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Rated PG: Riverfront Village was worth it

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From the first announcement about Riverfront Village, which came while I was covering the business beat for the Peoria Journal Star, I felt there was something odd about the way it was received. I almost felt sorry for the developers, even though they were going to get city help on the project.

I remember thinking at the time that there wasn’t the kind of support for the project that it should have had. It always felt like the voiced support from city leaders was more or less lip service because they wanted some kind of development on the riverfront, but they weren’t crazy about what Mike Wisdom and Monte Brannan proposed.

There was opposition from the City Council, from downtown business leaders and from residents. Editorials were unfavorable. The City Council vote for the project, as I recall, was far from unanimous, even though by then the developers had already agreed to move Hooters down the street to appease those who didn’t want it front and center on the riverfront; in other words, at the foot of Main Street.

It always seemed to me that the project was ill-fated. So it wasn’t a shock to learn a couple days ago that the concrete pads that held restaurants and office buildings are going to go away. The Downtown Development Corp. has quietly put together a group of investors to buy the development rights for the property and plans to take down the concrete pads and turn the space into a park-like development.

One of the first thoughts that popped into my head was, “What took them so long?”

I like the idea of putting in a park-like development in place of the concrete. But one reason I like it is because it will fit well with everything else down there now, such as Festival Park, the CEFCU stage, the Gateway Building and its surroundings. It will give people nice space to hang after a visit to the Contemporary Art Centers or other art galleries that are in the vicinity, or after a day at the new Riverfront Museum and Caterpillar Visitors Center. It will be a relaxing spot before or after a trip on the Spirit of Peoria.

It will be a nice public place to go after – if – Caterpillar builds its new headquarters complex.

But I can’t help but wonder how many of those things would even be there if not for the development of Riverfront Village? I cannot imagine the level of concerts and events now enjoyed at CEFCU Stage or Festival Park would be as good or that the Spirit of Peoria would still be there. I have doubts the Gateway Building, which is a gem on the riverfront, ever would have been built.

The Contemporary Art Center, one of the coolest buildings on Water Street, still may not have been a strong enough draw on its own. The sculptures with which Preston Jackson has graced the riverfront probably would be elsewhere.

I’m not even sure the museum project would have happened if not for the build-up started by Riverfront Village. We might still have the remains of the Sears Block to look at.

I could go on. The point I’m trying to make is, whether you like Riverfront Village or not, it was a catalyst for much of the development that followed.

When former Mayor Bud Grieves stood up the other day and thanked Wisdom and Brannan for stepping forward more than 20 years ago and taking the risk with the development, I thought it was well-deserved.

There have always been naysayers around who oppose just about any project out there. They loath that the city will assist developers with these projects that otherwise would not happen. But if not for the efforts of the Wisdoms and Brannans and Cullinans and Beckers and Matthews, this city we love would never have gotten to where it is now and it would be stuck in a time warp. We wouldn’t be celebrating our history because we’d still be living in it.

OK, maybe that’s too much. What I’m trying to say is that we have needed these developers with the ideas and the city leaders with the guts to push forward. We’re seeing it now with the Warehouse District and it is looking great, thanks largely to some players few had heard of 20 years ago, like Jon and Angie Walker, Steve and Michelle Rouland, Kurt Huber and, of course, Pat Sullivan.  

City Councilman Ryan Spain was barely in his teens when Riverfront Village was built. Now he is the council’s chief pusher for downtown development, especially the Warehouse District.

Everything going on in downtown Peoria right now got a kick in the pants from a project that preceded it. And as far as the riverfront goes, Riverfront Village was one of the first.

When I talked briefly with Wisdom today, he said he acknowledges that people want something different on the riverfront now and he is willing to help it happen. But he said he believes Riverfront Village was worth the work and putting up with naysayers he dealt with from the start.

“I think I knew it was going to be hard from day one. It was one of those projects that was in a fishbowl. But when I’m downtown and see the number of people who are enjoying the riverfront and all it has to offer, I am glad and proud I could be part of it. It was worth it,” he said.

Yeah, it was.

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).