CHAMPAIGN — Last June, University of Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman told reporters he hoped to announce plans to launch a Division I hockey program by year's end.
The team has the potential to transform downtown Champaign, with a new hockey arena and an expansion of the MTD's Illinois Terminal among the highlights of a proposed $200 million project called The Yards.
But since that optimistic news conference, the MTD has missed out on two federal grants totaling $25 million, and Whitman has pushed back the timeline to the end of the academic year.
Still, local officials remain confident The Yards project will pan out, and Whitman continues to push for a hockey team, which he needs to raise an estimated $50-60 million for.
Earlier this month, Whitman visited Penn State's hockey arena, a success story Illinois would love to emulate.
After receiving a $102 million donation in 2010 to build an arena and launch its Division I program, Penn State began competing in 2012-13 and won the Big Ten tournament in 2017.
"A tremendous road map," Whitman tweeted on Jan. 11, during what he described as a "collegiate athletics R&D" trip to State College, Pa.
Whitman declined to comment about the trip or the MTD grants to News-Gazette Media, but UI athletics spokesman Kent Brown said a DI hockey program is not contingent on the grants.
MTD officials are confident they'll eventually secure the grants and plan to apply again.
The agency missed out in September on a federal 5339 facilities grant for the Illinois Terminal expansion, and again last month on a BUILD grant.
Grants manager Jane Sullivan said earlier this month that the MTD hadn't received a reason for the denials but had a debriefing scheduled with the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Bruce Knight, Champaign's planning and development director, said the lack of grants shouldn't affect how much the city chips in for the project.
"The grant funding really affects the MTD portion of the project, not us," he said.
In the fall, Knight told the city council that he'd like to limit Champaign's contributions to parking and miscellaneous public works needs.
Knight said he's planning to meet with the developers of The Yards to go over the financials and what they'll ask of the city.
Aside from a possible hockey arena and an expansion of the Illinois Terminal, The Yards is expected to include a 175-room hotel, convention space for up to 1,000 people, 154,000 square feet of retail and office space and parking decks.
The project runs from the railroad tracks to Neil Street and from the Illinois Terminal to just north of Tumble Inn Tavern.
That bar's owner, Toby Herges, said he's looking forward to the project.
"I couldn't be happier," he said. "It'll do nothing but help us.
"In the short term, it will help us with all the guys working on it. We've always had a good relationship with the local tradesmen and unions. We'll probably have to hire more staff."
Nearby, developer Dan Hamelberg owns much of the land between the railroad tracks and First Street.
He's also excited for the project.
"We'd like to connect up and maybe talk to the city about maybe sharing expenses and putting a pedestrian pathway under the railroad connecting midtown and the hockey arena," Hamelberg said.