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Veterans nearing completion on banquet project

Champaign County veterans groups are nearing completion on a roughly $500,000 renovation project that will turn an abandoned newspaper building into a banquet facility and office space for veterans.

When it’s finished, the project will restore a historic building that would otherwise sit vacant, and offer a service that is needed in Urbana, said Bill Gibson, project manager and a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Spriggs Wing Post 5451.

About a year ago, members of the VFW and the Disabled American Veterans Chapter 31 combined their resources, spending about $$160,000 to purchase the former Brown Publishing Building at 220 E. Court St. Since then, members of both organizations have donated their time to complete what Gibson estimated is a $500,000 remodeling project to turn the space into a banquet hall that can hold 299 guests, along with office space for the two groups and room for a veterans service officer to meet with local vets who need assistance.

Despite a few delays, the organizations are hoping to open the facility for business in time for Christmas.

“We’re proud of what we’ve done,” Gibson said.

Once complete, the hall will be fully equipped with a kitchen, restrooms and space for caterers. It will be able to host weddings, family reunions and other public events. Previously, there were few similar venues available, Gibson said. The veterans groups plan to split the revenue from those events to help fund their organizations and provide services to area veterans.

The project will also mean veterans of more recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will have a place to meet and host events for years to come, said Tony Markin, commander for the local branch of the DAV.

“We’re trying to make sure there’s something for them to have down the road,” Markin said.

The previous space the organizations used on North Main Street was only about 3,000 square feet and had little space for parking. Neither of those issues will be a problem anymore, Gibson said. The group is also cleaning up the exterior of the building, adding brick pavers and an outdoor patio to make the space more attractive to the neighborhood.

Numerous area companies and organizations have also donated materials and other assistance for the project, and the group is also selling engraved bricks and seeking assistance from corporate sponsors to help cover the renovation costs.

The toughest jobs are being completed by area contractors, but Gibson said the group saved at least $50,000 by doing as much of the work as possible by themselves. A handful of regular volunteers has chipped in since the project began. Last week, workers were putting up drywall and preparing for other projects such as painting and installing overhead lighting. The average age of the volunteers is about 67 years old, Gibson said.

“We could start our own construction crew right now,” Gibson joked.

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