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No varsity football at McKinley Field

In recent months, there has been an organized effort by football parents and coaches at Central High School to play a varsity football game against Urbana in late September at McKinley Field behind South Side Elementary. The sentiment from the team is that “we have such a nice practice field” and “we deserve a true home game.” Despite a News-Gazette sports columnist saying he is fine with it, a great number of residents in the neighborhood find this unacceptable.

The coaches and boosters are pitching this Saturday afternoon plan as a one-game trial, but this is very much a “give a mouse a cookie” situation. Their coaches and parents have made it clear in print and radio that their desire is to bring all of their home games to our neighborhood. Players and parents recently came through to share their plan with us, collect the sentiment of the residents, and sign a petition of support. As presented, their plan is inadequate and does not fit the reality we live in. We do not trust that they understand our concerns and will properly share those with city council or in the press. Many residents are worried about the impact on our neighborhood but were reluctant to discourage eager students engaged in civic activity when they came to our doors.

While we sympathize with their cause, there are several facts that prevent our support. First and foremost, there was a promise made in good faith that this would never happen. After the 2016 School Referendum passed, the approved plan was to rebuild McKinley into a modern facility. Concerns were raised in the South Side neighborhood about whether the school district could be trusted to stick to their approved plan. In December 2018, an intergovernmental agreement was entered into between Unit 4 School and the City of Champaign that addressed lights and noise, all of which precluded varsity football from playing home games there. With that agreement in hand, Unit 4 went forward with their plans to rebuild McKinley Field as a site that would not accommodate varsity home football games, as it has been since the 1960s.

As such, McKinley Field was re-built in 2019 with parking for 162 and a grandstand that holds 410, which is adequate for the sports that play there. A varsity football game, however, brings between 900 and 1800 attendees between players, parents, and fans; even more for a big rivalry game. The site cannot possibly hold that, and gameday traffic will spill into the surrounding neighborhood. Our streets were laid out largely in the 1920s to 1950s, a time when households were mostly one-car families. Some residents do not even have driveways. Our streets can be a struggle when our just neighbors use them, but it becomes a major issue when both sides are full of traffic that is not normally here, and emergency vehicles are unable to pass. 

We are also not a “complete streets” neighborhood. Except for John Street, we have no streetlights; yard/porch lights are a rarity. Many streets do not have sidewalks, including part of the block where the field is located. When they get their night games and these 1500+ attendees leave the game and walk to their cars, that will be a nightmare for attendees and residents alike. 

In their plan, the boosters mention providing security but do not acknowledge that Unit 4’s security has no authority off school property and cannot do anything in the neighborhood. Trash is also a concern, and they promise to do a clean-up, but one just has to look in the neighborhood surrounding Centennial to see how great of a job they do in taking care of their current shared home. These actions, or lack thereof, contradict their claims of being a “good neighbor.”

When comparing the McKinley site to their shared home at Tommy Stewart Field behind Centennial, with seating for over 3750 and on-site and adjacent parking for over 500, the difference is stark. It is surrounded by complete streets, with full sidewalks and streetlights on the main roads. There is an entire block buffer on all sides between the field and the neighborhood. From the beginning, Tommy Stewart Field was designed to hold varsity games and crowds. Even when you compare McKinley Field to the varsity sites in their conference, you can see they are all built with seating ranging from 1200 in Danville to 4000 in Peoria, and are largely surrounded by streets that handle the traffic and crowds that a game brings.

The school board enthusiastically, and without consulting the neighborhood, authorized the superintendent to walk back their agreement; abandoning good governance in the process. While Unit 4 can edit their referendum website and pretend they were ready for this all along. The internet never forgets. A cached copy shows that the plan specifically states the McKinley Field site will be built for “Competition track & field/JV Football” and Tommy Stewart Field behind Centennial will be upgraded for continued Friday night football games by both high schools.” 

It was known from the beginning that “Keeping Central Central” would mean sharing a varsity home field with Centennial. This was the plan we were asked to vote on, and what the voters of the district overwhelmingly approved by a 65-34 margin

This agreement is on the Champaign City Council’s agenda for Tuesday, August 9th. If Unit 4 is allowed to go back on this deal so quickly just to please well-connected parents who largely do not live in the affected area, how soon until they go back on deals made with your neighborhood?

We ask that the city hold the school district, coaches, players, and boosters to the agreement that was made in good faith with our neighborhood. Options exist to address their concerns about the shared home field that don’t involve squeezing a large event onto a site that was never meant to hold it and in a neighborhood that does not have the basic infrastructure to support it.

Justin Martin is a resident of the South Side Neighborhood and is the lead organizer of the effort to hold Unit 4 and the City of Champaign to their promise. Details on how you can get involved, including signing a petition and requesting a yard sign, can be found here:

Top image by Justin Martin.

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