CHAMPAIGN — Fox/Atkins Development has spent $20,000 to improve the appearance of the University of Illinois Swine Research Laboratory in the middle of the UI Research Park, removing overgrown plants, stripping vines off the building and painting it.
“It looks like it belongs here in the park,” Fox Development CEO Andrea Ruedi said of the cosmetic improvements.
But the pig research facility’s appearance isn’t exactly the problem for Research Park tenants.
The center presents a “considerable smell deterrent” to its neighbors, Research Park Executive Director Laura Frerichs said in 2017.
Fox/Atkins has a plan for that as well.
At Monday’s UI Research Park board meeting, Ruedi proposed a $15 million project that would move the pigs to a new swine production facility near Race Street and Curtis Road and expand the existing Swine Research Center at Curtis and First Street.
She said the project could receive $7 million from the state.
“We believe we’ve got $7 million assigned to that,” Ruedi said. “So we’re working with the university on getting a match for that to make this project happen.”
Regarding the possible state funding, Research Park board member and UI trustee Ed McMillan asked, “Is that available whenever it goes forward? Or is it tied to a particular time frame?”
“We don’t have the details on that yet,” Ruedi said.
After the meeting, ACES Dean Kim Kidwell said a new pig research center is still in the discussion phase and that there isn’t a timeline in place.
“None of the funding has been secured, nor has a location for the replacement production facility been identified,” she said. “I would characterize this topic as ‘in discussion’ with many folks affiliated with the Research Park in particular highly committed to creating a pathway forward to make this happen.”
The Research Park board has heard numerous proposals over the years to move the swine research lab, but funding has always been an issue.
The board heard proposals last year that ranged from $8 million to $100 million.
And, in 2014, the campus received a commitment from the state to fund $12 million of a proposed $14 million project, but that fell through during the state budget crisis.
“We were always worried about this happening in our lifetime,” McMillan said Monday.
And while Kidwell has said she understands why the Research Park wants it moved, it’s not as urgent an issue for the pig researchers.
“The swine facility is in a very inconvenient location for Research Park. My challenge is that it serves its function very well,” she said last year. “The research being done there is just top-notch.”
Because pigs are considered a good model for human health research, scientists have used the UI’s facilities to study various topics such as animal nutrition, neuroscience and the impact of breast milk compared with formula.
Unlike moving the pigs in the Research Park, it has long been a priority for ACES to replace the 92-year-old feed mill just south of the State Farm Center.
Construction crews began building a new one on South Race Street in June and hope to have it operational in the fall of 2020.
The new $20 million facility will deliver 8,000 tons of specialized research diets each year, which UI animal nutrition scientists will use in their research on livestock and companion animals.
Once the new feed mill is certified, the existing one can be demolished.
“The (new) feed mill does have to be commissioned, to make sure everything’s running and operating properly, and then the (old) feed mill will come down,” Ruedi said. “We’re looking at late 2020.”
Fox/Atkins has already done some prep work at the site of the old feed mill, Ruedi said, “so we’re ready to go as soon as it comes down.”
Once that’s demolished, the Research Park or UI could use that space for more buildings.
Previously, developer Peter Fox had proposed putting a community ice rink there, at the corner of St. Mary’s Road and Fourth Street, with the hope of also landing a hockey arena if the UI decides to move forward with a Division I team.
But Ruedi said Monday that’s no longer part of the plan.
“Not now,” she said. “It’s not in the current plan.”
While the Illinois athletics department hasn’t announced a Division I hockey team, a feasibility study last year recommended a downtown arena, which is currently part of a $200 million project called The Yards.