With strategic investments and a dash of serendipity, the stars are aligning for Peoria Heights.
On New Year’s Eve of 1981, celebrations in Peoria Heights were bittersweet. Pabst announced plans to close its brewery in the small village, and all the promises of a new year were vanquished by the mass layoffs looming ahead. Coupled with the closing of Hiram Walker’s distillery and a lengthy strike at Caterpillar, the new year would be a cruel one for the entire region.
But that’s all ancient history. Since the turn of the millennium, a charming stretch of Prospect Road has evolved into a culinary corridor, with many of the area’s finest restaurants interspersed amongst specialty shops offering the latest fashions, custom jewelry, high-end gifts, local art, books, home furnishings and more. It’s all small in this downtown district, no big chains here.
The “Galena-like” feel is both present and aspirational—an existing aura that nonetheless requires cultivation to reach its potential. This vision of Peoria Heights as a boutique destination has been long in the making, but now feels very real—as essential puzzle pieces fall into place.
"I think we're going to start seeing developments on the side streets, creating a mecca of restaurants, great shops, bars, dessert places and bakeries,” restaurateur Joe Kahn told the Journal Star in 2005, shortly after opening Seven On Prospect. Thirteen years later, his words could hardly feel more prophetic.
The names have changed, as restaurants have come and gone. Seven On Prospect is now Joe's Original Italian and Martini Bar. French Toast morphed into Hearth. Chef Josh Adams of June introduced Peoria to farm-to-table; now we have Edge by Chef Dustin Allen. Noir brought tapas and survived a change of hands. Sullivan’s became The Publik House. Basta’s became Lucky’s, and then W.E. Sullivan’s Irish Pub. Travis Mohlenbrink turned Salt into Cayenne. And the list goes on, in biblical fashion.
Specialty retail has been a mainstay throughout. Although Heritage Square lost Running Central to downtown Peoria, the center is now full after years sitting half-empty—with a multi-million-dollar addition under construction. Its tenants include Pour Bros. Craft Taproom, featuring downstate Illinois’ only “pour-it-yourself” wall, which has its loyal clientele drinking far better beer than Pabst.
A multi-million-dollar addition will soon complete the original vision for Heritage Square, the commercial center at 4400 Prospect Road.
To the south, the long-awaited completion of the Rock Island recreational trail added another major amenity to the Heights’ arsenal several years ago. Along with multiple TIF districts and other economic incentives, it was enough to attract one of Peoria’s oldest businesses, Trefzger’s Bakery, to take a chance on fixing up an old warehouse and making it home. Above the bakery, the industrial chic of the Trailside Event Center draws visitors to the village year-round.
Development catalyzes development—and the Trefzger’s project is proof. With its success ensured, developer Katie Kim quickly pivoted to the three-story building that went up last year at 4500 Prospect. With the locally-sourced fare of Edge as its anchor, the Heights’ myriad of dining options expanded even further.
A half-block from the hubbub of Prospect Road, Paparazzi is one of the area’s great hidden gems. At 35 years young, the classic Italian restaurant opened its doors the same year Pabst closed down. Bruce Brown, the spirited former Peoria city councilman who runs the place with wife Lisa Mancuso, has seen it all. He’s always good for conversation. And sometimes, those chats lead to something more.
“We have enjoyed dining at Paparazzi for at least 30 years,” says John Amdall, who with his wife Sharon have become well-known patrons of the local arts scene since retiring from Caterpillar. “Bruce Brown has been talking to us casually about the potential for a sculpture walk in Peoria Heights for at least a year.”
Having helped launch Sculpture Walk Peoria a few years ago, the Amdalls were intrigued. They’d learned that a world-renowned sculptor from DeKalb, Illinois, was preparing to retire to Florida—and he was willing to part with some of his favorite works. Upon meeting with village leaders, plans came together with dizzying speed. “I think we met with them on a Monday,” recalls Peoria Heights Mayor Michael Phelan. “That Friday, Mrs. Amdall was handing us a check. The following week, our Public Works crew was in DeKalb picking up these pieces.”
