For the city to reach its fullest potential, it needs more people carrying out their dreams and passions.

When my wife and I moved to the Peoria area in 2011, it was, in part, for the same reasons others choose to move to Peoria: her family lives here. While Dallas offered a larger pool of jobs and better restaurants, shops, cultural amenities, etc…. it still didn’t have that.

Roughly a year and a half in, I found myself in the position of wondering whether or not I wanted to stay here. The job market as a whole was bleak, and the area wasn’t living up to my expectations. Adjusting to a new city has its ups and downs, and emotions run high when things don’t go smoothly.

While I moved because I love her, I also saw a city in need of fixing, and thought this could be a great opportunity to be part of the rebuilding. Although I had made plenty of trips to the area dating back to 2001, it was never on my radar to think of things like that. But things changed when we were living in Dallas and considering the possibility, I looked at the inner workings with a more curious eye.

Perusing real estate listings from 800 miles away, I was in disbelief that you could buy homes for less than $10,000! Crazy no doubt, these were homes in serious distress, but nonetheless, cheaper than a car I had just purchased—and I had some renovation experience. Moreover, I read through studies, articles and blogs, and got the itch so many others across the country have gotten—the one that told me I could make an impact.

Beginnings of a Movement
It’s certainly easier to think you can make an impact and talk about it than to actually make it happen. But immediately upon my arrival, many opportunities to get involved presented themselves—a combination of me looking in the right places, while saying “yes” when someone asked.

In that year and a half, I pursued many involvements I thought had a chance at making an impact in central Illinois, but nothing was making a visible difference. For someone who likes to see his work amount to something at the end of the day, I had never come across a situation like this. After organizing my thoughts in a blog called Reader Area Development (also the name of a redevelopment company I created) and planning my ideas on paper, I realized I had talked about things for far too long. I moved here to be part of the rebuilding process that needs to take place—but I was still sitting on the sidelines.

During this time of frustration, one year ago, I placed a bid on a house at auction, which would become the focal point of many months to come. Five thousand dollars and one yellow house built in 1900 later, I was filled with endless hopes that something more would eventually come from it.

I launched a crowdfunding campaign titled “Go Urban” on Indiegogo.com. Similar to projects on Kickstarter, it was partly to raise awareness of the blighted neighborhood and another part to raise money for renovations, but in general, it was to gather a group of like-minded people to get something of a movement started.

Questions, Priorities and Potential
Peoria has its problems. Most people turn a blind eye to the tough issues they can’t seem to get past. We’d often rather keep telling ourselves everything is fine and dandy, that things resemble an image of past success we barely remember.

But unlike the house-flipping shows you watch on the weekends, exorbitant profits are nearly impossible in areas where the traditional real estate market no longer functions as it should. My underlying mission was to show that although the current conditions might be deplorable, a new group of people with a new vision to revitalize these areas exists here in Peoria. It is, after all, a bounty of opportunity—where a lot of potential lies.

For a city so rich with history, you wouldn’t always know it by looking around. Urban sprawl is so rampant; it has weakened—and continues to diminish—far too many neighborhoods to name in one sentence. Priorities are so mixed-up and upside-down that it’s hard to determine what to do first and where it even makes sense to spend money.

The fact that it’s come to this point is what gives me the confidence to say what needs to be said in various circles, but also gave me the courage to move forward with something that was a significant risk. As I released the project, posted on the blog, and had various people over to see the house in its wretched state, I knew in my head what it would look like all along.

Questions of if it would be possible, whether someone would want to live in it, and what the final bill would be were constant topics of interest. To be fair, I didn’t know exactly how much it would cost, but had estimates. I didn’t know who would live in it, but knew someone would. Would it be possible? Failure to me wasn’t an option. The worst-case scenario, even if I didn’t hit my fundraising goal of $5,000 (the cost of the home): I would find a way to get it done, and the neighborhood would have one house in better condition than before. This wasn’t my first renovation, but it was the first of this nature, and of a house of this age.

The Unwritten Future
Sometimes you have to be a little crazy to see what others can’t see. In order to do something others may not believe in, someone has to take the lead. To be honest, others have inhabited the area in which I see so much potential; they’re the real pioneers. Countless others have renovated houses, advocated for change, and experienced decades of tenacity, fighting battles revolving around their neighborhoods. I just chose to raise a cloud of dust when I did it.

The house, located within walking distance of downtown in the Olde Towne North neighborhood, is a place that’s overlooked, often forgotten, and seems to be paralyzed by an inability to change. I simply thought the action of beginning the conversation would be a fresh start.

Months later, the question I get from everyone is, “Was it worth it?” Well, I can’t say yes or no, because to me, this project won’t be finished for a long time. The house, sure, it’s renovated. You can view all the pictures on my blog at readerareadevelopment.com. Did I go over budget? When someone broke in and stole pipe and wire, that was an immediate $5,000 of licensed plumbers and electricians I hadn’t planned on. My campaign was a loss before it even started, so yes, I went over budget.

The most important thing I learned was not about getting the house sold, but finding the right person to call it home. This is a very fragile neighborhood, and it takes people who are able to stabilize a place that is constantly in flux. After speaking to Kathy, one of the best neighbors I’ve had in all the cities I’ve lived, I asked if she knew anyone she’d liked to have as a neighbor. She mentioned her daughter was looking for a place to rent, and she would like her to be closer to Mom. This took me adjusting my expectations for the project and realizing that if I am to help usher in a new code, I had to be flexible. At the end of the day, the house is fixed and occupied, while my network of connections blossomed from a relatively small one to one filled with like-minded people looking to make a difference.

As far as my future in Peoria goes, it’s still very much unwritten, and that is great for people my age. I begin the New Year in a new role at a new company with LISC Peoria. In order for the city to reach its fullest potential, it needs more people carrying out their dreams and passions. Taking risks, not being afraid to fail, and sometimes falling short are all part of the experience. Being involved in so many endeavors over the past year has given me the opportunity to connect with people who understand this concept. iBi

Erik Reader is as an advocate of smart growth by way of historic preservation, complete streets and small business entrepreneurship. Reader helped start Bike Peoria and recently joined the Central Illinois Landmarks Foundation Board of Directors. He also serves on the Pekin Main Street Board of Directors and City of Pekin Planning Commission.