Booming UI Research Park running into potential growing pains


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CHAMPAIGN — Since October, the University of Illinois Research Park has celebrated five grand openings for companies such as Country Financial and Monsanto, and the park's most recent building is already 75 percent full.

Fox/Atkins Development is also planning to build another building south of the feed mill on Fourth Street scheduled to open March 1, 2019.

"In the last five years, the Research Park grew at a faster clip than ever before with new building after new building," said Laura Frerichs, its director.

And the companies at the park now employ about 2,000 people, up 17 percent from 2016. If counted as a company, the Research Park would be the third-largest employer in the county, behind the University of Illinois and Carle Foundation Hospital.

The most recently completed structure, a mixed-use building just south of the I Hotel and Conference Center, opened in December and already touts Monsanto, Brunswick and Synchrony Financial as tenants, along with a couple yet to be named.

It will also be the first Research Park building to have retail spaces, not counting Houlihan's at the I Hotel.

Organizers want to make the Research Park more than just an office park, with restaurants and things to do outside of work.

Frerichs hopes the retail options will give tenants, especially students who might not have a car, a food option right in the park.

"We don't know who" the retail tenants will be, Frerichs said, but "there are local restaurants who are looking at this as an additional location to serve their population."

As the Research Park grows, it is starting to run up against existing university buildings, namely the feed mill just south of State Farm Center and the swine research facility a block south of the I Hotel.

Movement on the 90-year-old feed mill is expected sooner than on the swine facility.

"The feed mill is one of the highest-priority facility issues in the College of ACES for the last 20-plus years," said Kim Kidwell, the college's dean. "We're keen on figuring out a plan to replace it with a more state-of-the-art facility."

At a recent Research Park board meeting, developer Peter Fox said Fox/Atkins has hired an engineering consultant to estimate the costs and receive estimates from feed mill design-build firms.

In Fox's plan, a firm would be chosen in an open-bidding process in March, with construction beginning in April or May on a new feed mill, to be located near Curtis Road and Race Street in Urbana. Once the new one is completed, the current one would be demolished in February 2019.

But the College of ACES has raised only about $6 million for a project that could cost $13 million or more, and Kidwell said the timeline "is completely contingent on the ability to fundraise."

"To get to that point, a whole lot has to happen," she said, adding that "we're looking at every option possible."

The existing feed mill manufactures about 6,000 tons of feed a year for livestock and research, but it's in need of an upgrade.

"It's served us well for many, many years, but there are just better facilities to expand and do a better job," Kidwell said.

A relocation would also make room for Fox's proposed community ice arena.

He wants to build an arena with two ice rinks, with the option to add a third with 5,000 seats should the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics decide to add a Division I hockey team and choose Fox's location. Developer Hans Grotelueschen is offering a competing plan for a hockey arena in downtown Champaign as part of a larger project.

The swine facility issue could take awhile. To begin with, the swine facilities are in much better shape than the feed mill, Kidwell said.

"The swine facility is in a very inconvenient location for Research Park. My challenge is that it serves its function very well. The research being done there is just top-notch," she said. "When I look at the broad list of deferred maintenance, it's hard to make moving a facility that works a high priority."

Because pigs are considered a good model for human health research, scientists have used the facilities to study various topics such as animal nutrition, neuroscience and the impact of breast milk compared with formula.

"We have some of the leading animal nutritionists in the world," Kidwell said.

On top of this, replacing the facilities wouldn't be cheap. One plan to replace it with a similar facility in the South Farms is estimated to cost $8 million to $25 million.

Another more ambitious plan that would consolidate all swine-related research on campus into one new facility is estimated to cost at least $100 million.

Research Park officials have also suggested an alternative where the facilities would remain, but the waste lagoons would be drained to the local sanitary district at a cost of about $1.4 million. This would presumably help with the smell and open up some more land for Research Park buildings.

The swine facility and operations "aren't the big distractions so much as it is the lagoons that take up the large amount of land," Frerichs said. "Longer term, absolutely, I'll say though, there's a preference that the swine weren't there at all. The residency of the animals immediately next to commercial buildings is not ideal."