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Growth spurt: Normal's uptown plans pick up speed

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Marriott Normal
The Marriott Hotel and Conference Center in uptown Normal opened in late 2009. (The Pantagraph/LORI ANN COOK-NEISLER)

NORMAL -- The Marriott Hotel and Conference Center, a key piece to the uptown redevelopment project, opened in late 2009 while another major component, the transportation center, received the federal funding it needed early this year.

The transportation center, planned on the south side of Beaufort Street between the roundabout and Broadway, was one of only a handful of projects getting a slice of the $1.5 billion from the federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant last month.

The $22 million in federal money was the last piece of the financing puzzle needed to complete the $40 million, four-story building that will service Amtrak, buses and taxis and be the new home for the city council chambers and some administrative offices.

A parking deck will be connected to the west side of the building. The town plans to issue a bond for about $7.8 million for the town's share of the project. It already has about $6.5 million available from other bonds. If the state pays for the train platform, the town would only need to issue bonds for $6.3 million, said City Manager Mark Peterson.

Construction could start in June and the facility could open by 2012.

Meanwhile, after several delays, the "crown jewel" of the uptown redevelopment project, the 230-room Marriott, opened Oct. 30 and so far it has been everything officials and business owners expected.

"It's had a measurable impact on the community as a whole, especially businesses," said Peterson.

"When the hotel is full, we know it down here," said Brian Simpson, owner of Babbitt's Books and president of the Uptown Normal Business Association.

"Parents weekend (at Illinois State University) gave us an idea of what it was going to be like," Simpson said. "When it's full, we're going to be very busy."

The $75 million project that includes a town-owned conference center and 500-space parking deck has hosted a myriad of activities including a 600-person Martin Luther King Jr. event; a 600-person breakfast for the Economic Development Council of the Bloomington-Normal Area; and two events for the Immanuel Bible Foundation that attracted about 900 people, said Heather Van Voorhis, director of sales and marketing.

Variety of business

State Farm Insurance Cos. also reserved extended stay rooms for more than three months, she said.

"We're very fortunate in this market with a combination of the corporate world, the university, sports tournaments, and the social market with weddings," Van Voorhis said.

"It's a variety of business; not just one area."

Because of a delay in the hotel's opening, the planned 2009 ISU homecoming gala had to be moved to an on-campus site, but Van Voorhis said it's on the hotel's schedule this fall.

All uptown road work also was completed and another major uptown project -- a five-story, mixed use building by JSM Development of Champaign at the corner of North Street and Fell Avenue -- is right on its construction schedule.

Jill Guth, director of development for JSM, said the 137 apartments on the third, fourth and fifth floors will be ready for occupancy in mid-June and Illinois State University is expected to move into its leased second-floor space in July.

A first-floor CVS Pharmacy is eyeing an August opening.  Guth said the space was handed over to CVS on March 1 and there has been "a lot of interest" in the rest of the first-floor retail space.

The $31 million building received $2.7 million in benefits through a redevelopment agreement with the town.

Another still on hold

Another component of the uptown redevelopment project remains on hold.

When One Main Development of Champaign broke ground for a $34 million, six-story, mixed-use building in 2007, it planned to open last fall. The foundation was started but construction came to a halt in fall 2008 in the wake of chaos in the financial market.

One Main still is interested in doing the project, but the town also has sought out other developers -- only to come up empty-handed.

"Banks aren't giving loans for commercial developments due to the regulatory environment," said Peterson. "Commercial real estate is very, very hard to finance. We hope it will soften in the next couple of years."

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