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The pandemic has been harmful to businesses, particularly in downtown Urbana and Champaign. But there is reason for optimism.

After a year and a half of pandemic-related business struggles, including public-health-related restrictions, smaller crowds and problems finding employees, there may be good news ahead for the local economy, particularly the hospitality businesses in the downtown areas of both Champaign and Urbana.

Live entertainment is returning to the Virginia Theatre in Champaign, there is music on the streets and in the bars in downtown Urbana, and both downtowns are about to get a welcome, long-awaited investment in lodging.

Last month, developer (and former Illinois basketball star) Doug Altenberger said that his 130-room Marriott Aloft Hotel project finally would begin construction in September and likely would open in 2023. That’s more than two years behind the original schedule. But it’s also a hopeful sign that the economy is recovering and that investors — despite a 20 percent increase in the cost of some construction materials — have faith in the future of the center city.

The news in downtown Urbana is even more exciting as one of its centerpieces — a nearly 100-year-old hotel that has been empty for years — is about to be refurbished into a 130-room Hilton Tapestry Collection hotel.

Work has already begun on what originally was called the Urbana-

Lincoln Hotel and now will be known as the Hotel Royer. That’s a tribute to Urbana architect Joseph Royer, who designed the hotel, the Urbana Free Library across the street and a number of other buildings in Champaign-Urbana.

Last week, the Urbana Historic Preservation Commission approved mostly modest exterior renovations to the hotel. Most important, there will be no addition to or demolition of the original 1924 Tudor Revival structure, which the lead designer on the project called “a historic masterpiece of Joseph Royer.”

Developers hope to reopen the hotel by the end of 2022.

These two multimillion-dollar investments in the downtowns of Champaign and Urbana show renewed faith. Both have evolved from largely centers of merchandising and retail to showplaces for culture, entertainment and hospitality. The hotel projects, once completed, will enhance that vitality, provide jobs and add greatly to the tax rolls.

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