KDB Group: A Transformative Impact

With announcements ongoing and significant progress made over the last year, KDB Group is redefining possibilities in central Illinois. 

by Mae Gilliland Wright
Kayaking at Sankoty Lakes
Kayaking at Sankoty Lakes. Photography by Jeffery Noble

It is hard to believe that Kim D. Blickenstaff has only been back in central Illinois for just over a year. Blickenstaff, a Spring Bay native and healthcare entrepreneur who made his fortune in California, has recently embarked on a new path in life centered around building up the Peoria area. And his impact has been nothing short of transformative. 

Last March, Peoria Magazine outlined the first round of projects: the Betty Jayne Brimmer Center for the Performing Arts and Atrium Hotel, Grayboy Plaza Lofts and the Pabst building, Save-A-Lot grocery store and the Pump House property—all located in Peoria Heights. In the year since, Blickenstaff’s KDB Group has announced multiple astonishing, new developments—many of which are already underway or nearing completion. 

When chatting with Blickenstaff and his nephew Greg Birkland, KDB Group’s president and CEO, the excitement they share is contagious. Blickenstaff, who still spends much of his time in California, has charged Birkland with carrying out the details of his lofty visions. In an energetic back-and-forth, the two describe the progress they have made over the last year—and muse over what’s to come. 

Connecting Art and History
Last April, KDB Group issued a press release that sent a shockwave through the community: “Blickenstaff buys Peoria’s Scottish Rite Cathedral.” Dedicated in 1925, the Scottish Rite is an architectural masterpiece with its flying buttresses, stone gargoyles and pointed arches, but it’s been underutilized in recent years. While the building is in good shape, it needs some work to restore its former glory and comply with federal accessibility requirements. 

Scottish Rite Theatre
The historic Scottish Rite Theatre

Like the Betty Jayne—named for Blickenstaff’s mother, which opened its doors last August—the Scottish Rite Theatre, as it’s now known, is already up and running. Under the direction of Jenny Parkhurst, KDB Group’s executive director of performing arts, the venue has hosted the Central Illinois Ballet and a fundraising gala for Peoria’s new Ronald McDonald House, as well as multiple weddings and other special events. 

Asked for an update on progress at the Scottish Rite, Blickenstaff replies with a shrug in his typical deadpan: “Yeah, we’re going to tear it down.” Then he and Birkland erupt into laughter, an endearing hallmark of any conversation between the two. 

Birkland quickly dives into a lengthy list of repairs and updates they’ve recently made—like restoring the massive, two-story, stained-glass windows over the front entrance, whose beauty had been obscured by discoloration. “We actually figured out a way to renovate those windows,” he says, detailing the process employed by a renovation company out of Indianapolis.

“The idea is that we can backlight it at night, and that thing is gonna glow like the Wizard of Oz!” Blickenstaff adds with a smile.

They anticipate renovations at the Scottish Rite to be mostly complete this summer. “We already started working with a contractor as far as the HVAC, lighting, stage, curtains, electrical… It’s all in place,” Birkland remarks. 

Amidst the launch of two performing arts venues, KDB Group invested in a pair of Steinway pianos, with assistance from the Peoria Symphony Orchestra’s Maestro George Stelluto. A brand-new, seven-foot, $150,000 Steinway Model B Onyx Duet Spirio now resides at the Betty Jayne, and numerous local musicians have already performed on it. Meanwhile, a nine-foot Model D Concert Grand Steinway piano, valued at $175,000, will head to the Scottish Rite once repairs on the building are complete. 

Steinway pianos are widely considered the world’s finest, and no others of this caliber exist in the area. Their arrival immediately places Peoria on the map in the performing arts world as an attraction for world-class talent.

Just months after purchasing the Scottish Rite, Blickenstaff hosted an open house at another historic venue three blocks away: the Peoria Women’s Club. It was here that he expressed interest in helping to restore the 127-year-old building. Last September, KDB Group announced Blickenstaff would contribute $500,000 toward renovations on the facility, including its 432-seat theater, which once hosted the likes of Carl Sandburg and Victor Hugo. Blickenstaff envisions the Peoria Women’s Club and Scottish Rite working in tandem to create a revived theater district in downtown Peoria. 

At an October fundraiser, donors were given the opportunity to sponsor a chair in the theater to assist with renovations. Soon the same will be offered for its windows. “We’ll take every one of the windows and put them on the website; it will be adopt-a-window,” Blickenstaff confirms. Besides individual donors like himself, he hopes local companies will step up as well. “We definitely want to get more businesses involved.”

