Speaking as the publisher of a local publication, we are always on the hunt for the new, unique and interesting things happening in central Illinois. What sets us apart from other cities and regions? What will make a good story?
These things that make us unique, by definition, cannot be found in every community around the country. Not every city can boast of a Fortune 50 company in its downtown, a museum on its riverfront, or a medical community that grows by leaps and bounds every year. Not all cities have a minor-league ballpark, an expansive civic center or a Madison Theater. We are fortunate for this great river of ours, the historic buildings in our Warehouse District, and the community of entrepreneurs and local businesses with their own distinctive personalities. These are the things that make us great.
Indeed, this focus on our region’s unique assets was the driving force behind the creation of Focus Forward CI in 2012. How can we develop an economic development strategy to harness and leverage these things? Though its charge is very different, Peoria’s new downtown development corporation (DDC) will build on a similar, overlapping foundation. Broad regional growth and focused downtown development can go hand in hand; ideally, we are all rowing in the same direction. I enjoy exploring other cities, and as I encounter their unique amenities, I often ask how we could adapt and apply those concepts here. The DDC may be one of those things. DDCs have revitalized downtown areas in cities across the country—look no further than Des Moines for a prime example. According to consultant Brad Segal, Peoria may be the largest American city without one—a distinction that will soon fall by the wayside.
I’m excited about the development of the Warehouse District. My wish list would include well-lit parking, pedestrian-friendly walkways, interesting shops and restaurants, unique streetscapes that change with the seasons (think Chicago’s Magnificent Mile), loft and condo living, green space for walking our canine friends, and community gardens (In Boston, there are waiting lists for plots.). It seems plans are in the works for many of these things.
I remember coming to downtown Peoria as a child—it was a treat to come to the “big city” to shop, eat and be entertained. Over the years, our downtown area has lost some of that luster, like so many downtowns across the country. Yet it’s encouraging that we are once again focused on developing that strong urban core. If you’ve been to Sugar, you can begin to see how this just might work.
When it comes to development, there are so many moving parts: financing and tax incentives, politics and governmental red tape, private property issues… the list goes on. Change will not happen in a day or a year, but it’s on the horizon. “We’ve got the assets in place,” says Bill Cirone, who helped spearhead the DDC’s creation. “All the ingredients are there to make this a tremendous success.” It will be up to us to build on them. iBi