Charles Dobbelaire has been mayor of East Peoria since 1999. Previously, he was a city commissioner from 1975 to 1999. His career with Caterpillar included positions in the Peoria Proving Ground and Marketing Support Services. Additionally, he operated Roller Gardens Skating Rink, and he was a subdivision developer for 15 years. Among his community service, Dobbelaire is currently an East Peoria Chamber of Commerce board member, president of the Heart of Illinois Mayors' Association, a past member of the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission, and a Heartland Water Resources Council board member, among many other activities. Dobbelaire and his wife, JoAnn, have four adult children.
Tell about your background, schools attended, family, etc.
I was born and raised in East Peoria. My father and 38 other relatives all emigrated from Holland in 1912 and settled in northern Minnesota. During the Depression, my father moved to the Peoria area, where the economy was relatively good, and established an auto body shop. He also owned and managed rental housing and became a residential subdivision developer. When I was 11, my father and mother built the Roller Gardens roller skating rink next to the old East Peoria City Hall. It opened for business in 1952. My father continued to develop subdivisions, and my mother concentrated on raising my younger brother, three older sisters, and me. We were all involved in the family businesses.
Besides attending school, I operated our CAT equipment to clear paths for roads and to excavate basements. This experience taught me a lot about land development. Working at the Roller Gardens taught me a lot about people. After graduation from East Peoria High School, I continued to develop subdivisions and work at the Roller Gardens, as well as work for Caterpillar as a research and development test operator at the Peoria Proving Ground. I attended classes at Illinois Central College and was promoted to Caterpillar's Marketing Support Services. In this position, I traveled to dealers' and customers' job sites inside and outside the country to evaluate the productivity and operation of CAT machinery. I retired in 1998 so I could devote my full attention to being mayor and ushering along redevelopment of the former Caterpillar manufacturing site and our riverfront.
How did your previous career help prepare you for your role as mayor?
I thoroughly enjoyed working for Caterpillar. It's a great company with wonderful, knowledgeable people. While working at Caterpillar, I was constantly meeting and talking with new people, just as I'm expected to do as mayor. I enjoy my role as an ambassador for the city, and I never tire of making new acquaintances. My wife says I know no stranger. My Caterpillar experience, coupled with my work at the family's businesses, taught me the value of a positive, "can do" attitude-even when working long hours to get the job done.
Tell about your current position as mayor of the City of East Peoria.
I was first elected Mayor in 1999 and again in 2003. I served on the city council as a commissioner for 24 years before becoming mayor. I first became interested in city government in 1974 when I left the family businesses and went from working 68 hours a week to working only about 40. Since City Hall was located next door to the Roller Gardens all those years, I came to know the mayor, commissioners, and many of the staff. Many of these individuals asked me to run for office, which I did. As mayor, I'm the chief executive officer and generally set the agenda for the city. East Peoria, however, is one of the few cities in the state that still has a commission form of government. This means the other four members of the council have executive authority over their respective departments. All of us make a concerted effort to respect the domain of the other council members. Although the commission form of government is sometimes assailed as being out of date, current and past East Peoria commissioners believe our form of government works well for our community. Nevertheless, I think every elected city official would agree that more important than the form of municipal government is the culture that's evolved on the city council. During council meetings, members don't seek to upstage or embarrass their colleagues, or, for that matter, the staff. We have our policy disagreements, and none of us are totally immune from political pressures, but my job as mayor has been extraordinarily enjoyable because of the professionalism of council members with whom I've served.
Currently, I serve as a part-time mayor. That doesn't mean I don't work 40 or more hours many weeks. The part-time status, however, eases my conscience when I do take some time off to be with my family. The number of meetings and other events the mayor of a city as dynamic as East Peoria must attend can be overwhelming. One serving in the position of mayor must learn to prioritize mayoral duties and be willing to forgo many other activities. Because East Peoria doesn't have a city manager form of government, the mayor is more of a focal point. Fortunately for me, we have a talented and hard working city administrator and several outstanding department heads who make the mayor's job easier. Dennis Triggs has also played a vital role in our city's development. I appointed him as lead person on major developments, and he's my most trusted advisor.
What do you enjoy most about public service? How would you encourage others to become involved in government?
What I enjoy most about public service are the people. Since I was a young boy I've always enjoyed contact with people-talking with people, developing consensus, and moving forward to improve the community. When I think about it, among the people I've come to know through public service are countless citizens, many elected officials from other communities, legislators, professionals, developers, business owners and managers, media representatives, and persons from two very special categories: employees and volunteers. East Peoria has been able to provide very competitive compensation for its employees. Consequently, we attract and retain outstanding employees in all of our departments. But it's dedication to the community that leads so many of our employees to perform above and beyond the call of duty. Then there are the volunteers. How could anyone not find great enjoyment in leading a city with such incredible volunteers? As the city prepares for the Festival of Lights 20th anniversary celebration, I think of those who work year round to prepare floats for the parade and Winter Wonderland. While the festival is the epitome of volunteerism, there are many other volunteer organizations with which East Peoria's mayor has the privilege to work.
