Out of economic despair emerged a regional dining, entertainment and shopping destination
“Wait! What? Is that a bird up there? A woodpecker? It’s huge! Is it real?”
So goes a newcomer’s astonished discovery of the 6-foot-tall, 300-pound wooden woodpecker clinging to the side of the observation/water tower in Peoria Heights’ Tower Park.
The whimsical landmark, a gift of the late philanthropist, environmentalist and Heights benefactor Bill Rutherford’s Forest Park Foundation, tells visitors, residents and passing commuters that there is something different about this village on the bluff. Something that is easy to experience but hard to duplicate.
Peoria Heights is a virtually landlocked “suburb” hemmed in by the city of Peoria on three sides and the Illinois River on the other. Within its boundaries are some of central Illinois’ most prestigious and expensive homes and its most spectacular views. The leaders of this community of 5,800 embrace a common vision of where the Heights stands among its peers.
As is often the case, that vision grew out of adversity.
“What’ll You Have?”
It has been more than 40 years since Pabst Brewing Company shuttered its massive beer-making operation in the Heights. While most agree that the town has not been the same since, others also suggest that’s not such a bad thing.
Against all odds, the town that has emerged from the economic shock of 1982 has people all over the region asking, “What’s happening in the Heights?”
The answer, in a word, is: “Plenty.”
Downtown Peoria Heights along Prospect Avenue is thriving, with curb-to-curb commerce in a vibrant shopping, dining and entertainment district. People come from far and wide to experience an eclectic assortment of restaurants, pubs, boutiques, music venues and art galleries, all locally owned. The sales taxes they generate have the Village coming out of a budget year that saw a million-dollar surplus.
“We got dealt a tough hand when Pabst closed, but we’ve played that hand pretty well since then,” said lifelong resident and second-term Mayor Michael Phelan.
A glimmer of the past is the reincarnated 33 Room in the old Pabst administration building. Once the Milwaukee-based brewer’s hospitality room, it is now a privately owned venue serving up authentic Pabst Blue Ribbon, clever cocktails and an extensive collection of PBR memorabilia.
“We have a real downtown,” said Phelan “It might be small, but it’s real in the sense that there is commerce being done all day long. You see people on the streets from early morning until evening.
“I think we have one of the best downtowns in central Illinois.”
An All-In Attitude
One business owner who has seen tremendous change over his 40 years on Voss Street is Bruce Brown, proprietor, with wife Lisa, of Paparazzi Ristorante Italiano. An early pioneer of the downtown renaissance, Brown attributes the transformation of the Heights’ image to business owners, community leaders and residents working together for a common purpose.
“We’re not going at one another, we’re going with one another,” Brown said. “All of this would not be possible without the ‘all-in’ attitude that we have here.”
At the site of the former Kelly Avenue Grade School just south of downtown sits Heritage Square, a collection of modern shops surrounding a central courtyard that looks like it was plucked from the French Quarter in New Orleans.
Developer Kevin Shields became the second owner of the property in 2015. From the get-go, his vision was that Heritage Square would become the “de facto town square” — a place to meet, enjoy outdoor music and festivals, shop and relax with family and friends. Over the summer months, Pour Bros. Craft Taproom hosts a weekly concert series that draws thousands. The mix of businesses — dining, a dance studio, wine shop, investment firm, insurance agent, a purveyor of board games and a dentist, among others — keeps people coming and going all day.
City officials and merchants agree that one thing missing from Peoria Heights is a place to spend the night. While the Heights boasts its share of Airbnb options, unlike most of the communities that surround it, there is no hotel within village limits.
Several parties have shown interest, with little progress thus far.
“It has to be the right partner,” said the mayor. “The challenge is finding a place for it.”
Barb Milaccio, president of the Peoria Heights Chamber of Commerce and owner of Exhibit A Gallery, said the Chamber is 100% in support of a boutique hotel, the need for which seems to grow along with the popularity of community events such as the Heights Fine Art Fair, Taste of the Heights and Kris Kringle Market.
“I think it would be full all the time,” said Milaccio.
