A Publication of WTVP

How the EDC is utilizing its resources to improve the retail climate and the arts in central Illinois

Nonprofits are intricately interlinked with other bodies in central Illinois. Partnerships between nonprofits and other organizations strengthen the community, whether through cultural enrichment, service work, advocacy or for-profit development. Nonprofits can be nimble and focused in ways that government bodies and for-profit entities cannot.

As a nonprofit entity, the Economic Development Council for Central Illinois (EDC) works to serve as the primary facilitator of focused economic growth in the region. Our staff works to recruit, expand and retain existing firms, and we rely on our eleven strategy groups to execute a great deal of the planning and visionary work. Each strategy group, comprised of volunteer members from all parts of the community, is focused on a particular industry that simultaneously relies on our region’s comparative advantages and demonstrates growth potential based on pervasive economic trends. One such strategy group, the Retail Strategy Group, is working on two initiatives that have the potential to massively improve the viability and vibrancy of the Peoria area. Though the initiatives are quite different superficially, both the proposed artist relocation program and the regional retail study are vast in scope and have the potential to impact our economic and cultural landscape.

An artist relocation program in the works could serve to vastly improve an already-robust Peoria-area arts community. According to a study by Drs. Goitein and Highfill of Bradley University, arts in the area generate more than $39.58 million annually. An artist relocation program could bolster our existing creative community and draw a bevy of new, energetic artists to our region. Specifically, the City of Peoria and a number of nonprofits are collaborating to use financial incentives and aggressive marketing to reshape the Warehouse District adjacent to downtown.

Imagine a revitalized Warehouse District, burgeoning with artists, professionals and tourists, reshaping a dilapidated section of the city into a clean, safe, prosperous destination. Through a relatively small public investment, Peoria can incentivize private investment and harness private work to repair a blighted area and enhance cultural activity in Peoria. The idea is to utilize the investment and labor of artists to reshape the Warehouse District, giving the artists a superb deal on property ownership and a big reason to bring artistic production and private investment dollars to Peoria.

Quite simply, an individual artist is offered a host of financial incentives to purchase and renovate a building or section of a warehouse, after which that individual completes the work and establishes a living space, studio and gallery. Once a number of artists have relocated, an enclave of culture and creativity is established and self-sustained through property ownership and the unique environment.

The artists benefit, but Peoria prospers as well, especially from a retail perspective. New cafes, shops, galleries, boutiques and nightlife establishments will arise to cater to the artists and their clientele, and Peoria will improve further as a tourist destination. Additionally, there will be positive spillover effects, as the adjacent downtown will flourish, sales tax revenues will increase, crime will decrease and investment in the city will grow.

The model for economic development through artist recruitment is Paducah, Kentucky, and those involved in our program are eager to learn from Paducah’s successful enterprise. Though relatively small in size, Paducah has attracted dozens of artists through its program, revitalizing a downtrodden section of the city in the process. Paducah provided national marketing for its program and offered extremely aggressive incentives to draw artists to its community. For instance, the city provided up to $2,500 for architectural services and fees, it gave 100% financing for the purchase and rehabilitation of a structure, and it sold houses to artists for little more than a song. While these incentives initially appear to border on absurdity, the program proved a success: for every dollar of public money involved in the revitalization process, 11 private dollars were thrown into the mix. As a result tourism has skyrocketed, crime has fallen substantially and the aesthetic environment of the community has grown exponentially.

While there is a great deal to learn from Paducah, any similar endeavor in Peoria will face a number of challenges, some unique to our community. For instance, our Warehouse District consists of massive 9,000- and 10,000-square-foot spaces, far too large to be renovated by individual artists. To rectify this situation, developers could get involved, refurbishing buildings and partitioning them into sections for individual artists to customize and finish. Additionally, mixed-zoning rights will need to be secured to ensure that artists can live and work in the same space. Finally, the right combination of financial incentives will need to be established to ensure that a vibrant community of artists will relocate to Peoria.

These difficulties, while significant, are not too daunting to overcome. Peoria has a plethora of resources to execute a successful artist relocation program. If smaller communities can achieve economic development through artist recruitment, a city of Peoria’s size, foot traffic and proximity to Chicago and St. Louis can surely attract enough artists to renovate the Warehouse District. Suzette Boulais of ArtsPartners, a fellow nonprofit working with the EDC on the project, states that it is critical to have focused leadership taking charge. “ArtsPartners will do its part to partner with the existing arts community and draw in new artists, but this program can’t work without the total support of our governmental and financial leaders.”

Fortunately, financial incentives are in place to make the program a success. Enterprise and TIF zones are in place, and low-interest loans are available. Additionally, artists can obtain a $7,500 federal tax credit if they are buying their first home, and the City of Peoria will provide $10,000 for down payment assistance and an additional $20,000 to refurbish the home. Finally, the Warehouse District is in the HUBZone, and new firms located there are eligible to receive credit from the government and select businesses.

Peoria has a superb artistic community, and an artist relocation program will only serve to augment the creative environment. Our existing and new artists can live together, create together, and showcase together. In doing so, Peoria can simultaneously renovate an aging area of the city and bolster our economic base, especially in the retail sector. Economic Development Council COO Vickie Clark says, “Retail is a critical piece of the economic puzzle, and an artist relocation program in Peoria will strengthen our base and aid in recruiting and retaining firms in our region. The Retail Strategy Group of the EDC will, along with ArtsPartners and civic leaders, enable Peoria to benefit from such a program.”

A regional retail study, the other major initiative of the Retail Strategy Group, is in the planning stages. Various market research companies are being consulted for quotes to compile statistical work, and there is hope that the chosen firm can connect us with appropriate retail matches for our region. A number of communities in central Illinois are involved in the study, and additional participants will receive valuable information and lower the average cost for each city. The goal of the study is to develop up-to-date retail statistical information so that our region can work to provide appropriate retail opportunities for prime locations, underserved markets and everything in between. For additional information or to participate in the regional retail study, contact Cindy Patterson of the EDC at (309) 495-5922 or [email protected]. iBi