Smile Politely

Let’s buy a ballpark; hold the ketchup, please

With the Mayoral election in Champaign around the corner, we’re headed into some serious local political dickery in the next three months. I can’t wait. And neither can Eric Bussell. The four candidates — three of whom are challenging the current Mayor and may very likely cannibalize each other’s votes — will have to find a way to separate themselves from one another to win the election. There’s no doubt that the current discussion surrounding Unit 4 and the new Central will come into play. To wit: The News-Gazette has already run a quick one question interview with each of them.

I’m not bored with the discussion over Unit 4, but it’s definitely hit that moment where I think the word “stalemate” would apply. We’ll see what happens, but for me, one of the most important components of the what’s being talked about ad nauseum, yet why it’s never boring, is the secondary and tertiary issues that are being brought to the attention of the community.

How much do we tax, how do we spend it, and at what rate? How do we invest said taxes? How can each taxing body work together on a community project? Who pays for this, that, and the other? What can each do to compliment each other, or at worst, devalue each other?

And so that gets me thinking about Mayor Don Gerard’s campaign from 2011, where he ousted part-time birther, full-time coffee-drinker Jerry Schweighart, based on the fact that he was A) NOT Jerry Schweighart, and B) filled with energy and ideas about how to improve Champaign, and really, the entire metro area of Champaign County and those surrounding it. For what it’s worth, I think Don Gerard has been a damn fine Mayor for Champaign. I’d love to hear a legitimate argument against that, and please — spare me the personal attacks about his life outside of his role as Mayor?


Now, if you remember, Mayor Gerard was all hot to trot about a minor league ballpark. It was, and still is, a tremendous idea, in my estimation. But beyond the issue of how to execute that was, again — where would this thing go?

I heard a number of different ideas, from Neil and I-74, to Savoy, to the Marco Steel land in south Downtown Champaign, which would be so ideal I can’t sleep when I think abut it.

But, assuming the Unit 4 Board of Education gets its way and the new Central is built on Interstate Dr., which will be a complete disaster and an embarrassment to the city for decades to come, why not Spalding Park? Why not combine the City, the Park District, the School District, and local business to create something magnificent? Hell, I bet you could even get a couple of the baller billionaires in town to go in, with the right tax incentives. Oh man, they love those. 

Here’s a pie in the sky idea for you all to chew on this weekend. And I mean that — this is such a long shot, and so filled with holes, try not to freak out and take it too seriously. Just close your eyes, and dream with me, won’t you?

A multi-use facility that can function as a football stadium, a baseball diamond, a concert venue, and — no, I am not smoking a bong right now — an outdoor hockey arena.

Yes, YES — I told you: I am aware of how ambitious and crazy that might sound, but I guess the question I keep coming to is simply, “Why not?”

Why not be the community that does the things that makes other communities go: “Damn. That’s rad. I wish we had that.”

Even cities like Burlington, IA or Marion, IL and our neighbors in Danville carry minor league or semi-pro teams. Champaign-Urbana is a sports town. We sit at the center of three pro sports markets, all of whom routinely compete for national titles — the Cubs notwithstanding. But wait til this year. 

Peter Blackmon, the General Manager of the David S. Palmer Civic Center in Danville has watched their minor league hockey team, the Danville Dashers, develop nicely in the past five years. I am doubting it’s perfect, and I’ve been told that it’s a slog, but when I asked him about how things were going, here’s what he had to say:

“The Danville Dashers hockey team are doing what we had hoped they would do; stick with it. They are getting involved in the community; making their presence known at all levels from the kids to the adults. Their fan base is starting to inch towards a healthy 1,000 average attendance. That is very strong. The community seems interested in the calendar; inquiring and anticipating the schedule; also a good indicator.

The amount of signage in terms of banner advertising and Dasher board advertising has increased very visibly. Space is filling up. It would indicate that the business community is supporting the Dashers; either as viable advertising possibility or simply because it’s entertainment worth keeping.”

Really, more than anything, outside of having a world-class University with a burgeoning tech community, Champaign-Urbana loves sports. And not just Illini basketball and football, which are givens, if not annual headaches in some ways. We love all kinds.

Go to Pia’s, or Tumble Inn, or Esquire, or Icehouse, or Bunny’s during any big game, or really, any game of any kind, and you will find people cheering at the screen, and having fun with friends, engaging in debates about this player or that coach, and to me, that’s a great thing. It’s not like it’s unique to this community, but I’d argue that because we are a B1G campus and are so close to pro teams, we’d have a leg up in support. 

Not to mention, with the damned internet going all super fast soon enough, and everyone carrying a laptopiPhonetablet, people are hungrier than ever to engage in something real. Something true.

Plus, there’s more people, with more money, and more time on their hands here in Champaign County than in a county like Vermillion. If you ask me, we just haven’t invested properly as a community.

