vice President Terri Reifsteck said. “I just think it’s going to be a shot in the arm for future economic development.”
If the sale goes through, the complex would include eight baseball/softball fields, two T-ball challenger fields and eight soccer/football/multipurpose fields. There would be three buildings for concessions, restrooms and maintenance, a splash pad, playground and 800-plus parking places, Byrne and Jones general manager Jameson Sheley told News-Gazette Media’s Rantoul Press.
The plan also includes potential for an indoor facility.
It would be built on 60 acres of land near Interstate 57 and paid for from private contributions, sponsorships, donations and grants, with the bulk of the funding coming from bonds paid for from income generated from Rantoul’s tax-increment-financing fund.
Visit Champaign County has been talking up the Rantoul sports complex at trade shows, and DeLuce thinks it has a shot at landing soccer, baseball, softball, rugby and lacrosse tournaments.
She said they’ve received interest from organizations including Game Day, JP Sports, the Black Softball Circuit, the United States Specialty Sports Association, the 3V3 Live soccer tour, USA Rugby’s Illinois office, USA Softball, the Illinois Football Club and Soccer By Design.
“These are groups we’ve talked to, and they were very interested,” DeLuce said. “They will be our first follow-up to talk to now that they’ve approved the complex.”
She said having all-turf fields will be attractive, even if it’s more expensive upfront to build.
Lenz said when he read about the Rantoul sports complex last week, he was concerned about the price tag.
“Turf is very expensive. $7 a square foot for everything. ... That doesn’t include concrete and lights and bleachers,” Lenz said. “A big baseball field is 90,000 square feet, so that’s $600,000.”
Overall, he said he’s skeptical.
“I’ve seen a lot of these things come and go, and then they never get built,” Lenz said. “I wish Rantoul luck.”
When he opened his complex, he also owned a refrigerant company and said he took advantage of tax deductions at the time.
“It’s a horrible investment to build a turf baseball complex without tax dollars or a write-off,” he said. “You need one of those two things to make it economically work. So if I built a $100,000 baseball field, I wrote $40,000 off, so it only cost $60,000.”
He said the $22 million Louisville Slugger Sports Complex that opened in 2016 in Peoria (“The nicest one I’ve ever been to”) works because the owner also owns local hotels.
“I make X dollars a night on hotel commissions,” Lenz said. “He makes all the money on hotel commissions.”
He said Lenz Field is doing fine.
“We do great. We do not do great; we do OK,” he said.
When a new sports complex opens, Lenz said, he initially gets worried, but said each new one helps grow the industry.
“Every time one of these popped up, we got a little nervous, but guess what? It just spurred more teams,” he said. “There’s so many more teams now than there was in 2007.”
Lenz said he’s not too concerned about the Rantoul sports complex taking away tournaments.
“It might affect me a little. It might affect me in a positive way,” he said. “When you got some teams in Rantoul, in the surrounding area some dad might say, ‘I’ll start a team now.’ They don’t want to play in Rantoul every weekend and might say, let’s go to Jacksonville.”
He wondered whether it’s too close to the Grand Park Sports Campus 30 miles north of Indianapolis, with its 26 baseball/softball diamonds and 31 soccer fields.
“They’re the king of turf baseball,” he said. “And Grand Park doesn’t sell out every weekend."
But he said Rantoul should be able to attract teams from Chicago.
“Chicago is a hotbed,” Lenz said. “There’s thousands and thousands of teams in Chicago. It’s insane.”
And unlike Lenz, the Rantoul sports complex will have soccer fields.
“Soccer’s crazy, way bigger than baseball,” he said. “I bet you they’ll kill it with soccer.”
When Jacksonville’s Ezard heard about Rantoul getting the new sports complex, he said he expects it to help Rantoul as well.
“They should be” excited, he said. “I’m not, because it takes away from ours. But I think there’s so much baseball and travel ball, and Rantoul’s far enough away. Good for them.”
Rantoul Press Editor Dave Hinton contributed to this report