Whenever I have the opportunity, I encourage others, especially young people, to become involved in local government. I point out public service can be very satisfying and the quality of local government has a direct impact upon the quality of life in a community.
Tell me about some of the new development in the past decade in East Peoria. How has East Peoria changed in the past 20 years?
The face of East Peoria has changed dramatically over the last 20 years. First, I want to point out that as remarkable as some may find these developments, what's even more noteworthy is the change in attitude. Over the last couple of decades, East Peorians have become more confident and have grown prouder of their community. It's no longer just the government; the public now also dreams big. Successes have given rise to high expectations.
The foundation for change was laid almost 30 years ago. Shortly after I was first elected to office in 1975, the city started in earnest to implement a comprehensive downtown redevelopment plan. Under Mayor Jim Ranney, we were one of the first cities in Illinois to adopt tax increment financing. We purchased the old, two-story brick and clapboard buildings around the "Four Corners" to demolish them and redevelop the area for the new retail shopping at the corner of Main and Washington streets. Many people don't recall this was a highly controversial and emotionally laden undertaking. We repeatedly had to resort to eminent domain litigation to acquire not only commercial, but residential property as well. The city was truly on the cutting edge when it came to urban redevelopment. By the mid-1980s, East Peoria was developing a reputation as a community that could get things done.
During Mayor Dodson's administration, East Peoria saw an opportunity to be designated as a docking site for a riverboat casino and worked hand-in-hand with the original owners of the Par-A-Dice to secure a license. The city then partnered with Diane Cullinan to develop Eastport Marina and Harbor Pointe. City-owned Eastport is the finest marina on the Illinois River, and the Harbor Point residences and the nearby dining facilities offer amenities that, a few years earlier, people wouldn't expect to find in our city. Before the marina was completed, work began on EastSide Centre, Mayor Giebelhausen's inspiration. An abandoned gravel pit has become what many visiting competitors describe as the finest athletic complex at which they've played. So long as our own citizens, especially our youth, have priority use, we're pleased for EastSide to continue to draw overnight visitors from around the country.
Following the completion of EastSide Centre, the city again turned its attention to the riverfront. Working with private developers, we facilitated the acquisition of the long abandoned Wallace Station and the development of Riverside Center. We retained ownership of the old power plant's riverfront and continue to improve the riverfront park. In fact, the city owns a great deal of the riverfront, having purchased from CILCO the large parcel adjacent to and north of the Murray Baker Bridge. Likewise, the city purchased a couple of years ago from Caterpillar the parcel adjacent to and south of the Michel Bridge. Paradoxically, much of the city's motivation for improving the river area near the Michel Bridge arises from an ambitious vision for the vacant land that was the site of the original Caterpillar manufacturing operation. We believed if the Caterpillar site was to be redeveloped to its maximum potential, the gateway to the city from Peoria needed to be improved. Consequently, today there are no longer any deteriorated or obsolete structures between the river and Riverfront Drive.
ICC continues to upgrade the skill and knowledge base of the area's work force, and its main campus continues to evolve into one of the jewels of central Illinois. Also, through Sen. Shadid's efforts, we've been able to widen a significant portion of Illinois Route 8/East Washington Street between East Peoria and Washington. Look for retail development along this corridor, especially at Farmdale Road and adjacent to the new East Peoria Expo Center. Future residential development is planned along Centennial Drive in the vicinity of ICC and Quail Meadows Golf Course and in the vicinity of Springfield and Muller roads.
People who've worked with the City of East Peoria say it's a positive experience. How does the City of East Peoria encourage development?
Perhaps the reason people who've worked with East Peoria report it was a positive experience is that if we're presented with a possible development we believe could benefit the community in the long term, our staff is directed to try and figure out how to make the project a reality. We appreciate developers and other entrepreneurs willing to invest in our city and actively work with them to overcome hurdles. For smaller projects, we've established a "one-stop shop" where those seeking to build can get their questions answered and make the necessary filings without visiting several different departments. We're flexible when we can be, without adversely impacting neighboring properties or causing a loss of city revenue. We've offered incentives for development with two important criteria in mind: the project has to be one that will clearly benefit the community, and it must generate enough revenue for the city to offset the cost of any incentives offered. On a personal level, we seek to make persons looking for a site to locate a new venture feel welcome.
Explain the management structure for the City of East Peoria: city council, Fon du Lac Park District, etc.