Blickenstaff’s focus on historic preservation and the arts is rooted in his own history. Growing up with a mother who was a dancer in the Big Band Era, the arts are in his bones. And while his presence has transformed Peoria’s arts scene, his passion for the outdoors may well create even bigger waves in central Illinois. 

Aerial view of Sankoty Lakes
Aerial view of Sankoty Lakes

Destinations in the Great Outdoors
In 2015, Caterpillar announced plans for a new headquarters campus in downtown Peoria. Across the river in Spring Bay, Dwayne Atherton geared up his gravel pit in anticipation of the need for building materials, investing in equipment and manpower. When the company reversed course and instead moved its headquarters to Deerfield, the entire region was shaken—including Atherton, who was left to figure out what to do with the property.

Kim Blickenstaff grew up in Spring Bay. Last year, he was back in the area and met up with Atherton, his childhood friend, who took him fishing at Giant Goose Ranch outside of Canton. “I had never dreamed there was fishing [like this] here in this area!” he exclaims. “And then Dwayne said, ‘Well, you gotta get out to see my place.’” 

At the center of Atherton’s property, the site of his now-abandoned gravel pit, were three 60-to-75-feet-deep lakes. Fed by the Sankoty Aquifer, their waters were pristine blue and crystal-clear—the perfect environment for fishing. Blickenstaff was floored. 

“I was like, Holy crap, this could be a destination resort if we cleaned it up!” Sure enough, it took little time for this vision to become a reality. Last November, Blickenstaff and Atherton unveiled plans for Sankoty Lakes Resort & Retreat, an outdoor oasis that is, quite remarkably, already set to open this spring.

Assisted by Herman Brothers Lake & Land Management and other partners, Greg Birkland and the KDB team have been hard at work preparing Sankoty for launch. Its lakes are now well-stocked with trout, muskie, striped bass, pike and northern, while a mile-long, manmade trout stream—a centerpiece of the project—is under construction. With a pump drawing water to the surface, it will join one of the lakes into a single ecosystem. Because the aquifer-fed water remains 50 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, they even have hopes of spawning salmon. If they can achieve it, there will be nothing else like it in Illinois. 

“The trout stream is being built as we speak—it’s getting clay-lined,” Birkland notes. “And that should be operational right around late February.”

Kim Blickenstaff holding a fishIn addition to an RV park, glamour camping, or “glamping,” will be available right next to the trout stream. An assemblage of hyper-durable canvas tents not only have the ability to withstand all four seasons, they have heating and air conditioning, small kitchens, queen and king-sized beds, and modern bathroom facilities. “We’re putting in an order for 20 tent units,” says Birkland. “We’ll have those operational in late March or early April.”

Environmental education will also be a priority at Sankoty, with plans to construct a fish hatchery and science facility. Birkland has begun to talk with the Sun Foundation, whose nearby property has long been home to an art and nature center, about a potential collaboration. “It’s going to be a good marriage between us,” he comments. At the same time, KDB Group is looking to acquire additional property nearby, with the hope of adding 1,000 acres to complement the outdoor activities at Sankoty Lakes Resort & Retreat.

Even prior to the Sankoty announcement, KDB Group had revealed its intentions to focus on nature and the outdoors, in addition to the arts and historic preservation. On September 18, 2019, another press release dropped this bombshell: “Blickenstaff intends to bring back Al Fresco Park in Peoria Heights.”

Located across the river from Sankoty, Al Fresco Park was a popular Midwestern attraction for most of the first half of the 20th century, with its roller coaster, Ferris wheel, Japanese garden and many other features. Blickenstaff plans to turn the property into an outdoor recreation and education facility—an approach much like that of his building developments: celebrating Peoria’s past while re-imagining it for modern times.

The new Al Fresco will feature a pair of spring-fed lakes providing fishing, boating, snorkeling and a host of other recreational opportunities, with emphasis on introducing inner-city children to the outdoors. It will work in tandem with Sankoty—a daylong getaway destination to complement longer-term stays across the river. Eventually, Blickenstaff hopes to connect the two, with ferries or water taxis transporting visitors back and forth.

