Peoria's West Bluff has a lot to offer, but over the last two decades, it's become known for the tours of its wonderful homes and historic buildings in particular. Anyone who's participated in a West Bluff Tour of Homes can tell you it's an afternoon well spent.

This grand tradition was begun 22 years ago by the West Bluff Council, according to tour committee member Cosette Jolliff. "The Council, in turn, separated to become two different groups. The new West Bluff Tour of Homes Committee wanted to promote the West Bluff as a desirable and beautiful area to live and raise their families."

She explained the tours have an additional purpose beyond showcasing the neighborhoods. "They help finance the attractive new neighborhood signs and gardens that are prominent in the area. It's been a catalyst to motivating groups and homeowners to exercise their creative talents-not only in their homes, but in the surrounding landscaping as well."

In fact, treasurer La Donna Bobbitt said profits from the tour-just over $200,000 to date-all go back to the West Bluff neighborhoods. "The various neighborhood associations such as the Uplands, Moss-Bradley, Orchard District (previously known as Flora-Ellis), High Wine Home Owners, Arbor District, Randolph Roanoke Residential Association, University East, and West Peoria Homeowners fill out applications each year and request money for specific projects. Usually, every neighborhood that requests money receives some, dependent upon how much money the tour raised that particular year."

Bobbitt said the tour committee makes group decisions that benefit everyone. "The tour committee usually meets in June-after we've had a chance to recover from the flurry of activity-reviews applications, and allocates funds to the Western Avenue Greenway project, which we've supported since its inception, and the various neighborhoods. And, of course, all of the committee members are volunteers, and we try to be very frugal with the money we spend so more money can go to the neighborhoods."

The many companies that donate services and goods help keep the committee on track and on budget. "Muir Omnigraphics has donated the printing of our posters since the tour began, Peoria Rug and Carpet has donated runners since the inception of the tour, and the florists are so generous with their time and materials."

Nick Cowley, head of the Home Selection Subcommittee of the Grand Tour of Homes Committee, said the homes chosen to be included-and decorated-on the annual tours are generally suggestions of committee members. "I then follow up by contacting those homeowners in person. We look for architecturally and historically significant homes and buildings. We try to supply a variety such as apartments, duplexes, homes, and buildings like Westminster Church and Converse Marketing in the renovated Eastman House. In 2001, Central High School was on our tour after the renovation of its auditorium. It turned out to be a big hit because all of the old yearbooks were brought out for the day, and many people looked up relatives or themselves and had a good time reminiscing. This year, we're offering Trinity Lutheran Church and Dr. Christopher Couri's Periodontal Office Building. Again, we like to show many facets to correlate with our original mission: to promote the West Bluff. In recent years, we've tried to focus on particular neighborhoods to enable attendees to walk through the neighborhoods and enjoy the many interests of the area and the beautiful day."

Rick McCarty said committee members such as himself are able to see these significant homes and buildings before the general public during the traditional pre-tour wine and cheese party, typically held at one of the committee person's homes. "This allows the homeowners, florists, and committee members the opportunity to become acquainted the evening before the Tour of Homes, and everyone has the chance to view the homes. The florists have previously talked with the homeowners to coordinate color and style of the homes. This partnership between the florist's artistic design talent and the homeowner's personal style enhances the beauty and charm of these great homes."

Committee member Connie Wright said in this 22nd annual year, the West Bluff Grand Tour of Homes will focus on the areas of Armstrong-Ellis, Randolph, North Street, High Street, and Bradley Avenue. "This year's tour takes place from noon to 5 p.m., May 15. Tickets cost $10 in advance and $15 on the day of the tour. Tickets usually don't sell out, with the exception of one year when we had to run to Kinko's during the tour to print more. We do find the weather plays a role in the attendance, and many people prefer to wait to buy tickets the day of the tour to be sure of the forecast."

West Bluff Tour Secretary Lynne Binkele said the best part about participating in the tour has been the time spent with the people involved: the committee members, homeowners, florists, sponsors, and attendees. "We have a monthly meeting hosted at a committee member's home. First, we meet to discuss our plans, and then we enjoy social time with food and beverages. Each year, we get to meet new homeowners and showcase our beautiful West Bluff homes. We truly appreciate our florists, who donate their services during what's always a very busy time of year, with Mother's Day, graduations, and weddings. We also enjoy recognizing and visiting the people who attend the tour year after year. It's very rewarding to be able to showcase the West Bluff as a wonderful place to live and work, while at the same time, raising money for worthy neighborhood projects. The most challenging aspect of the tour is finding a sufficient number of homes each year and donations to help subsidize our costs."

Tour Chair Kathleen Greenberg said the fact that the money raised from the tour goes right back into the neighborhoods is one aspect many people don't realize. "Another misconception is that attendees can begin at any house, whether they've purchased tickets in advance or not."

Greenberg said future plans for the tours will stick fairly closely to what's worked in the past, but with a constant eye to the future. "We'll continue to focus on particular neighborhoods so we can still have walking tours. We try to stay open-minded about new ideas so we can keep moving forward, while continuing with the quality of the tour at the same time."

That quality is something attendees seem to appreciate year after year, Bobbitt said. "We're very proud of the West Bluff; it's the most historically significant area in downstate Illinois. Twenty-two years of successful home tours shows there's significant interest in the West Bluff."

Addresses to be shown on the tour include the following:

Tickets may be purchased in advance at one of these participating florists: Finishing Touches, Floral Expressions, Gregg Florist, Leo's Flowers and Gifts, Marilyn's Bow-Kay, Monier's Flowers and Gifts, and Sterling Flower Shoppe. Tickets also are available at The Hair Shoppe, Greetings & Goodies, The Spotted Cow, or from committee members. AA!