The mayor and the other four commissioners are all elected at large at the same time; all other city officers are appointed. Even though the commissioners have executive authority over one or more departments, each department has a department head. The city administrator coordinates all departmental activities. The Fon du Lac Park District is a wholly independent governmental entity whose boundaries aren't coterminal with the city. Nor are the city boundaries coterminal with East Peoria Community High School or any elementary school district. Besides East Peoria Elementary District 86, all of Robein School District and part of District 50 lie within the city.
The city has been very fortunate to have the kind of relationships with the school districts and the park district that made possible the intergovernmental agreements necessary to make EastSide Centre and Eastlight Theatre succeed. The city and the park district cooperate in many ways that provide efficiencies and save taxpayer dollars. The city has shared revenue with the school districts in the past and has pledged to raise sales tax for the next calendar year to provide some relief for the financially strapped school districts.
What's the long-range strategic plan for the City of East Peoria?
My expectation is the city will continue to spur economic development with an increased emphasis on creation of quality jobs and that this effort will be made in a larger regional context. Our planning commission just completed an update of the Comprehensive Land Use Plan. Because the city now has available services, products, and amenities that simply weren't available in East Peoria 20 years ago, the city likely will tend to be more selective as to the projects it supports and more demanding in terms of the quality and aesthetics of any new construction.
What's the most important project/idea the city needs to focus on to achieve its long-term goals?
Several years ago, the city retained consultants to analyze the opportunities for the vacant Caterpillar site. As we reviewed the consultants' report, we began to recognize the long-term health of the city called for an economic restructuring. I believe East Peoria and the entire metropolitan area will loose vitality if we fail to take the steps necessary to be a player in the new knowledge-based economy. I don't want East Peoria to rely upon only manufacturing and retail service jobs. Creating the environment that attracts high technology employers and the entities that service them is a long-term undertaking. We're grateful for the employment Caterpillar offers within our city. We welcome some of the quality retail in the process of locating in East Peoria. We're pleased we continue to expand the tourism segment of our economy. But the most important idea on which we must focus is preparing for the new knowledge economy. That, frankly, is why I'm an ardent supporter of the Peoria NEXT regional initiative.
How has East Peoria changed since the Par-A-Dice Hotel Casino? Increased tax revenue, employment numbers, housing starts, hotel occupancy, etc.?
East Peoria is fortunate that when the local investors sold their interest in the Par-A-Dice, they sold to a corporation with a reputation in the gaming industry for integrity and maintaining its properties. We're optimistic that if the general assembly would allow the large tax increase imposed a few years ago to expire, as provided under the current legislation, Boyd Gaming will again invest heavily in the East Peoria operation. Because competitors from neighboring states realize a much higher level of profit due to a much lower tax structure, revenues for the Par-A-Dice are down. Consequently, local gaming tax revenues during the 12-month period ending June 30 were down about 8.4 percent from the previous 12-month period. This decrease, of course, impacts Peoria as well. East Peoria is the only city in the state that shares local gaming tax with another city. During the past 12 months, each city received $4.162 million in local gaming tax. East Peoria uses the tax to finance capital projects-not to offset operational costs. Par-A-Dice currently employs nearly 1,000 persons. There are so many variables that it's difficult to measure how Par-A-Dice impacts hotel occupancy or the number of housing starts. We do know Par-A-Dice has a very positive impact on the entire metropolitan area, and it's the number one tourist draw.
It's been said that Peoria and East Peoria compete with each other for development. How do you encourage a spirit of cooperation and regionalism?
We must constantly remind ourselves and each other that a rising tide raises all ships. We must not react when elements of the media try to spice the story by highlighting one community's success at the expense of the other community. We should refrain from initiating efforts to entice a business located in one community to the other. But we must also understand it's better to keep a business in the metropolitan area than have it leave. I believe East Peoria must understand that Peoria is, and will remain, the major urban city and that a strong Peoria is absolutely critical to the future of East Peoria. I believe Peoria must understand that not every project of regional significance must occur in Peoria for Peoria to benefit. These understandings must be shared by the business community as well as by local governmental officials. As in any relationship, we must not overreact to occasional shortsighted, disparaging comments sometimes made publicly, but more often privately. In the final analysis, we can't afford not to cooperate because the competition in other parts of the state and the country is smart enough to join forces with its neighbors. We must, of course, be supportive of companies and individuals in the metropolitan area committed to regionalism. Caterpillar Inc. and Jim McConoughey of the Economic Development Council for Central Illinois come to mind. I'm an active member in several groups promoting cooperation within this region, including the Council of Governments, the EDC Executive Committee, Mayor Ransburg's Greater Peoria Vision 20/20, the Tri-County Planning Commission, and the Heart of Illinois Mayors' Association, of which I'm currently president.
