Some people couldn’t imagine the need for such a building 20 years ago, but now the question is: what would the Peoria area do without the Civic Center? Thanks to the vision of a group of local residents, central Illinois has had the perfect venue for sporting events, theatre and cultural events, and conventions for the past two decades.
Building the Landmark
The implosion of the Jefferson Hotel in 1978 was the official start to transforming the idea into reality, but a similar plan was actually considered long before then by forward-thinking Peorians. “According to newspaper articles found at the Peoria Public Library, the concept of a Civic Center was first proposed in the 1930s,” said Civic Center/SMG General Manager Debbie Ritschel. “But it was unclear as to the original intent of the Civic Center at that time.”
The modern idea built steam in the 1970s. “An active Peoria Downtown Development Commission, with leaders such as Dave Leitch, David Connor, and Mayor Dick Carver, created the development plan which positioned the Civic Center as the economic engine for downtown revitalization. The Hotel Restaurant Amusement tax, which is a user tax, was passed by the Peoria City Council, and enabled the original bonding to construct the Civic Center,” Ritschel explained.
At the time, community reaction to the idea was generally positive, she said, though some weren’t completely on board, and funding, as with most projects, was an issue. “The HRA taxes passed by the city council enabled not only the construction, but provided an ongoing source of revenue for capital improvements. But many people felt that should have gone to a vote of the people rather than the city council.”
Construction of the new Civic Center took several years, though Ritschel said portions of the building opened as they were completed. “In February 1982, a home and garden show in the Exhibit Hall was the first event in the Civic Center. On June 7, Kenny Rogers opened the Arena, and on September 11, a local presentation of producing arts groups opened the Theater. And with us from the very beginning has been the Farm Show, the Peoria Symphony, Opera Illinois, Peoria Rivermen hickey, and Bradley Braves basketball.”
Ritschel hasn’t read about these events—she remembers them. She got in on the ground floor with the city’s new venue, starting out in the marketing department in 1982, and working her way up to the position of general manager in 2000. “I became interested in the Civic Center through several non-profit organizations for which I volunteered. These organizations were primarily performing arts organizations, and I chose to pursue employment in this area,” she said.
Ritschel oversees the continual growth—both in number of events and guests—of the Civic Center. “In 1990, SMG was chosen as the professional management firm by the Peoria Civic Center Authority. A staff of 50 full-time and more than 300 part-time people make sure the more than 500 events hosted annually are produced to the clients’ satisfaction.”
The Civic Center’s high profile helps make it possible for its current theater tenants—the Peoria Symphony Orchestra, Opera Illinois, Peoria Area Civic Chorale, Peoria Ballet, and Illinois Ballet—to continue expanding their offerings. It also makes it easier to develop new programs, such as the popular Broadway Theater Series. “In 1982, the not-for-profit Broadway Theater League disbanded and offered all of the customers to the Peoria Civic Center, which initiated the Broadway Theater Series. Since that time, Civic Center staff has booked and marketed the annual series of professional touring Broadway performances. We continue to add top quality entertainment in the Broadway field, including 32 performances of Phantom of the Opera in spring 2002. The season ticket base continues to grow, and marketing now reaches multi-county and multi-state areas,” Ritschel said.
The Civic Center prides itself on developing a well-rounded calendar each season. “After the local producing arts groups choose their dates for their performances, Peoria Civic Center staff works with other local and touring organizations to provide a wide range of programming in the Theater. Performances such as comedy, gospel, family shows, and straight plays round out the Theater most years. Civic Center staff actively solicits local partners to bring in diverse programming, such as the India celebration in August. Without the Peoria Civic Center’s state-of-the-art technical capabilities, these performances would bypass Peoria,” she said.
Looking Back—and Ahead
Being part of the Civic Center from the beginning has allowed Ritschel the opportunity to view hundreds of events over the years, but her fondest memories were inspired by relatively recent productions. “There are many events that make up an all-time greatest hit list for me. Bringing Phantom of the Opera for a very successful run after eight years of trying is probably at the top of the list. Continuing to work with the top quality local arts groups is a pleasure, and being able to provide these arts groups with substantial checks for their financial well being through performances by the Bolshoi Ballet and Itzhak Perlman—in conjunction with the Community Foundation of Central Illinois—has also been very satisfying,” she said.
Nearly at the conclusion of its 20th anniversary year, Ritschel said the ongoing celebration has been wonderful to be part of. “The collector’s calendar kicked off the year, with those memorable photos of the Jefferson Hotel implosion. Last June, we celebrated with a luncheon that featured a video produced by the Civic Center highlighting various Peorians talking about how the plans came together to build our facility, and how important it’s become to the quality of life in our community.”
One of the biggest events marking the anniversary is still to come. “On September 29, from 2 to 6 p.m., we’ll host a 20th Anniversary Open House to thank everyone who’s supported the building over the last two decades. The day features free admission, free parking, and we’ll have the ice set up in the Arena for free skating. The end zone of the Pirates field will be rolled out so fans can try their skill at kicking field goals, the basketball floor will be open to the public, we’ll have games for the little kids, music in the Theater, and concessions available. Twenty winners will receive tickets to the event of their choice in the next year, and you won’t have to be present to win. We hope for a fun day—a celebration for 20 great years—and hope everyone can stop down for a thank you,” Ritschel said.
The anniversary is a good time to reflect on how far the Civic Center has come, but it’s also a time to plan the next steps, Ritschel said. “As we turn 20, we look toward the future and continue to discuss with our civic partners and clients how we can best serve them in the next 20 years. Capital projects necessary to keep up with technological advancements are a continuing challenge. The Peoria Civic Center Authority commissioned a feasibility study in spring 2002, which is now being evaluated. The future of the Peoria Civic Center is bright, and we look forward to hosting nearly 1 million people annually in the next 20 years.” AA!