A Publication of WTVP

The new DDC is poised to transform the heart of our city.

It truly is an exciting time for downtown Peoria! As the newly named president/CEO of the Downtown Development Corporation of Peoria (DDC), I am very excited about this opportunity. Having spent many years in Des Moines, Iowa and being fortunate to participate in the success it had in developing its downtown, I can see the future of Peoria’s downtown.

From Vision to Reality
I lived in downtown Des Moines for part of my time there. My commute was an elevator ride and one-block walk in the city’s skywalk system. I was the founding president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association of Des Moines and served on numerous boards dedicated to improving the core city. As Polk County administrator, I worked with city officials on numerous issues regarding the redevelopment of the downtown area, including housing, business relocation and retention, redevelopment of historic buildings, parking structures, riverfront development, civic venues, signage and wayfinding, as well as public transit and other issues. I can recall many discussions regarding the challenges the city faced to implement this bold vision—challenges not unlike those Peoria will face in its downtown effort.

Today, seven years after first leaving Des Moines, when I visit its downtown, I can see the reality of that vision. Most of the projects that were contemplated then have now been completed. With hundreds of new residential units, the city has continued its transformation and now bustles with people well into the evening.

One might ask why, in the face of such challenges, would a city devote so much effort to revitalizing a downtown? The answer is that in Des Moines, as in Peoria, to compete for economic development and to retain and attract a quality workforce, a vibrant downtown is essential. Regions are represented by their major cities; a strong, vibrant Peoria will benefit the entire region. Cities that neglect their downtowns will eventually see the decay of their urban core, a trend that can take decades to reverse once it has taken root.

Combatting urban sprawl makes sound financial sense for cities. The initial costs of building infrastructure such as streets, water and sewer lines—as well as the maintenance costs and supportive services they require—places a tremendous strain on city budgets, in addition to the associated environmental costs. A higher density of residents and businesses lowers the per-capita costs of government and improves the viability of public transit.

Something To Build On
The success in Des Moines is due in large part to the support of its business community, working together with civic leaders to implement a strategy to keep its downtown the center of business and a renaissance in urban living. This spring, Peoria’s business community, together with the City of Peoria, took a major step in demonstrating the community’s commitment to the downtown with the incorporation of the Downtown Development Corporation of Peoria. The DDC is committed to championing, guiding, facilitating and sustaining the development of downtown Peoria.

In my first month on the job, I have met with many individuals who are committed to downtown Peoria. I’ve been encouraged by the enthusiasm and commitment of these individuals, businesses, organizations and associations for our shared mission of continuing the transformation of the downtown. I have also heard about the challenges we will face in our efforts to redevelop the historic buildings throughout the downtown.

The good news is that none of these challenges are unique to Peoria, and all of them have been overcome in cities of our size with far less in the way of assets. Downtown Peoria is home to Caterpillar, a Fortune 50 company; OSF HealthCare and UnityPoint Health, two regional medical centers; and many other anchor employers committed to this community. In or near the downtown there are numerous centers for research and development, including the Jump Trading Simulation & Education Center, National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research, UICOMP Cancer Research Center, Peoria NEXT Innovation Center and Caterpillar Tech Center, investing over a billion dollars in R&D each year.

We have an array of exceptional civic facilities located downtown, including the Civic Center, Dozer Park, Riverfront Museum and Caterpillar Visitors Center, providing exciting experiences for visitors and residents alike. We have a beautiful riverfront, hosting many activities and attractions, and there are many organizations and associations committed to the betterment of the downtown. The City of Peoria is investing in street improvements that are improving the walkability and appearance of Washington and Adams streets, while businesses both new and established are finding a home in the Warehouse District.

The Starting Line
The question I am most often asked is: “Where are you going to start?” The common misconception is that we are stuck in a “Catch 22,” in that you cannot attract people to live downtown until the amenities of downtown living are established, while those amenities cannot be successful until the residential base to support them are established. The truth is that both can and will happen concurrently. Just look at every success story for urban revitalization: the common denominator is that incremental improvements support the next phase of development, which in turn supports the subsequent phase, and so on and so on. As to the question of where we are going to start, the answer is “where we can!”

First among them is in the development of additional residential units. Studies show that young people are drawn to dynamic urban environments; single professionals in midcareer, couples without children and empty nesters looking to downsize often seek the excitement, diversity, entertainment, proximity to work and ease of living that downtown living affords them. The Tracy Cross & Associates’ study of Peoria’s urban residential housing demand found a sustained demand for 200+ new housing units each year for the next several years. This equates to approximately 1,500 new residents within five years. Together with the growth in the downtown workforce and visitors from outside the area, this provides a strong consumer demand for the goods and services these individuals need and want.

The DDC is excited about the opportunities before us. We are committed to partnering with those who share our vision for the transformation of downtown Peoria and building on the investments that have already been made in the heart of our city, and we look forward to continuing to report on the progress of our efforts! iBi

Michael J. Freilinger is president/CEO of the Downtown Development Corporation of Peoria.