Downtown university plan floated

Could be as large as four blocks

The Springfield Sangamon County Growth Alliance is pitching a major university presence in downtown Springfield that sources say would involve the University of Illinois Springfield, Southern Illinois University and perhaps the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana.

Plans aren't concrete, but the first public meetings to unveil ideas are expected in January, said Josh Collins, interim president and CEO of the alliance, a public-private economic development group. Collins confirmed that the alliance has contacted property owners in the area.

"I would say this is very preliminary right now," Collins said. "There will be at least two public meetings on this, plus other outreach efforts to property owners and businesses. ... I would say there is an anticipation to have more formalized concepts, hopefully, in the first quarter of 2020.

"It's a very high priority."

Springfield alderman have been briefed on the proposal that could be as large as four blocks. Ward 5 Ald. Andrew Proctor said he was briefed more than a week ago and shown drawings indicating the development could stretch between Second and Fourth streets on the west and east and Adams and Monroe streets on the north and south.

Such a large development might mean that existing businesses, including the Sangamo Club, J.P. Kelly’s and scores of others, might either have to move or carry on in the midst of development. Collins said it's too early to know how many, if any, business or downtown residents would have to relocate.

"We would assume it would be state-funded," Collins said.

The city, state legislators and universities have long talked about a downtown university presence. Proctor said ideas include a law school, a business incubator and a center for government studies. He cautioned that exactly what might be included hasn’t been set, nor is the exact location certain.

“I have been briefed on a possible location,” Proctor said. “As of right now, there is no location set yet, and I believe other areas are being considered. It’s going to be, ultimately, up to the University of Illinois to determine the location.”

The campus would be considerably larger than a proposal to put an SIU law school on the downtown Y Block, an idea that surfaced last year. In an email, UIS spokesman Derek Schnapp wrote that the university wants a new location for Innovate Springfield, a business incubator now located near the Old State Capitol that is part of a so-called innovation hub being developed by the University of Illinois that is aimed at helping entrepreneurs. "The university is considering various options for a new and larger location for the downtown hub that includes an expanded Innovate Springfield and additional activities with funding for construction and/or renovation to be provided in part by a recent legislative appropriation that includes $15 million for the UIS hub," Schnapp wrote. "We've had some discussions with SIU representatives about possible collaborations that would enhance further economic development in the region. As discussions continue, we look forward to collaborating with local and state legislative leaders."

Just how a multi-block project could be funded isn't clear. State Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, said there is no money in the state's $45 billion capital bill signed into law earlier this year, and universities do not have power of eminent domain. Like Proctor, Manar said universities will make the final call on location and the project's size.

"There never has been a physical location (decided)," Manar said.

Springfield Mayor Jim Langfelder said he learned about potential borders for downtown university development at a meeting of the Springfield Sangamon County Growth Alliance shortly before Thanksgiving. "It was a special meeting," Langfelder said. "I took it as a board meeting. ... It's just putting pieces together, what blocks might be available."

While Manar said no money has been allocated in the capital bill, Langfelder said the state will need to be involved. "What's going to have to take place is the state's participation," the mayor said. "We want a university downtown, getting the private sector together with the public sector, working together to see what we can make happen sooner rather than later. That's one of the top priorities."

The city has allocated $7.65 million in tax increment financing money to build a hotel at Fourth and Washington streets, but the deal is contingent on developers securing private funding for the project, which has had price tags ranging from $56 million to $74 million. The deal includes the city turning over a parking garage to make room for the project. Under the TIF package approved by the city council last spring, developers have until early next year to secure financing or risk losing TIF money. Langfelder said "without a doubt" a downtown university development could take the place of the hotel project if the hotel developer can't come up with private money to build the hotel.

"Especially that (parking) ramp — something needs to happen with regards to that," Langfelder said. "If the hotel project doesn't go through, that could be a top priority."

Contact Bruce Rushton at [email protected].

Bruce Rushton

Bruce Rushton is a freelance journalist.

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