You recently signed with the Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau to assist with marketing East Peoria. How essential is it to market the region?
There is an undeniable logic to marketing an entire region. Marketing is expensive, and whenever we can take advantage of an economy of scale, we need to do so. It isn't realistic to think smaller communities can duplicate the professionalism of the Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. It's particularly helpful to have a regional approach to marketing since the city tourism draw now extends beyond the Festival of Lights to tournaments at EastSide Centre, events at the new East Peoria Expo Center, and soon to events at the Embassy Suites and Riverfront Conference Center. I'm pleased the East Peoria City Council agreed to see how folding our marketing efforts into the PACVB impacts the city's tourism sector. Yet there are some bottom line considerations. Decisions as to whether a dollar is better spent creating an attraction like a new Festival of Lights float or marketing existing attractions are difficult. Citizen volunteers who've given an enormous amount of time and energy to the festival, the building of EastSide Centre, or the operation of its tournaments expect us to carefully analyze the return on investment. I believe the current leadership and staff at the PACVB will demonstrate the wisdom of moving toward regional marketing.
Tell us about the proposed Peoria Area Technology Park.
Peoria Area Technology Park is the name given to the approximately 68 contiguous acres of vacant Caterpillar property that was formerly the site of the original Caterpillar manufacturing operation. It's extraordinary to have such a large parcel of land near the urban center of a metropolitan area that has common ownership and is ready for redevelopment. Caterpillar Inc. owns another 20 acres immediately south of West Washington Street that's also ready for redevelopment. Caterpillar Foundation owns all of the 68 acres, except for 11 acres dedicated for roadway and infrastructure improvements. Also, another 6.7 acres was pledged for the Caterpillar Heritage Center. Rather than taking the easier course of encouraging retail development or warehousing on the property, the city council committed to bringing about a technology park. None exists in the metropolitan area. To accomplish this goal, the city recognized there were three prerequisites: Caterpillar's support, general recognition that this undertaking was of regional significance, and a new road system.
I'm happy to report Caterpillar partnered with the city to ready this property. Environmental issues have been addressed, and a "no further remediation letter" was issued. Our engineers designed the infrastructure in such a manner as to accommodate Caterpillar's needs relevant to the adjacent operations. Money for the new road system has been promised as part of the governor's Opportunity Returns Program. My sense is that there's a growing appreciation for the regional significance of the Technology Park.
But what is the Technology Park? It's a place designed to house the commercialization of new technologies and support services that such ventures need. It'll offer a campus-like setting; high-quality, redundant power; and high-speed Internet access. Technology Boulevard will dissect the park diagonally, and Heritage Drive will connect West Washington Street to Camp Street. Caterpillar Heritage Center, to be built at the intersection of Technology Park and Heritage Drive-precisely where Caterpillar began in 1925-will be owned and managed by Caterpillar Heritage Foundation. Through the finest antique Caterpillar machines in the world, the center will tell the story of Caterpillar's heritage. The Heritage Center will complement the Caterpillar component of the museum complex planned for Peoria's Sears block. As the street names imply, this is where heritage and technology intersect. Everything else about the Technology Park is destined to reflect the state-of-the-art technology.
A new not-for-profit corporation, Peoria Area Technology Park Development Corporation, in collaboration with Peoria NEXT, will have as its mission the marketing of Technology Park and the creation of an environment attractive to outside ventures and conducive to the transfer and commercialization of local technologies that graduate from an incubator space.
Will this high-tech business center be built without the Opportunity Returns money in the state budget?
Although I'd like to answer, "yes," the reality is that as time passes, central Illinois may lose a golden opportunity. The promised money for Peoria Area Technology Park infrastructure would create many jobs immediately. Studies of how to best leverage limited government resources indicate money spent on infrastructure yields the best return on the taxpayers' dollar. Here, we're turning a brownfield into a place that'll be inviting to employers who provide permanent, high-paying jobs. We're avoiding additional urban sprawl. Because we're ready and because of the job creation, I'm optimistic. I think our legislators and the governor's office know that not just East Peoria, but also the entire area, loses if the funding isn't forthcoming.
What misperceptions, if any, are there regarding the City of East Peoria?
I fear two misperceptions may still prevail. First, that East Peoria lacks the sophistication or ability to contribute in a meaningful way to the future of the metropolitan area. Second, that East Peoria is more interested in competing with its neighbors than in collaborating to accomplish great things that will benefit the metropolitan area. If such perceptions are held, it's unfortunate, and I invite those who hold them to come visit with us. To secure the future, we've got a job to do and need to get on with it in a spirit of cooperation. I hope the perception of East Peoria is that we're creative and aggressive in our efforts to improve the quality of life in our community and beyond. IBI