Beyond the Opening

Catalyzing Downtown Development
by Stevie Sigan and Jonathan Wright
Photography by David Vernon

What does the grand opening of the Peoria Riverfront Museum and Caterpillar Visitors Center mean for Peoria?

Some cities dazzle with architectural gems and towering skyscrapers; others charm with sandy beaches, snow-capped mountains or charming historic districts. But every city, no matter its size, has a distinct identity—one shaped by geography, by the unique amenities it offers, and by its people. It’s this inimitable sense of place that attracts residents—and gives visitors a reason to come and stay.

And very little can contribute to a city’s sense of place quite like a vibrant cultural and creative district, working synergistically with business interests and other stakeholders in the community. “A thriving creative sector,” writes John M. Eger, professor of communications and public policy at San Diego State University, “[is] increasingly seen as a powerful economic development asset.” With the right blend of the practical and the idealistic, downtown cultural districts can become magnets for creative economic activity—“the living rooms of whole regions,” he suggests. Such a blend might encompass what the late urban planner Daniel Burnham believed to be the ideal city: both beautiful and commercially efficient, anchored around a vibrant urban community. “Make big plans,” Burnham urged. “Aim high in hope and work.”

That’s exactly what the Peoria Riverfront Museum (PRM) and Caterpillar Visitors Center have done. On October 20th, 12 years of collaboration among its partners—Lakeview Museum, Caterpillar Inc., Peoria Historical Society, Illinois High School Association, African American Hall of Fame Museum, Peoria Regional Museum Society, Heartland Foundation and The Nature Conservancy—will showcase the fruit of such lofty ambitions.

“It’s taken us a long time to get to this point… but this is not just a couple of projects, and then [we’re] done,” says Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis. “This is going to be a new day. We’re really going to see a lot of things happening in our downtown.”

Commitments Realized

According to a report by Bradley University economists, more than 360,000 visitors are expected to visit the new museum block each year, generating between $7 million and $14 million throughout the region. Part arts and science, part history, and very much central Illinois, the 86,000-square-foot Peoria Riverfront Museum will feature a digital 3-D theatre, state-of-the-art planetarium, Illinois River Encounter gallery, expansive art exhibits, the IHSA Peak Performance Center, and “The Street,” focusing on Peoria-area history.

Adjacent to the museum, the 50,000-square-foot Caterpillar Visitors Center will present an interactive timeline of the company's past, present and future. Some of its major draws include a two-and-a-half-story 797 mining truck—with an 80-seat theater in its bed—and a simulator of a 1930s-era D8 antique tractor. Additional simulators will be available for virtual tours and photo ops, while another exhibit will set creative minds free to configure their own piece of Cat equipment—and email the plans to go. Also on prominent display will be the Caterpillar-sponsored No. 31 car, driven in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series, with a special message from driver Jeff Burton.

“We want people to be excited about the people here and what they make,” says Kathryn Spitznagle, communications manager at Caterpillar. “We also want them to be excited about the art and science that we’re bringing to the community with the PRM.” And with hundreds, perhaps thousands of community members gearing up for the grand opening, there’s no shortage of excitement on the cusp of bursting forth.

And the whole project might not have happened were it not for Caterpillar, suggests Mayor Ardis, “not just because of the Visitors Center, but also because of [its] contribution to the museum.” The Caterpillar Foundation donated $13.5 million to the museum—on top of the company’s contribution to the Visitors Center—and offers matching funds for employee donations. “If you look at the size of the referendum [the 2009 sales tax referendum that provided public funding for the project]… the Cat investment already exceeds that by $36 million-plus. That’s almost a 50-percent gain on your return that a project like this can make happen.”

“Caterpillar’s commitment was huge,” confirms Congressman Aaron Schock. “Without their significant investment… the museum project would not have taken off. I think it further cements them here for the long term, and gives a bit of stability to the downtown.”

From the start, Caterpillar’s interest in the project had nothing to do with selling product, adds Jim Richerson, the new museum’s CEO. “They built the Visitors Center because it talks about the quality of people that work for Caterpillar,” he notes. “The reason Cat built the Visitors Center with the museum is because the museum is [also] about the quality of people in central Illinois.”

People Make the Place

“We touch everyone in this community,” Spitznagle explains. “If you don’t work for Caterpillar, you know somebody who does. The primary goal for the Visitors Center is to showcase our customers, who do this amazing work every day around the world. Secondly, we want to inform and entertain our visitors. They’ll learn about our products and our people, our heritage and our future.”