125 Years and Counting
Such an amenity also would come in handy Sept. 7-9 as Peoria Heights celebrates its quasquicentennial (125 years) with a car show, amusement rides, art and vendor show, the Taste of the Heights and history exhibits at Tower Park and Heritage Square. Milaccio said it will culminate with a gala event at the Country Club of Peoria on Nov. 11, 125 years to the day after the village was formed in 1898.
The party is sure to spotlight Peoria Heights’ claim as the birthplace of the first gasoline-powered car in America, built in 1883 by Charles Duryea and the Duryea Motor Wagon Company. The Heights also was once home to Rouse, Hazard and Company, a prolific maker of bicycles at the turn of the century, and Peoria Rubber and Manufacturing Company, which also built bikes and the tires they rode on. The Peoria Rubber factory was later home to The Bartholomew Company, maker of “The Glide” automobile.
It was a Glide that former President Theodore Roosevelt rode in when he declared Grandview Drive to be “the world’s most beautiful drive” in 1910.
‘Very, Very Pro-Business’
The Heights has three distinct development areas — the ACE (Arts Culinary and Entertainment) Corridor along Prospect Road, the waterfront along Galena Road (Illinois Route 29) and War Memorial Drive.
The ACE Corridor recently got a boost with $2 million in federal assistance for the design and engineering phase of a Prospect Avenue upgrade between Tower Park and War Memorial Drive. The proposed reconstruction would narrow the road, widen sidewalks, replace underground infrastructure and beautify the area with ornamental lighting and abundant landscaping.
Meanwhile, the village is set to receive nearly $70 million from the state for a reimagined and wholly reconstructed Galena Road. The thoroughfare will be widened and made safer. A key component of the project is the construction of a recreational trail with river views on the bluff side of the roadway, as the village aims to become an ecotourism destination. Meanwhile, a new trailhead to be constructed where the new McClugage Bridge span empties at Adams Street will join the existing assets of Forest Park Nature Preserve, Poplar Lane Park and Bielfeldt Park. It’s all part of a network of uninterrupted biking and hiking trails between Morton and Toulon, with the Rock Island Greenway at their center as it cuts through downtown Peoria Heights, with more than 70,000 users annually. The Rock Island Greenway is not formally identified as a development corridor but is a major part of the village’s ecotourism push.
Finally, War Memorial Drive through the Heights is targeted for significant reinvestment. Princeton, Illinois-based Beck Oil has cleared a swath of land for its 18th gas station/car wash/convenience store.
Across the street is a stalwart of the War Memorial corridor. Alwan & Sons Meat Company has been operating pretty much from the same spot (but different buildings) for almost 70 years, said Brian Alwan, one of three family members who now run the store.
“(Peoria Heights) is very, very pro-business,” he said. “They never, ever put their nose in the air and say no. They are always looking for new developments.”
A Step Back, Two Forward
Heights leadership tends to err on the side of optimism, but not everything clicks.
The last few years saw Kim Blickenstaff’s KDB Group purchasing or leasing multiple properties throughout the village — the former Pabst administration building, Prospect Mall, the Betty Jayne Brimmer Center for the Performing Arts, the Grayboy property, the Al Fresco Park site, the old Pump House — creating high hopes in the village. KDB backed off those projects earlier this year.
“It’s unfortunate that some of the things they had promised aren’t going to happen,” conceded Phelan. “We have let them know that we would be glad to work with them to achieve what they set out to do, and find other partners to bring in.”
While they wait, other projects are moving forward. Village officials have broken ground on a unique-to-central-Illinois, accessible-to-all playground in Tower Park. The Together We Play facility was the brainchild of students at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic School in Peoria Heights and should be completed before summer.
Good Tequilas Mexican Grill recently opened on Prospect Road. And from-scratch brewing is returning to the village for the first time since Pabst made beer by the barrel here four decades ago. Brian and Amber Buss recently announced that their Bust’d Brewing will start producing home-grown refreshment this spring in the former Subway building on Prospect.
“We’re very excited about our future,” said the mayor.