"There's nothing sneaky here"

County board chairman dishes on downtown plan

Time is short to put together a proposal for a university campus in downtown Springfield, according to Andy Van Meter, chairman of the Sangamon County Board.

If a package isn’t ready within two months, Van Meter said, the project that could turn four blocks over to Southern Illinois University and the University of Illinois Springfield will die.

He said project backers are counting on money from the state’s $45 billion capital bill approved earlier this year, and other communities in search of money are further ahead than Springfield. If Springfield can’t put together a proposal soon, he said, state funding might go elsewhere.

“I think we have until late January,” said Van Meter, who's pushed hard for stronger economic development efforts in Springfield for more than a year.

Illinois Times disclosed the fledgling downtown development plan in a story posted earlier this week. The county board chairman said that the city, state officials and universities like the idea. “I think that we have a lot of support at the state government level,” Van Meter said. “I think we have a lot of support from the state universities."

Some downtown business and property owners have expressed concerns. Van Meter acknowledged that not everyone is happy with the prospect of being displaced. "At this point, the critical issue is whether we can come together as a community," he said.

Contrary to a proposal floated earlier this year, Van Meter said a Southern Illinois University law school is not on the table at this point. Rather, he said, the proposal could include a place for pre-law undergraduate students to study. SIU, he said, could establish a center for regenerative medicine aimed at helping folks who’ve lost limbs or other body parts. And the University of Illinois Springfield wants a so-called innovation center to replace the current home of Innovate Springfield, now near the Old State Capitol, that focuses on encouraging and helping entrepreneurs. Van Meter said he’s not aware of any plans by the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana to participate.

Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, has been pushing to bring a university presence to downtown. Like the governor, and unlike Van Meter, he’s a Democrat. How important is Manar to the plan? “Critical – absolutely critical,” Van Meter answered.

Illinois Times has seen artist renderings showing the area between Second and Fourth streets and Monroe and Washington streets turned into a campus that includes plenty of green space, with few or any existing uses in evidence, Van Meter characterized such renderings as preliminary. “There’s no drawing,” he said. “There’s no plan.”

Aldermen were briefed before Thanksgiving, and the plan has been discussed by the Springfield Sangamon Growth Alliance, an economic development corporation that includes both public officials and private business interests. The group is not subject to the Open Meetings Act or the Freedom of Information Act. Van Meter said the downtown campus plan is like other development projects that are discussed behind closed doors before being publicly unveiled.

“There’s nothing sneaky here,” Van Meter said. “There’s nothing in this project that cannot withstand the light of day.”

Van Meter acknowledged that existing businesses might be displaced, but that’s the price of progress. “At some point, you get to relocation assistance and you move someplace else,” Van Meter said. “And that someplace else might be better.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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