It’s a learning experience that dovetails nicely with the museum next door. “The idea of building a cultural corporate classroom with Caterpillar—this has never been done,” Richerson adds. “I think it will surprise us in the coming years as to what that truly means, and the number of people it will draw to downtown.”

Indeed, the partnership is expected to have “a very positive impact on tourism,” says Sue Atherton, vice president of marketing at the Peoria Area Convention & Visitors Bureau (PACVB). “It will not only draw visitors from around the Midwest, but throughout the country… There will be a lot more activity and foot traffic downtown, and with the Visitors Center, we’ll have more international visitors.”

Caterpillar currently draws about 25,000 visitors from all over the world to its corporate headquarters and Peoria-area plants each year. Plans for the grand opening include potential visits from residents of Peoria’s sister city in Germany, as well as from China. “Already, there’s an international draw just for the grand opening,” says Spitznagle. “We want [these visitors] to be excited about Peoria. We want them to come and experience Caterpillar. Whether they know someone who works there, if they’ve worked there, or if they just appreciate the big equipment they see on the road, there’s an interest.”

For What It’s Worth

It’s the people, reiterates Richerson, who make this project one-of-a-kind—and also make it so quantitatively intangible. “What we’ve done is quite unique,” he notes. “I think the measures are going to happen in the future,” suggesting that additional visitors will carry over a vast impact to downtown as a whole.

So how do you measure the economic impact of such a development? In 2009, Bradley University economists Bob Scott and Joshua Lewer produced just such a report. Their findings suggest that, together, the Peoria Riverfront Museum and Caterpillar Visitors Center could generate more than half a billion dollars of local economic growth over the next two decades. Breaking the numbers down into three components—business development and money spent during construction ($210 million), operation of both facilities over the years ($205 million), and the money visitors will spend there over 18 years ($160 million)—Drs. Lewer and Scott project a substantially positive economic impact.

“This project could not have come at a more opportune time for our community,” says Dr. Lewer. “The construction over the last few years occurred at a time of relative weakness in the labor market. The fabrication of the museum and visitors center kept local construction workers employed while at the same time beautifying our downtown riverfront. Moreover, the new museum block offers the residents of Peoria County an extremely high return on their public investment.

"It is hard to imagine a situation like this occurring again,” he adds. “A roughly $125-million build project, whereby nearly $90 million comes from individual contributors, national and state grants, and the Caterpillar Foundation—you just don't see collaboration on that kind of scale very often."

Yet many of these potential benefits are quite difficult to quantify. Measuring an increase in tourism, for one, is no easy task, explains PACVB President Don Welch. Despite having tools to gauge convention attendance and hotel-room nights, others who come to town—for a ballgame, track meet or day trip to the zoo, for example—are harder to track. “You can’t really tell… how many other people came to Peoria [over a] weekend for whatever attractions. Our estimate of economic impact is very conservative in that these are only the actual room-nights that we know of.” As gated venues, both the museum and the visitors center will track attendance, says Welch, which should improve their understanding of the numbers.

Ahead of the Curve

But this project is about more than a simple increase in tourism. It’s about building momentum to drive future developments in and around downtown Peoria. Several blocks south of the museum block, Peoria’s Warehouse District is perhaps best suited to capitalize on that momentum.

“With the investments we’re making in our Warehouse District, we’re aiming for connectivity… and having a lot more residents move here,” Mayor Ardis explains. “We’ve already made the investments in infrastructure in the older parts of our city. It’s nice that we have areas to grow [on the north side of Peoria], but from the city’s standpoint, the cost to do these things… It’s much more appropriate to revitalize these older parts of town… where the roads and utilities are already in place.”

Plans for the Warehouse District—already underway—include the narrowing of Washington Street, widening of sidewalks, slowing of traffic, and getting heavy trucks off those streets. “That is an important component when we’re talking about increasing the residential side,” adds Ardis. “People have to feel comfortable walking. You walk down Washington Street right now… and you have these big semis roaring past you at 45 miles an hour—it’s pretty intimidating.”

Like most artists, Carrie and James Pearce are ahead of the curve. For six years, the couple has maintained a studio in the Warehouse District, but last May, they moved into a larger space on Southwest Adams that had sat vacant since 1997. The new space—which includes a storefront—is an artist’s dream. James, a woodworker, can let the sawdust fly free in his huge, open workshop, while Carrie, a painter, puts brush to canvas in a well-lit, second-floor drawing room. Meanwhile, the Pearces are in the midst of discussions to convert the remaining square footage into a living space, gallery and additional studios.

