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Community shouldn't be cheated by Pere Marquette situation

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I cannot help but feel somehow cheated by what is going on with the Hotel Pere Marquette/Marriott Courtyard project. What worries me most is that the community is going to end up cheated.

From what I hear from people I've talked with, they are worried about that, too. Public perception is that this is getting uglier by the day.

Before I go further let me emphasize The Peorian is not taking an editorial stand on the project itself. The time for that is past. This is my column. Any opinions that are expressed are my own, not those of The Peorian, its publisher or its parent, AdCo Advertising Agency.

That said, I think the project is something needed for the entire business district. I know of nobody who thinks it will not benefit the Peoria Civic Center since it would be connected via skywalk, giving the Civic Center – still the area's top convention and meeting venue – the kind of hotel convention planners say they need before they can commit to Peoria.

It also will benefit the other new development either underway or planned in the area, including Museum Square, Bass Pro Shops and the Warehouse District.

To pull the plug on the project now, more than 2½ years into it and supposedly within weeks of being able to break ground (according to the developer, Gary Matthews) seems rather odd to me. To pin the decision to cancel the redevelopment agreement on the upcoming city budget process – there is a difference between public spending and public financing – is odd, as well.

If it is true ground can be broken by the end of the year, it could be up and running in another two years. If some other developer comes in and has to start over, I cannot imagine it taking any less than four years before it would be completed. Heck, the Embassy Suites project in East Peoria, built by Matthews with practically no opposition and during good economic times, took at least that if not longer from start to finish.

I agree the city has been patient with Matthews, but what choice did it have? Considering the economy dumped right after he announced the project and still hasn't recovered, no other developer was jumping up and down to do it. Had the city pulled the plug during the worst of the recession it would have added to its reputation of being a tough place to do business.

In my opinion this will do that, too. For the reasons stated above, for basically ignoring the construction contract already in place and for appearing to not care about a 30-year contract Matthews signed with Marriott Corp., the city isn't going to seem real friendly, is it?

And what if Marriott turns around and tells the city where it can go and then nobody else steps up to the Pere Marquette plate? Developers and tourism people will tell you Marriott is at the top of the heap in the hospitality industry and when it builds something, other development wants to be near it. "Where Marriott goes, development follows," one tourism type told me recently.

The way this has been handled has made some question who is in charge at City Hall. Hey, kudos to Patrick Urich for showing right away he will be a no-nonsense City Manager and will run the city's operations in a firm manner. But still he is employed at the will of the City Council and the perception is that he and Mayor Ardis – only one of 11 votes on the council – are taking action against Matthews without council knowledge or approval. Again, whether it is true or not that is the perception.

Now comes the threat by Matthews' attorney of a lawsuit against the city that would charge breach of contract if the redevelopment agreement is canceled. Surely the city manager knew that would happen and whether he believes the city is right or not, the amount it would spend to fight such a lawsuit would be astronomical. Will the Council be cool with that if it hasn't been consulted first?

Another problem I see is Matthews' unwillingness in recent months to talk publicly about the project. Since all this came about the past few weeks he's seemed content to issue a statement or two through press releases without taking questions or otherwise showing his hand.

Yes, he is a private developer and not an elected official or paid by the taxpayers. However, he is developing a project that will include public financing – through the sale of bonds – and I believe he owes it to the public to discuss what is going on. If he has proof he has met the requirements of the agreement he needs to show it. There is a public perception he is hiding something.

You can believe the public is already watching this, that the business community here and everywhere is following the news and forming opinions. They want and expect veracity from both sides; they deserve no less.

Paul Gordon is editor of The Peorian. He can be reached at 692-7880 or at editor@thepeorian.com

About the Author
Paul Gordon is the editor of The Peorian after spending 29 years of indentured servitude at the Peoria Journal Star. He’s an award-winning writer, raconteur and song-and-dance man. He also went to a high school whose team name is the Alices (that’s Vincennes Lincoln High School in Indiana; you can look it up).