City, businesses ready for tourney to return

Marvin Holman, Commercial-News, Danville, Ill.
·7 min read

Apr. 17—DANVILLE — Last year at this time, Danville was feeling the effects of not having a major event come to town.

The NJCAA Division II National Tournament was one of the first major casualties of Covid-19 in the city, first announced as getting moved from its traditional March spot to being cancelled.

But this year, the tournament is back and with it the hope that everything is getting closer to normal.

"As it relates to tourism, it was a major impact in not having the tournament and it has been a whole year of impact," Danville Area Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Jeanie Cooke said. "We are seeing some light at the end of the tunnel and I think the tournament is going to be a shot in the arm for us. There will be restrictions because of Covid, but there will still be teams and players and coaches staying in hotels."

The teams will have the chance to play in front of fans as the Mary Miller Gym will be at 25% capacity, which means 240 fans can be allowed during a game.

Tournament chairman Brian Hensgen said the total was determined after a regular season of action for the Danville Area Community College basketball team.

"We started the regular season with no fans and went 75 percent of the season with no fans. As the state started to loosen their guidelines, we started to have fans at the facility and that is what led to us allowing 25%," Hensgen said. "We are going to stay comfortable at the 240 fans and the goal is to have families travel and watch the tournament and we are going to set aside tickets for them and then the remaining tickets for four-year school coaches and recruiters and any community members that want to watch the game."

Hensgen said that the play will be a little different with the addition of new teams from NJCAA Division III.

"In a normal year, you would have 16 district champions. Because of Covid, there were some consolidations of Division III teams because they didn't have a tournament this year, so there were changes that were being made in the national office," Hensgen said. "We have 15 district champions and one at-large team (Ancilla College) who were the No. 1 team in the nation for most of the year, but that lost in their region tournament. They were chosen at large, but the changes that had to be made are a long list. We have two Division III teams that will play (Sand Hills College and Dallas College-Richland) and that is a new addition to our landscape. I think there are some really good teams and we are excited about the opportunity to host."

With the teams and games returning, hotels and restaurants will have their chance to get money back from not having the tournament in 2020.

"It is just phenomenal. We missed so much last year and the NJCAA tournament is not just huge for the hotels, but for the town as well and I am so thrilled beyond words that it is coming back this year," Danville Sleep Inn manager Dori Stone said. "At our hotel, we usually have five teams. We have 76 rooms, so we are equipped to take more. We also get some fans and scouts for four-year colleges come in and it's really great for occupancy and great for us because it gives us national attention."

"It's extremely important. We have a lot of the teams come in and eat here and it really does a lot for the businesses in the community ... I think everyone benefits for the tournament being here," Jocko's manager Mary McIntyre said. "There have always been allowed to leave between games to eat and if that is not allowed, it would take a chunk from all the restaurants in town. That will help everyone's restaurant in getting back some of the money that was lost in the pandemic."

Stone said the success of the tournament can lead to more successes in the next few months.

"This is the first big event in Danville for the town and the hotels in the year. To go from being sold out that entire week to struggling to get people in the door is tough," Stone said. "We lost other groups that came, but the NJCAA is like a kickoff to our spring and summer seasons and it was disheartening.

"It's the first positive sign of getting back to normal in some way. It will be a little different and we are heading in the right direction. So we not only have this great event, it is also a boost for everyone's morale that things are coming back."

Cooke said that the return of the tournament really matters since it is a reliable major event for the town.

"Right now, it is our largest single impact for us," Cooke said. "There are years where we have other events like Phases of the Moon and Farm Progress. But this is a particularly large event in that it is every year and we can count on it.

"Remember a lot of people that visit the tournament are local, so that doesn't really affect the hotels and restaurants, because people go here anyway. We are still going to have an impact from those that do travel, like the teams, coaches, trainers and hopefully their parents. There will be so many differences. The hospitality room will be restricted and the people that are working with the gym will have to stick around. But when it gets on the court, it is going to be great competition and it will have an impact, but because of the teams and the folks that go with them, it will give everyone the shot in the arm that the industry needs."

McIntyre hopes that even with restrictions, that teams and fans can make the trip to Jocko's and other restaurants in the town in-between games.

"We have a lot of teams come in to eat. Losing the teams have a cut in sales and that is not including fans and parents who come to see the games," McIntyre said. "The fans make an impact because after games and during games, everything gets busy."

For Hensgen, the learning process for this year's tourney after last year's was pulled will only be mean laying a groundwork for the 2022 version, where restrictions should be more open.

"With something like this is pulled out at the 11th hour, it was the right move and something that we had to do, it does leave an effect," Hensgen said. "We certainly want to look at the positives and that is getting people in the gym and the 16 teams and fans to our hotels, restaurants and that is important to our community. I think a plus is that teams are asking for more rooms so they can spread out more, so for the community, that is more revenue to work with.

"We will use our restaurants and use that Danville hospitality that has been going strong for 28 years of hosting this event. This tournament would not have been done without the volunteers. There may not be as many as we usually have because of restrictions, but it does not diminish the role and the need of the volunteers. I appreciate everyone's work and 2022 is what we will work on in getting back to full steam ahead."

Stone added that the return of the tournament will not only improve business but also the overall thoughts about the town.

"I want to thank Brian and everyone in Danville for making it happen. They have done a phenomenal job. Brian is so good in keeping in touch with us and seeing what is going on," Stone said. "After this tournament, they work on next year's. There are so many that work on it and it is the people in this town that love Danville and sports that put their heart and soul into it and I really wish those who think negatively of Danville would just look around and see what we have especially after the year of the pandemic. I encourage everyone to support Danville ... The tournament is a great start, but there is so much more here."