“I can’t believe that everyone who works at Cat doesn’t want to live downtown,” Carrie suggests, enamored with the historic buildings and convenience of the live-work concept. “Especially the younger group… If more people did a live-work situation, it would become more affordable. If someone would develop that idea, I think they could make millions. There are tons of people who would like to have a business… but the logistics of rent can be outrageous.”

Mayor Ardis points to the same trend, suggesting that young people want to live in urban areas where they don’t necessarily need a car. “I think the key to the Warehouse District is density—people moving back downtown. With Caterpillar and the medical community in close proximity to the Warehouse District, we could add a significant population down here… [which would] in itself, add to the energy of a reborn downtown.”

Still, the current lack of residential options remains a hurdle. “Right now, we’re at the starting line,” Ardis suggests. “We’re getting the roadwork and infrastructure done, and some of the utilities moved. What we’re really hoping to see is a lot of mixed use in those old warehouse buildings. We’re looking to see people come in and develop businesses on the ground floor, with residential up above, and just make that whole area more vibrant.”

If the promised infrastructure comes through, suggests James Pearce, greater walkability would likely lead to higher attendance on First Fridays, the popular monthly event in which nearly a dozen artists’ studios open up to the public. Sometimes, as many as 400 people will come through the studio in a single night, Carrie adds. Meanwhile, the Pearces aren’t the only artists in the neighborhood. Next door, Chris Tobin operates his web design company, living adjacent to his office space. Studio 825 on Adams houses Jeff Embry and several other artists; Dennis Slape’s Numero magazine operates out of a renovated loft space at Adams and Elm; Jacob Grant throws pottery in his studio on Walnut; and the list goes on.

“The artists are here—we’ve all been here,” Carrie stresses. “If they could create a corridor of some sort… maybe plant some flowers and make the area look a little safer, the people who come to First Fridays could park their cars and walk to several locations. I think it’s very doable. If once a month, we could get people down here to walk around, it would be worth it.” She refers to Scottsdale, Arizona’s “Walk the Line” program as a potential model, where marked pathways lead visitors on a neighborhood arts tour and sidewalk signs point toward galleries, studios and other locations of note.

Success in the New Economy

For his part, Jim Richerson believes the opening of the museum campus will have a ripple effect in the Warehouse District and throughout downtown. “I look at the museum as the northern ‘gate’ of the Warehouse District, by our sheer size and what we’ve done to this block. I hope it will serve to inspire [growth in] the Warehouse District.

“The dialogue is there, and that’s a critical link,” he continues. “The support—the seed for support that needed to come from the city—and the infrastructure… that needs to be followed through. But I think that anybody coming here will see [the museum campus] and say, ‘Wow, this community is capable of doing some very major-scale types of things.’”

Several blocks up Main Street, renovations continue on the Hotel Pére Marquette. A 10-story Marriott Courtyard is going up next door, along with a skywalk that will extend across Fulton Street and connect the complex directly to the Civic Center. The renovated Pére is expected to reopen next April, while the new Marriott Courtyard and skywalk are slated to open in March of 2014—yet another component in a dramatic, long-term reshaping of downtown Peoria.

“A lot of people take for granted that we’re a city of 118,000 that has this wonderful Civic Center, a ballpark, zoo and professional hockey team,” says Mayor Ardis. “And now we’ll have a four-star Marriott [near our] world-class healthcare facilities and college of medicine. You tick these things off and people ask, ‘Doesn’t every community this size have something like this?’ The answer is: no. We’re very blessed that all of these things are coming together. But it’s not the end—it’s the beginning.”

Meanwhile, Richerson dreams of a cultural campus that offers to kids what he had growing up in Chicago—a platform from which to dream. “When I think about the future, [it’s] not about how cheaply or how quickly we’ll make things, but where ideas are going to come from,” he says. “I think that what we’ve created here is inspirational… and where [those ideas] could get started.”

And so, as the museum landscape emerges, Peoria’s downtown is poised to make the transformation into a cohesive platform from which art and business can flourish together, and the region’s creatives can grow their ideas.

“These [types of] projects are, in a sense, the new incubators of creativity,” writes John Eger. “These art and cultural districts—with their critical mass of art galleries, cinemas, music venues, public squares for performances, restaurants, cafes and retail shops—are attracting and nurturing the creative workforce our cities need to succeed in the new economy.” iBi

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