A Publication of WTVP

Gary Matthews began his real estate career over 25 years ago with Jewel Food Stores in Chicago, concentrating on site selection and development for the food chain. He also worked in Arizona and Florida before returning to Illinois.

“Over a decade ago, I came back to the Peoria area and founded RDC Companies with two partners,” Matthews said. “RDC was responsible for developing Wal-Mart, Lowe’s, and surrounding retail at Riverside Subdivision in East Peoria, and eventually evolved into EM Properties, Ltd, a company wholly owned by myself, specializing in retail/office development and management.”

Being integrally involved in the Riverside Subdivision development, Matthews saw how its progress affected the city of East Peoria not only aesthetically, but economically. Sometimes called the “Donald Trump of East Peoria,” Matthews’ original intention in starting his company was to develop retail properties in and around East Peoria to increase sales tax dollars and generate higher real estate taxes for the city.

“At the same time, these projects would help to change the face of East Peoria, providing retail shopping and dining for residents of the city and surrounding communities, providing jobs for residents and creating new and interesting venues from areas not formerly visited by the public,” Matthews said. “This vision has matured to include office and hotel development, both of which complement the retail expansion that has occurred in the area.”

EM Properties specializes in quality, build-to-suit development and redevelopment of single and multi-use commercial properties, principally for retail sales, restaurant, and office use.

“I work closely with my in-house staff and other carefully selected professionals to furnish clients with the high level services they deserve, including project management (design, engineering, governmental approvals, scheduling and supervision), finance and accounting (budgeting, estimating and entitlements), and state-of-the-art computer generation (CAD, graphic and motion imaging),” Matthews said. “We do not broker or list properties for sale unless they are our own, and we are actively involved in the management of each of our developments.”

Matthews owes some of his success to people who have put much time and effort into the company.

“We have been lucky to compile a very loyal, professional team which can also be considered a second family,” Matthews said. “I have also been fortunate to establish a relationship with the City of East Peoria’s staff and council, who share this vision of creating a new face for East Peoria. Finally, I have the unwavering support of my wife, Rocio Matthews, who is patient with the roller-coaster schedule we keep and consistently offers excellent ideas for our development projects. I consider my relationships with my wife, my staff, the professionals with whom I work and the city as the key ingredients to our continued growth.”

The success that EM Properties has experienced has called for an expansion of the company’s employee numbers. In the past, a typical year would include the commencement and development of one or two major projects. This year, and moving into the next, the company has no less than nine projects in the works. Since its inception, the company has grown from what was basically a one-man operation to a fully-staffed company able to address almost every aspect of commercial real estate development.

Matthews has also seen the East Peoria area expand throughout his real estate career. In the past ten years, East Peoria has increased sales over $200 million, not including revenue generated from the local gambling boat. John Q. Hammons, one of the most preeminent hotel developers in the country, is building an Embassy Suites and anchoring the $65 million development, including a conference center and two restaurants, in what once was an economically-depressed area.

“GEM Terrace is a five-story office building under construction on the hill across Main Street from Kohl’s,” Matthews said. “Its presence on the hill and the view from the surrounding streets, including I-74, are literally changing the aesthetics of the entire area. Being a part of this dream come true is absolutely the most rewarding aspect of my career.”

According to Matthews, the biggest misperception of the commercial real estate industry is the ease with which a retailer will commit to a location.

“I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve received phone calls or emails suggesting a certain retailer or restaurant be brought to the area. Invariably, the caller will say something like ‘Come on, Gary, you brought us Kohl’s, why not a Cheesecake Factory, or a PF Chang’s?’” Matthews said. “The Kohl’s project took several years, hours and hours of diligent research and too many agonizing meetings to count before it even became a possibility, much less a reality.”

However, through his previous experience in retail, Matthews knows what a retailer is looking for when choosing a location —access and visibility—both of which East Peoria can boast of having.

“The most challenging aspect of my business itself is selling East Peoria as the place to be,” Matthews said. “With a population of only 23,000, the city is often passed over by companies and retailers as too small. My job, then, is to help them understand what our location can provide. Although the city itself is small, its easy access and location adjacent to Interstate 74 and its proximity to surrounding communities make it an ideal location for retail, restaurant and office space.”

Matthews also wants people to know that commercial real estate endeavors are based on whether or not a company feels that the area has the appropriate market for its industry.

“Commercial real estate development is market-driven,” Matthews said. “You can offer incentives and provide alternatives to attract a retailer, but the bottom line remains the desires of the retailer or office tenant. We cannot artificially create a need.”

Future plans for EM Properties include keeping their technology up-to-date and diversifying their ventures. With more current technology, EM Properties will be able to gather information about prospective retailers and secure demographic information for a specific location much more easily than ever before.

“Although I am now and always will be a firm believer in hands-on, personal communication, I am realistic enough to know that technology is the key to securing the most accurate, up-todate information” Matthews said. “As for the field of commercial real estate itself, I see increased competition from area communities who realize the benefits of increased revenues which can be reaped from market-driven development. More and more communities will be investigating the use of financial incentives, including bonds and tax increment financing initiatives in their attempts to attract retail to their area.”

However, through all of his success, Matthews still just feels honored to be able to benefit his community.

“Being able to work with a creative community like East Peoria and its forward-thinking leaders, we have been successful in putting some beneficial projects together,” Matthews said. “You have to remember, East Peoria is a community of only 23,000 people, a number well below the radar of most national retailers, but its location is ideal for retail growth. If it isn’t already obvious, I love this community. I am a firm believer in and supporter of East Peoria and the Peoria area in general. I plan and hope to be part of its development in the future. I feel it is my responsibility to help continue what we’ve started.” IBI