“We decided to gift the Bruce White sculptures to Peoria Heights because they have a clear vision of becoming a destination,” explains Sharon Amdall. “We have confidence that they will use the sculptures wisely to enhance their economic development.”
“We're blessed in this community,” declares Mayor Phelan, rattling off a list of the village’s many unique amenities: Grandview Drive, Forest Park Nature Center, the Illinois River, the Rock Island Trail, Tower Park, and all of its shops and restaurants. “We have already become a destination for dining. But we believe we can become a destination for business travelers during the week… and a weekend destination for couples, for an affordable getaway.”
The Heights attracted restaurants organically; recent growth has become more deliberate. “We are a small, landlocked community, so we have to be strategic in the way we do things,” the mayor explains. Surrounded on all sides by the City of Peoria and the river, growth occurs not through an expanding footprint, but by building on what already exists. And with its small but mighty staff, the village can be nimble and make decisions quickly.
In 2016, the village utilized grant money to help create a master plan for its three commercial corridors. Many of its recommendations have been implemented, others are in the works, and a number of more targeted studies have followed. The Turner Center of Entrepreneurship at Bradley University was tapped for advice on economic development, which in turn led to the Heights’ selection as a semester-long case study for two cohorts of Bradley students. In short, there’s no shortage of data on the desires of visitors, the needs of residents, and the best ways to please both.
Peoria Heights has not historically been recognized as an arts community, but that could all change rather quickly. “Our job is to enhance the quality of life for the village residents,” Phelan notes. “We believe we're doing that through the addition of these sculptures and the sculpture walk we hope to create. It will also, I think, be a regional draw because Mr. White has quite a following.”
Sweet Curves in Steel
Three and a half years ago, an eye-catching sculpture was unveiled in downtown Peoria. A gift from local philanthropists George and Norma Kottemann, Bruce White’s “Portal” was commissioned as a symbolic entry point to the Warehouse District, where revitalization efforts were in high gear. Nearby, the jagged, aqua-blue teeth of White’s “Pop Up” can be admired outside the Peoria Riverfront Museum. The six new sculptures in Peoria Heights brings the total count of Bruce White pieces in the Peoria area to eight—more than anywhere else in the country.
Upon retiring from Northern Illinois University in 1996, White continued to work for decades, bending large pieces of metal to shape in his enormous DeKalb studio. Now 84, his sculpting career is winding down. He and his wife Gail put the studio up for sale, intending to head south permanently. But with limited space in Florida, several sizeable sculptures lacked a permanent home—including some of his personal favorites.
Last year, the Amdalls led a pilgrimage of interested parties to White’s studio. One particular piece, among others, caught their eye. In the seventies, the 18-foot-tall “Mobius Triangle” stood outside of St. James Cathedral in Chicago, but its base had since rusted away. “It was in my backyard, just lying on the ground,” White explains. “The [Amdalls] saw it… and they loved it.”
“An inspection showed that it was still in great shape,” adds Sharon Amdall, calling it “the sweetest curves we’ve ever seen in thick steel.” Today, “Mobius Triangle” stretches upward from its newly fabricated base in front of Peoria Heights Village Hall—2,000 pounds of freshly-painted blue steel. Two blocks away, “Love Nest III” has found a home outside of Exhibit A Gallery—a welded tubular structure that once won a prestigious award at the Art Institute of Chicago. Outside of 4500 Prospect, “Lobsters In a Box” fronts the building like a coat of arms—the flat-metal sheet casting crustacean shadows on the concrete.
Three additional White pieces—“Flattened Boxes,” “Aretes” and “Impulse”—are set to be installed in front of the old Pabst office building, at Heritage Square, and along the trail near Trefzger’s, respectively. It’s the beginning of a new focus on the arts in the village.
“We are now in the process of creating a committee that would help develop art policy in the community,” says Mayor Phelan, “how we acquire more art, and how we might attract artists… not only to live here, but to produce their wares and sell them here.”
An Emerging Tapestry
Alongside this new slate of public art, new wayfinding signs along Prospect Road highlight the village’s rich and unique history—pictorials of the past in words and pictures. Together they comprise the Heights Historical Walking Tour, made possible by the Peoria Heights Historical Society, which formed only four years ago.
