Evidence of the fruits of the 2016 Unit 4 referendum are visible all over town, most recently in the form of a big, bright new International Prep Academy, and a host of completed renovations at Champaign Central High School. But the current talk of the town is McKinley Field, which was transformed from the home of Central baseball to a renovated sports facility for soccer, track and field, freshman and JV football games, and varsity football practice. At the time, there was no plan to host varsity games there. A 2018 intergovernmental agreement between the City of Champaign and the school district solidified this.
Now, Central football parents, coaches, and players are asking for an exception to this agreement — that they are allowed to play one varsity game, moved from Friday night to a Saturday afternoon, at McKinley Field. Some of the residents in the neighborhood surrounding the field are upset about this possibility, and it’s quickly become one of the more contentious issues related to Unit 4 construction projects.
After a study session last week, the Champaign City Council asked city staff to draft a special event permit and propose an amendment to the 2018 agreement that would allow the game to proceed. The proposal would need to be voted on by the school board, then again by city council.
We think there are valid arguments on both sides of this issue.
A quick reminder of why this discussion is happening in the first place: In 2015, a Unit 4 referendum to build a new Champaign Central on a parcel of land on Interstate Drive was on the ballot. This was the second attempt, after a similar referendum failed on the November 2014 ballot. A group of residents, Keep Central Central, organized against moving the school from the urban center. That, plus poor leadership from the school board at that time, led to the referendum failing. Keeping the school in its landlocked location, even with the planned demolition of buildings surrounding the school, limited the district’s ability to create the sort of athletic facilities that would have been possible had the high school been built to the north. There are plenty of positives to keeping the school in the center of town; that was a negative.
It’s understandable that the current Central football team wants a “home” field on which to play their games. Even though Tommy Stewart Field is “home” for both Central and Centennial high schools, the games are at Centennial, in a place that isn’t their “home.” Having a home turf is a big deal when you are playing a high school sport. It seems to offer a sense of pride and connection to the place and the school not only among players, but also among parents and fans. The players at Central have a home turf for practice, a beautiful new facility, but they are limited to just that — practice.
Residents of the South Side neighborhood have a right to their concerns: increased traffic and parking issues, noise, trash, and security. They likely voted for the 2016 referendum with the assumption that McKinley Field would be used for JV football and other sporting events that draw a smaller crowd. That was solidified in 2018 with the intergovernmental agreement with a specific condition to not host varsity games at the site; a condition that is there because the city council was responding to the concerns of those community members. Nothing has really changed to warrant an amendment to the agreement, beyond a desire by the current team and parents to make it happen.
At this point, it seems likely that the go ahead will be given, as the school board previously voted in favor of making the request. Will there be monumental consequences for the neighborhood if that happens? No, probably not. It will be an inconvenience for a few hours on a Saturday. Will there be a push to have more, or all varsity games at that location, if the event is successful? Maybe. The major concerns given by those opposed to having varsity games at McKinley Field all have reasonable solutions. The infrastructure of the neighborhood and the design of the facility will preclude it from ever being able to host a varsity game in the same sort of way they are hosted at Tommy Stewart Field. If the team and the fans want the atmosphere of varsity football with big crowds under the lights and the band free to play as they like, McKinley Field isn’t going to be the place to do that.
The original agreement was made because the city heard and responded to concerns from one group of people affected by the location of the field. The soon-to-be proposed amendment, should it be approved, will be because the city heard and responded to the concerns of another group of people affected by the location of the field. Maybe the best solution is to bring both parties together each year to revisit the issue and make sure that it is working for all involved.