A stadium that celebrated its high school football teams on Friday nights in autumn, and hosted a Summer league baseball team, and yes, a hockey team that played outdoors in the winter (it’s possible — anything is possible) would be a remarkable achievement for a city this size. And I believe it would be an economic boon to the area, and help to redevelop the north part of Champaign. Or Downtown, if someone can play ball with Marco Steel. 

So, how do we afford it? I say we look no further than the “socialist” agenda of NFL franchise the Green Bay Packers up north.

Read this article.

The people of the city picks up the tab, and they each pay a little to get a lot. Oh sure, not everyone is pleased about it, but that’s always going to be the case. Personally, I don’t care much for that line of thinking. But whatever. 

There is absolutely no reason why a progressive city that loves sports can’t do the same. If this community plans on sorting out how to make our city into being a place that is truly unique and hard to leave, we need to look at the virtues of moderated collectivism (that’s not communism, by the way) and work together to make it so.

I’d make the same argument for a new Children’s Science Museum, or working more closely with the Public Art League to further promote visual arts in the community.

After all, what good is living without being able to stare in examination of sculpture, or watching the wonderment of a child as they learn something new, or wetting your whistle with an icy cold Triptych beerski, and watching the boys of Summer knock around the ball for a few hours on a warm evening in July. Or a hockey puck in January, as it were? I can guarantee you there’s more than a few Hawks fans out there that would be front and center, each and every time. 

Yes, it’d cost us more in taxes. But the best communities work together and spend together to make the best things happen. We’d own it together, and we could make it succeed together.

That’s my assessment and I am sticking to it. No matter how implausible you might think it is. 

Speaking of ballparks

Can someone explain to me how it’s possible that a city like Champaign-Urbana, just 140 miles south of Chicago, has no Chicago-style restaurant to go eat at? A joint like Portillo’s being the best example, there’s nothing quite like the appeal of the familiar yellow and red Vienna Beef signage. And ever since Wonderdogs closed on Wright Strett two summers ago, my heart and stomach are quite empty knowing that the only place in town to get a Vienna Beef dog is at Meatheads, who don’t even serve it Chicago-style.

Otherwise, you have to drive to Danville Stadium in the summer to get it done right.


If someone did do it right, I believe they’d make a killing and in no time, provided that they actually did it the way it’s supposed to be done, as opposed to cutting corners the way that the now-closed Beef Stand on Green Street did a few years back.

Sorry, Eisenberg dogs and bagged beef won’t cut the mustard, as it were.

Am I the only one that sees the masses of suburban Chicago kids wandering around town, along with ex-pats and locals who’ve all had the same experience for years and years up north? If Portillo’s won’t come to Champaign, then by God someone ought to take the initiative and do it themselves.

The menu could be so simple: Chicago-style hot dogs, Polish sausages, Italian Beef, crispy french fries, a variety of sodas, etc.

Beer might help. Yes — beer. 

Others have tried it, I suppose — remember Big Mouth’s? — and maybe I am just in denial, but it’d seem likely that the right menu, in the right location, and with the right marketing would have a place like that doing good numbers. I’d like to see that happen. It’s a food culture worth celebrating. 

On SPAM in our schools

Evidently, for years now, teachers in classrooms have been inviting for-profit businesses into their classrooms to give “demonstrations” about this or that, and then send home promotional flyers about how to buy their products or sign up for classes to parents at the end of the day.

That is, for all intents and purposes, by definition, SPAM:


The example given most recently was when a karate school in town gave a demonstration to a friend’s daughter’s class on how to stand up for yourself, and how to stand up to bullies. And while that’s a totally important and noble thing to be teaching in this day and age, it didn’t fly with said friend, who is a “mom” in town. She posted it on Facebook, and the sparks flew a bit. I participated, because I am addicted to that sort of thing, for better or for worse. Mostly for worse. 

But it’s not OK according to Unit 4 policy, thankfully, according to Stephanie Stuart, the spokesperson for the district, who set the record straight?  

“The flyer in question was not approved by the district and “went around” our approval process that we have in pla​ce to ensure that only approved materials are distributed. We do not approve flyers for distribution from for-profit businesses and intend to protect students from the marketing efforts of for-profit organizations. In general, we will only approve materials from documented 501c3 non-profits and our partners in higher education.”

If you want to read more about the policy, it’s here and here.

As a new parent, I am looking forward to seeking out extra-curricular activities with my son on our own time, and believe that school should be reserved for our educators to create engaging and fun curriculum that open’s minds and inspires, but never direct-markets or promotes businesses to do so. There’s plenty of time for kids to be sold to and for parents to buy — enjoy that trip to Disney! — and while I love the community engagement, I think there’s likely a way to include ambitious locals like a karate school to provide fun educational things like a demonstration, without the promotional flyer being sent home with the kids.

Otherwise, it’s just SPAM. And there’s a place where that goes.

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