This developing mosaic of public art and local history helps curate an authentic “sense of place” that’s not easily replicated. They comprise the makings of a cultural district—a destination for visitors. The tourism industry has long reported the desire of millennials to engage in a region’s arts and cultural assets, and the same is true of Gen Xers and Baby Boomers. That the Heights is already a destination for restaurants is an extraordinary foundation on which to build.
Al fresco dining has long been a Peoria Heights signature; now the village is doubling down on the concept with new streetscape seating. This spring, five platforms will be installed curbside in front of its restaurants—expanding the capacity for outdoor dining from the sidewalk into the street itself. Each can be painted, lit, decorated and otherwise customized to fit the establishment’s look and feel.
“It will provide me a chance to serve more customers in a very high-demand environment,” notes Hugh Higgins of Hearth, who hopes to secure one of the new inserts. “It also sends a great message that the village is forward-thinking and creating opportunities to enhance our strengths as a dining destination.”
Even as the village invests strategically in such amenities, other fortuitous projects have come together more serendipitously, not unlike its new sculpture walk. Just west of Prospect, the new Duryea Dog Park stands adjacent to the recreational trail. It’s the first project from Build Peoria, an organization focused on improving the Peoria area through building projects.
“When we brainstormed about projects that all of the community can benefit from—and could be built relatively quickly with the funds we hoped to raise—we started socializing [around] a dog park with the village,” explains Nick Yates, BUILD Peoria president. “We went from idea to park in 16 weeks.”
“It fits into everything we're trying to accomplish here,” adds Mayor Phelan. “And the village doesn't have a nickel in this—they raised all the money through social media and a chili cookoff. But we're going to landscape it and add water fountains in the spring.”
Meanwhile, developer Larry Herman’s apartment complex now under construction will soon bring 36 new, upscale living units to the village. Centrally located near Prospect, the trail and the dog park, it should entice any number of people who would like to live in this emerging neighborhood.
Developer Larry Herman of Grand Valley Companies is building a 36-unit upscale apartment complex on Duryea Avenue.
Hailing Critical Mass
Now eyes are turning toward the possibility of a new boutique hotel—the missing link in this chain of recent development. “If you notice our restaurants at night, a lot of times they're entertaining guests from Caterpillar or OSF or Komatsu,” says Mayor Phelan. “Pearl Insurance brings people here throughout the week… but there's nowhere for all of these guests to stay. We believe that a hotel would allow them to stay right here in the Heights.”
The remarkable success of the Trailside Event Center, he adds, has helped build critical mass for such a project. “Owners Jeff and Martha Huebner will tell you their facility is leased out for at least the next year for weddings… If we had a hotel, you could park your car, get everything you need for a couple of days, right here, and then walk over to the event center.”
Houseal Lavigne Associates, the consulting firm behind the Heights corridor study, recently issued a report on the viability of a Heights hotel. “They feel we could support 50 to 60 rooms, boutique-style, $100 to $150 a night,” Phelan says. A pair of potential sites near Prospect Road and the trail have already been identified as conducive to such a venture.
And that’s hardly the end of the Heights’ plans. Surveys conducted by Bradley students in 2017 revealed a strong public desire for more parks and community activities. To that end, the outdoor events hosted at Heritage Square last year were a promising dry run for a future full of festivals and outdoor concerts, movie nights in the park, and similar goings-on.
Marketing will be key—creating awareness of this tapestry of amenities, and continuing to build on the walkability and connectivity that distinguish this quaint, little downtown area. That means looking outward, even as it focuses inward. “We want to become more of a regional partner,” Phelan notes. “We're exploring lots of different opportunities and partnerships—laying the groundwork for the future.”
This spring, the village is planning a grand celebration to hail these exciting developments: the new sculptures and dog park, the streetscape seating, the success of businesses old and new, and all that’s still to come. Galena wasn’t built in a day, and the Heights is already on its way. “We’re very fortunate here,” the mayor adds. “Right now the stars are really aligning for Peoria Heights.” a&s
Read more about Bruce White and his works of abstraction in "Playing with Accidents," and learn more about Build Peoria, the organization behind the Duryea Dog Park, in "Building Peoria… One Project at a Time."