Welcome to Peoria Magazine’s March edition, dedicated to the subject of reviving Peoria’s Downtown.
I come at this issue from the perspective of the young, raw newspaper reporter who moved to Peoria in January 1985, when it was the embodiment of America’s Rust Belt. Unemployment was double-digit. Local bumper stickers posed the question: “Will the last person leaving Peoria please turn out the lights?”
Yet Downtown was hoppin’. We’d work the circuit from Sully’s Pub — bless its soul — to Spirits at the Pere to Rumors at the Ramada, if memory serves, partaking in drink and dance along the way. Live music rocked the block on Main Street and elsewhere Downtown until 4 a.m.; I must confess to ringing a few of those closing bells. The Madison was still open then and about to serve up some serious prime-time comedy. Riverfront development hadn’t happened yet but the late, great River Station offered “destination dining” before the term was coined. We’d walk from place to place in the wee hours and never feared for our safety.
I wasn’t yet sure I’d made the right move, professionally speaking, but I thought, “At least I’ve landed in a fun place.”
If there’s one thing Peoria has proved over the decades, it’s a gift for reinvention. The economy recovered and new bumper stickers were printed: “Leave the lights on — I’m staying.” I was one who did, married, made this my home, and here I am still, 38 years later.
Today I see pockets of progress Downtown, but none fully hitting their stride. Those can’t-miss nightspots are gone, along with several corporate headquarters. Pedestrian traffic can be non-existent. A Courthouse Plaza once alive with food carts and music has gone largely silent. Some prominent buildings have been vacant for decades.
To be sure, COVID made a ghost town of many an American downtown. But even before then, it was as if someone had punctured Downtown’s balloon, letting the air out slowly.
Friends may tell you I’m a realist. I like to think I’m an optimist, when warranted. I see the Warehouse District, RiverFront Farmers Market, places like Ardor Breads, RC Outfitters and OSF HealthCare’s new headquarters, and I’m hopeful.
What gives me confidence are the nearby downtowns that have been restored to life. We profile Uptown Normal in this issue. Peoria Heights has its popular Restaurant Row. Both prove there’s more than one path to the Promised Land. In Normal it was a top-down, town-driven approach with significant taxpayer investment. In the Heights, it was a more organic, bottom-up metamorphosis. I’m partial to the latter, but in a downtown of Peoria’s size and substance, it likely will be a combination.
Peoria has its own encouraging experience. Herein is a history lesson on the Demetriou Plan, launched in the 1970s. Downtown looks and feels the way it does today — with the Civic Center, RiverFront, Twin Towers, etc. — largely because of it. Unlike so many Peoria plans before and after, it actually was implemented.
My intent is not to lionize or mythologize those previous leaders, but give them this: They knew what they wanted and they went after it. Moreover, they got many Peorians to row in the same direction, a critical component that too often has eluded us.
Two other things:
First, Angelos Demetriou’s mantra was this: “Without beauty, a city has nothing to keep you.” Sweep a sidewalk, plant flowers, water and maintain them — small investments, big returns. Dress for success before you become one. If we don’t show pride in this place, why should anyone else? There’s no reason Peoria can’t brag the most beautiful downtown in downstate Illinois.
Second, “we have a bit of an inferiority complex,” said elected official/attorney Stephen Morris. “Peoria has a lot to offer.” All of us can be better ambassadors for the place we call home. Start from an honest place, yes — Downtown has room for improvement — but move forward constructively from there.
Finally, we applied a team-reporting approach to this issue, interviewing dozens of Downtown stakeholders. I don’t think anyone has done a deeper dive. I am very proud of this staff.