PEORIA MAGAZINE March 2023
While some chafed at the mention of Downtown being in need of any “rescue,” most acknowledged that the city center has seen livelier days. There was almost universal agreement that a visibly healthy, vibrant Downtown is critical not just to Peoria but to the region. Here’s what we found. FIRST, ‘DOWNTOWN’ DEFINED Downtown Peoria stretches over nearly 600 acres bounded by the Illinois River and five distinct neighborhoods: the Central Business District incorporating the Main Street corridor, the Riverfront District, the Medical District including the two hospitals, the Warehouse District south to MacArthur Highway, and the Growth Cell District covering parts of the East Bluff and Near North Side. Through many ups and downs over the years, Downtown still retains the region’s highest concentration of jobs (health care and manufacturing top the list), restaurants, bars, entertainment, sports and cultural venues from the Civic Center to Dozer Park to Peoria Riverfront Museum. It’s also a hub of banking, legal services, local government and the arts. ‘PEOPLE NEED TO RETURN TO THE OFFICE’ “Every time I drive Downtown, I fall in love with it,” said Jane Scott of Jane’s Sweet Addictions, located in the former Nut House space on Main Street. “But I need foot traffic.” In conversations with scores of stakeholders, that was a consistent lament. No recent count of how many people still go into work Downtown seems to exist, though local real estate brokers say a third or more of Downtown’s offices remain dark. If that’s so and the ratio holds to total employment, that would translate to thousands of workers missing in action Downtown. The mom-and-pop operators dependent on them believe their eyes and their cash registers.
D owntown was the center of everything … The streets were thronged … People window shopped along Main Street or lined up for the Saturday shows at the Madison, the Palace and the Rialto.” Those were the 1940s and ‘50s, Downtown Peoria’s heyday. But in seemingly the blink of an eye, “the vital downtown area began to grow old and change … No longer were there massive crowds downtown day and night. No longer did the changing of the lights at Fulton and Adams bring swarms of people surging between Block & Kuhl’s and Bergner’s. No longer were there massive downtown traffic jams. This became almost a ghost town, with empty and littered streets and crumbling pavement. It was threatened with a takeover by the kinds of peripheral businesses which thrive in areas at the point of collapse.” Alas, Peoria was lucky, with “the labors and enterprises of forward-looking men and women … at its center.” They would regroup and reinvest. “Downtown has refused to die.” So observed Jerry Klein, the longtime Peoria newspaper columnist and author of a definitive local history book, Peoria! He was writing from the perspective of 1985. Almost 40 years have passed, and Downtown is at another hinge in its history. TAKING A DEEP DIVE A lot of water has flowed under those Illinois River bridges in the ensuing decades. The 1950s and ‘60s saw construction of the Murray Baker Bridge and Caterpillar’s world head quarters Downtown. The 1970s and ‘80s witnessed the implementation of the Demetriou Plan, which envisioned ‘
the Civic Center and a renewed riv erfront. The 1990s and early 2000s brought riverfront redevelopment. And firmly into a new century, Downtown leaders have turned their attentions to the Warehouse District and other reinventions, such as OSF HealthCare’s transformation of the historic Block & Kuhl building into its headquarters. In short, Downtown has not suffered from insufficient investment. Add it all up and we dare say billions in public/ private dollars have been spent in the last three decades. Since 2014, building permits totaling $300 million in esti mated private investment have been issued in Downtown ZIP code 61602. Yet, something still seems to be missing. In fairness, COVID-19 emptied many a U.S. downtown, and office buildings have not returned to their previous occupancy levels in what might be a permanent shift in the American workplace. With Downtown hosting nearly 32,000 jobs pre-COVID – more than 40% of the city’s total workforce – the area had more to lose when remote work became a thing, though there has been perceptible bounce-back. Nonetheless, there were signs of Downtown decline – barren sidewalks, sparsely populated parking lots, shop closings, decades-long vacancies, pop-up homeless villages, light traffic especially on weeknights and weekends — prior to 2020. What sparks there were didn’t seem to stay lit. We explore why that is and what can be done about it in this issue of Peoria Magazine, with interviews of dozens of Downtown stakeholders – major employers, small business owners, residents, workers – who spoke to its advantages and disadvantages. We heard more optimism than despair.
MARCH 2023 PEORIA MAGAZINE 29
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