CHAMPAIGN — Maybe it is his field of dreams at this point, but early in his term as the top elected official in the city, Mayor Don Gerard is making it a priority to explore whether Champaign could support a minor league baseball team.
Of course, what good is a baseball team with nowhere to play and no seats to fill?
"I don't think it's impossible," Gerard said.
He sees an empty property southeast of the intersection of Neil Street and Interstate 74 (across the street from Gateway Studios) as an ideal location for a ballpark. But that — like the rest of the details — has yet to be nailed down.
The economic effect could be profound, Gerard said. If he builds it, they might come: A stadium with a team would bring in fans from across East Central Illinois, create jobs and boost food, beverage and hotel sales, he believes.
Construct a baseball stadium, and maybe "the empty space across the street becomes a hotel," Gerard said.
Champaign-Urbana is not a stranger to big-stage baseball, though that does not mean the two are on good terms. The University of Illinois team plays at Illinois Field, a 3,000-capacity stadium that really is not much more than a baseball diamond surrounded by bleachers, fences and a press box.
The university's field was built in 1988, and the Illini squad is not the only team to have played there. In 1990, another college-level team called the Champaign County Colts moved in.
The Colts played there until 1996, and their seven-season tenure lasted much longer than the Champaign-Urbana Bandits, a minor league team that played in only the 1994 season at Illinois Field before the league folded.
More recently, in 2007, the UI announced plans to bring a minor league team back to Illinois Field by 2009. That team would play for the Frontier League, which stretches as far south as Florence, Ky., and as far north as Traverse City, Mich.
Along with the minor league team would come a dramatic renovation of Illinois Field, UI officials said at the time: double the seating capacity, group suites, administrative office space, a new clubhouse, hospitality areas, additional concessions areas and a kids play area.
Not long after the UI's announcement, the talks ended.
Many have blamed a state law banning alcohol sales on most university properties for the departure of the two teams that played at Illinois Field and why they never attracted many local fans.
But build a new stadium along the interstate where it is highly visible and easily reached from other parts of East Central Illinois, make sure it includes entertainment for all ages and presumably sell beer, Gerard says, and you can start to play ball.
Gerard plans to establish an exploratory committee within the next couple months to determine what the options are for bringing a minor league baseball team to Champaign. He said that committee would include baseball and business people, and expects that drawing a team and constructing a stadium would require a public-private partnership between the city and investors.
Tony Johnston, a vice president of Software Solutions in Shelbyville and Gerard's son's Little League coach, will head that committee.
"It would be looking at what other towns have done, imagining site selection and specifications of stadium needs and requirements, some sort of an economic feasibility study," Johnston said. "The entire thing would need to be privately self-sustaining, not requiring a constant inflow of cash from public coffers."
Johnston said he has only done light research so far, but thinks Bloomington-Normal has established a good business with the Normal CornBelters, a team that was founded last year. They play at "The Corn Crib," a stadium with 4,000 fixed seats and lawn space for 3,000 more, which also hosts youth baseball games, concerts, and fundraisers.
"That's a good template, I think, but also we don't want to close the door on the possibility of doing something a little more substantial," Johnston said. "A good-sized stadium with a good team."
Gerard said the stadium would need to be multi-functional so it can host events throughout the year — maybe trade the infield for an ice rink during the winter when the team would not be playing, for example.
Since the failed Champaign teams of the '90s, Johnston said, minor league baseball teams have started doing a better job marketing themselves and expanding their business to all-around family entertainment rather than focusing strictly on baseball.
"I think it's a proven business model," Johnston said. "Of the minor league baseball teams that are out there, many of them are successful."
But Gerard does not have numbers yet. The project would presumably have some kind of cost to city taxpayers, and Gerard said he wants the city to maintain some kind of vested interest in the stadium itself.
With the city battling an increasingly tight budget and Gerard's hopes that workers could break ground as soon as two years from now, it could require the creation of some kind of new or increased tax. But Gerard thinks community members would rally around the increase if it meant bringing something like a baseball team to town.
And Johnston said it needs to make sense before any city money is spent.
"If it isn't a win for the city and it isn't a win for the community, we won't do it," Johnston said.