Even that is not the end of Blickenstaff’s ambitious visions for Peoria Heights and the region at large. “Can you imagine coming here and skiing in the wintertime?” he muses. “And in the summertime, doing mountain biking all the way down to Al Fresco… then take a lift up!” Peoria, he continues, has one of the highest vertical drops in Illinois. “Did you know that?” With his trademark enthusiasm, it’s not hard to buy into his vision. 

“Kim’s concept is even to have one of those Bavarian slides, where it’s kind of like a roller-coaster ride all the way down the hill,” Birkland adds.

Asked when the ski lift would open, Blickenstaff declares with utter sincerity: “I’m trying! I want to ski when I’m home!”

The historic Pabst Building in Peoria Heights serves as KDB Group’s offices
KDB Group’s offices are located in the historic Pabst Building in Peoria Heights.

The Road Ahead
While a number of Blickenstaff’s grand visions have lent themselves to a quick turnaround, others are simply too complex. “Some projects are on a faster track than others, owing to the unique personality and demands of each,” Birkland remarks, urging patience. “Preparing to do things the right way can take time.”

The next project on which the public will likely see visible progress is The Atrium, the 52-room boutique hotel planned for the heart of Peoria Heights. “We’ve got our hospitality group,” Birkland notes. “Now we’re just working on the branding.” 

Finding the right organization to manage the property—while preserving the late Peoria architect Richard Doyle’s original designs—was their primary challenge. “We looked at the Marriotts and the Hiltons, and they were dictating 100 percent what the place had to look like,” says Birkland. “It just didn’t match the landscape and the feel.” With Columbia Hospitality on board, work has begun on the inside of the hotel, while signs of exterior construction will likely be seen later this spring.

Renderings of KDB Group's upcoming projects
Renderings of plans for The Atrium Hotel, The Armory and Grayboy Plaza Lofts by Farnsworth Group

A few blocks down Prospect Road, the Grayboy Plaza Lofts will implement unique sustainability strategies in a mix of high-end retail, commercial and residential use. “We’re going through model drawings as we speak, trying to do cost build-outs on it,” Birkland notes. But with one tenant on the property until later this year, this project has moved more slowly. Across the street, the Save-A-Lot grocery store has a longer lease and is unlikely to see activity for several years. 

Likewise, Blickenstaff’s recently announced intention to bring back the Peoria Armory in downtown Peoria is not going to happen overnight. The same is true with Al Fresco Park. “There are so many moving parts you have to work with,” Birkland explains. “It’s not just me coming down there and starting to develop. I’ve got to work with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the [Army] Corps [of Engineers], the Illinois Department of Transportation and the railroad. We can only move as fast as they move.”

Another project on the horizon involves the newly formed Riverview Economic Development Coalition Organization, or REDCO. Comprised of the small river towns north of Peoria—including Peoria Heights, Lacon, Henry, Spring Bay, Bayview Gardens and Chillicothe—the group hopes to band together and create a wide-ranging tourist destination spanning both sides of the Illinois River—not unlike what’s been achieved in Door County, Wisconsin. “We’re trying to pool our assets and get a website together,” Blickenstaff explains. “Every one of those communities has unique assets and festivals.” 

Blickenstaff is even helping to bring a semi-pro soccer team to Peoria—“a summer league that would play at Shea [Stadium],” he says. The Peoria City team will be part of the United Soccer League (USL) Two, and its presence will attract some of the best talent from around the country, making Peoria a regional soccer destination.

Fittingly, KDB Group has set up its offices in the historic Pabst Building in Peoria Heights, which is actively leasing commercial space. The Betty Jayne and the community center at St. Thomas Catholic Church—which received a $130,000 donation from Blickenstaff last year—are complete and open, while progress on the Atrium Hotel, Scottish Rite Theatre and Sankoty Lakes Resort & Retreat are their top priorities for 2020. 

As KDB Group forges ahead on a dizzying array of projects, each moves at its own pace—and the year ahead is sure to bring more announcements. By the time you read this, yet another Blickenstaff vision may well have left the Peoria area speechless. His ideas may be ambitious, but they’re the product of careful market research from a man whose business acumen is unquestioned. “We know these are good ideas,” he states plainly. 

Blickenstaff’s return to Peoria has catalyzed others to step up, which is exactly what he wants: a community coming together. “This is attracting people to solve problems,” he notes. His advantage as an outsider—the ability to see the region with fresh, new eyes—has been critical in noticing the potential that’s been under our nose the whole time. All of these things could happen, and indeed are happening, right here in central Illinois. PM

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