For me, it’s the skyline.
Every time I come back from Chicago, or even home from a trip to Morton, I love that moment along I-74 just past the Pinecrest exit where the road slightly bends north and downtown Peoria comes into view. The river, the Murray Baker Bridge all lit up, and the buildings of downtown all greet me.
It reminds me of how lucky I am to live in a community that is both big town and small city, and inspires me to work to convince my own friends and neighbors of just how good it is here and to share our collective story with the rest of the world.
I’m a big city kid. I grew up in the Los Angeles suburbs and lived in Chicago, Denver and even London for a short time. If you don’t count college, Peoria is the smallest city I’ve ever lived in. But going on my 20th year here now, I’ve lived here longer than I have anywhere else — including my hometown.
I didn’t move to Peoria to further a career in government service and economic development. In fact, I don’t think I even knew what economic development was until my first day on the job at the City of Peoria. (And there is a joke in there about how I still might not know much about it.) But I was lucky enough to work under Craig Hullinger, then the city’s director of economic development.
Craig’s favorite quote was from Daniel Burnham: “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will not themselves be realized.” It was Craig who built on the vision of developers like Kert Huber and Pat Sullivan to develop the city’s Warehouse District plans in 2007. Over the next 11 years, I had the honor of getting a front row seat, and occasionally getting in the game, for the transformation of the once blighted and vacant outskirts of Downtown Peoria.
‘Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood’
It started with public investment. Nearly $25 million in local, state and federal dollars helped to build the frame: the streets, sidewalks and other public spaces.
The private investment became the picture. The vacant (and spooky) Fleming Potter building became Persimmon Lofts. A building used to store restaurant equipment became Cooperage 214. A foreclosed property turned into Sugar Wood Fired Pizza. An old ice cream factory (that was missing its roof!) became Thyme. And an adult bookstore was reborn into Zion Coffee.
Over a relatively short span, we added a few hundred residential units and a few thousand square feet of retail space to an area that previously was about 20% industrial and 80% vacant. Developers such as Casey Baldovin will build on this momentum with great projects both underway and planned.
Five years ago, I left my job at the city to become the CEO of the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council. As the head of a regional entity, my focus isn’t on urban redevelopment like it once was. I will tell you that I do miss it: I miss walking through a vacant and dilapidated building with a person with just a dream and then seeing it become something completely new.
And though I don’t find myself in the weeds anymore, I still understand the importance of Downtown Peoria. Its vibrancy is certainly important for the city of Peoria, but in reality it is vitally important to the entire region. When we crafted our Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy a few years ago, we included “investments in town centers” as a key priority.
That was certainly a nod to the importance of downtowns across greater Peoria – from Havana to Washington and from Pekin to Peoria Heights. But Peoria’s downtown is the heart of the whole region, and we must collectively understand that its vitality is important to all of us. Regardless of where in the region we hope newcomers land, or where a new business might set up shop, they will all judge the strength of the region by the strength of its heartbeat.
Cities across America would love to have a riverfront like ours, to have a central business district with tenants like Caterpillar and OSF, to have a Civic Center that can play host to over 10,000 people in a weekend, and to have a burgeoning neighborhood like the Warehouse District.
We must collectively understand that Downtown’s vitality is important to all of us
That skyline sets us apart from our competition. Let’s keep working to ensure the reality on the ground is as amazing as it looks from afar.