Re-use sought for abandoned $1.8M Champaign County research center

A shuttered $1.8 million research facility in Union Twp. has been vacant for about a year, but the building’s owner hopes to attract new businesses to the site soon.

DuPont Pioneer opened the 25,000 square foot agricultural research center in late 2012, but it vacated it after only about 18 months. Now building owner Terry Howell wants a zoning change he hopes will allow a new tenant to eventually move into the site.

A Union Twp. zoning board turned down an earlier attempt to rezone the property, in part because local officials couldn’t publicly identify a specific tenant who would take over the site, Howell said. But Sutphen, which makes fire trucks and other firefighting equipment, has since stepped forward and expressed some interest in the vacant property.

Howell submitted two separate applications this month asking township officials to review the zoning issue again and expects a hearing later this month.

“The bottom line is I didn’t get what I needed to be able to bring a good candidate into that facility,” Howell said. “We have candidates and we’re working on it.”

The facility was built specifically for Pioneer and was zoned as a conditional use that would only allow companies that conduct research on corn and soybeans to operate at the site, said Marcia Bailey, economic development coordinator for the Champaign Economic Partnership.

Dupont continues to lease the site in the meantime, Bailey said, but the best scenario would be to attract another company that could add jobs as well.

It’s been hard to find a new tenant because the zoning was so specific, Howell said. At least four companies have since expressed interest, but cannot move into the property unless the zoning changes.

Sutphen is still in the earliest stages of considering an expansion and hasn’t fully committed to the property, said Drew Sutphen, president of Sutphen Corp. But he said the company was willing to step forward publicly as a potential end user.

“It’s in its early stages but when you hear about a beautiful piece of property for growth it always sounds good,” he said.

A handful of other companies have also expressed interest, Howell said. But township zoning officials wanted to know a specific company interested in the site before approving a zoning change.

Howell is seeking two possible zoning changes for the property. In the short term, he plans to ask zoning board members to approve a more broad conditional use for the building that would permit light manufacturing. He is also seeking a permanent change to zone the property for light manufacturing, although that process will likely take more time.

Aside from Sutphen, other companies haven’t yet been willing to state publicly until they know the zoning issue is resolved, Bailey said, which makes it difficult to move forward.

The president of the zoning board didn’t return calls seeking comment this week. But the zoning board will review the case again now that a potential end user has stepped forward, said Charles Dooley, a Union Twp. trustee.

“Everyone is interested but the zoning is the issue,” Bailey said.

Officials at Pioneer said business interests led them to vacate the site, but they have continued to pay for the lease. Their goal now is to negotiate a sub-lease to help alleviate that cost and find a new use for the facility.

“We’re looking at some folks who are looking at the opportunity to sublease it right now,” said Ann Leonard, a spokeswoman for Pioneer. “We were looking at our footprint across the United States and there was an opportunity to have some other synergies in other locations so that’s why we merged our other facilities from there.”

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