Heart of Peoria

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Metro Centre, local retailers thrive in the center of the city

Life was good in Pottstown for Bob and Katie Barth. Their business, Pottstown Meat, was doing well, they could on occasion hang a 'gone fishin' sign on the door and "things were really pretty easy."

That's why he was reluctant to rock the boat when he was approached by Marvin Goodman about opening a store and deli in the Metro Centre, in the heart of Peoria.

Then, as it often does, life intervened.

"When Mr. Goodman (Metro Centre founder) first approached us we weren't really interested in changing anything. But then my son, who at the time was a CPA in Milwaukee and doing pretty well, dropped a bombshell on me," Barth said.

"He told me he wasn't really happy with what he was doing and he wanted to come back and get back into the family business. I didn't expect that," Barth said about his son Jason. "I questioned him about it, talked about the long hours and hard work it is running a family business. But he grew up in it so he knew, and it was what he wanted to do."

So Pottstown Meat and Deli came to Metro Centre and the Barths intended to operate both places, keeping the store in Pottstown open with Bob and Katie at one and Jason at the other. But when the economy tanked it became too difficult to operate both stores, so Pottstown became only the company's production center.

The Metro Centre store, meanwhile, grew. Bob said he believes being located in the very heart of the city has been a key factor. In five years at Metro business has close to doubled.

"Our hearts will always be in Pottstown," said Barth, whose grandfather started the business more than 100 years ago. "But it's here, too. We still have a lot of our old customers who come here now and we've gained a lot of new customers."

When Bremer Jewelry moved from University Plaza to its present location at 4707 N. University St. in 1999, being in the heart of Peoria was not just the chief consideration, said owner Ronda Daily. "It was the only consideration. We never thought about going anywhere else. We knew it would be incredibly important to stay in the heart of the city because our customers wanted us to be there," she said.

That move occurred before the retail explosion to Peoria's far north or along the riverfront in East Peoria, but it would not have mattered, Daily said. "That explosion didn't hurt any of us here because this is a great part of the city and University and Glen is just about the busiest intersection in the city. It is so centralized here and we're not really mall people," she said.

Daily said she believes jewelry stores are, for the most part, destination stores rather than retailers that count on browsers becoming buyers. That's especially true for those who want a jeweler they can commission to do custom-made pieces, as Bremer has always done.

"A lot of our customers are bridal, so they are younger people who will first do a lot of research on the Internet and decide then where to go," rather than window shop and hope they spot something they like, she said.

Restaurants are often destination points, as well, and that's why being in the heart of Peoria has been a good thing for The Fish House at 4919 N. University St., said general manager Justin Waldschmidt, son of restaurant founder and owner Gary Waldschmidt.

"This has always been one of the busiest intersections and corridors in the city and we thought it was important we have that kind of traffic while still being close to residential areas. It has worked out great and business is still very good," Waldschmidt said.

"When people are deciding where to go, they know they don't have to go very far in any one direction to get here and this is familiar territory."

"We still pull people from all over the area because of our reputation and quality, but the people in the heart of the city are our regulars and always come back," he said.

Much has stayed the same at The Fish House since it opened Jan. 2, 1976, including most of the menu, he said. "Our customers know what we have, they know our employees and our employees know them. We have three employees here who have been with us since the day we opened almost 36 years ago. That's almost unheard of in the restaurant business," Waldschmidt said.

Like Pottstown Meat and Deli and Bremer Jewelry, the holiday season is busy for The Fish House. It opens its fish market at the rear of the restaurant every day between Thanksgiving and New Year's and it sells a lot of party trays along with gift certificates.

Being in or near the heart of the city appealed to Marvin Goodman so much he built an entire shopping center in that location in the mid-1970s. The Metro Centre not only has expanded since then, it is thriving, with almost all locally owned tenants among its offerings.

Eric Brinker, the grandson of the late Goodman and now Metro Centre president, said there is little doubt in his mind the center's location is the reason. "It's really the anchor to the city and it's critical for it to stay vital. The largest population density in the city lives within three miles of Metro Centre," he said.

"My grandfather was always proud of the fact he could say we were in the heart of Peoria. He knew that's where the action was. It's still that way, for the most part. It's easy to get here and it's pretty much the same distance and travel time from any place in town," Brinker said.

"We have very strong tenants and we are full. There's not much turnover here," he added.

Brinker said Metro Centre has a lot of specialty retailers, the kind that are more destination stores than places people browse. While Metro welcomes browsers and certainly gets its fill of them on weekends, it gets shoppers who are coming for a certain store. Not only is it important they can get there easily, but it's a shopping center where shoppers can park right in front of their destination. "That's a big deal in bad weather, especially in the cold when people are Christmas shopping," he said.

Brinker and the other retailers in the heart of Peoria have had to deal with road reconstruction the last few months as the city rebuilds the intersection of University and Glen and some of those streets leading to the intersection.

That intersection averages more than 46,000 vehicles through it each day.

The construction was completed earlier than originally planned and the retailers say it didn't hurt business much but they are ready for it to finish before the holiday traffic gets started.

"We get a lot of younger customers who are looking for wedding jewelry and they are not put off by the construction. Then again, not many customers are if our store is where they want to go. As long as they can get here, that's all they care about," Daily of Bremer Jewelry said.

Waldschmidt at The Fish House said there have been times when the construction caused some customers to go elsewhere for dinner, especially those evenings when the city was doing paving work. "It's going to be beautiful now that it's finished and it will help with the holiday season coming," he said.

Brinker said he believes the construction work will also draw more retailers and restaurants to Metro Centre and the heart of Peoria. "Even more than it already was, it will be the place to be in Peoria," he said.

He said the city's decision to spend millions of dollars to rebuild that intersection and make it better for traffic and safer for vehicles and pedestrians shows it also believes it is a critical part of the city.

"The city did a great job with it and with keeping us informed along the way. A person always feels better when driving on new roads and it makes the surroundings seem better and newer, also. That can't do anything but help all of us," Brinker said.

"People complain about the city a lot, but I think it should be commended in this case."

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