A decade ago, a big-box department store was planned to replace Peoria Stadium.
Now, Peoria Public Schools has big plans for a property the district’s top official considers irreplaceable.
An artificial-turf football field is to replace the grass surface at the venerable stadium near War Memorial Drive and Knoxville Avenue. That would enable Manual and Peoria high schools to continue to play their football home games at the stadium, which in its current form dates from the 1930s.
New bleachers on the visitors’ side of the football field, across from the covered grandstand, are to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act. Electrical, lighting and plumbing improvements also are scheduled. A digital scoreboard already has been installed.
Other new features are to include a public walking path that encircles the football field. The path is to take the place of an all-weather running track that has fallen into disrepair, much like the rest of the facility.
Unlike in the stadium’s heyday, all three Peoria public high schools now have their own track-and-field facilities.
A multi-purpose dome also is to be constructed on the north end of the 82-acre stadium property. The dome could be used year-round for soccer and bat-and-ball sports, among other activities.
“The sky’s the limit, as far as that’s concerned,” PPS Superintendent Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat said.
The Peoria Park District already leases from PPS part of the stadium property, which it uses for athletics fields, walking trails and a playground.
Work on what probably will be an $11 million overall stadium renovation project is to begin in earnest next year. Completion is targeted for 2024, according to Desmoulin-Kherat.
“The stadium and the surrounding green space, it’s really a treasure to the Peoria community, its students and the region as a whole,” she said.
“Our goal is to keep a facility on this property for the students and for the community of greater Peoria to have the opportunity to play sports at an amazing venue.”
That opportunity is the culmination of years of public efforts to preserve and revitalize the stadium. It also might be the result of a public outcry against selling the stadium property to retail developers, as was proposed in the early 2010s.
“I think the community saved it,” Third District Peoria City Councilman Tim Riggenbach said. “And that’s why I’m confident it’s going to be successful going forward.”
Riggenbach represents the Peoria Stadium area. In 2013, he was among the loudest voices opposed to the school district’s proposed sale of at least part of the stadium land to Walmart Inc. The Arkansas-based mega-retailer envisioned a Walmart Supercenter at the site.
Adverse reaction from Riggenbach, other city officials and nearby neighborhood associations was swift.
They feared the supercenter would increase noise and traffic at War Memorial and Knoxville, already among the busiest intersections in Peoria. They also lamented the possible loss of open space that since the late 19th century had been used for public recreation.
“That would have been an incredibly awkward site to see a Walmart come in,” Riggenbach said. “When the school board came to us with that possibility, there were some of us who were very appalled by that.”
Said Desmoulin-Kherat: “It was a big to-do, and the community definitely rose up and said ‘no’ in a very convincing manner.”
Ensuing efforts to revitalize the stadium while hewing to its original purpose waxed and waned.
A forerunner of the current plan germinated almost six years ago. Among its proponents were Bradley University athletics administrator Craig Dahlquist, then-Journal Star sports editor Kirk Wessler and local running impresario Adam White. In recent years, former School Board President Dan Adler has been in the vanguard.
The Walmart plan might have helped spur that action, according to Riggenbach. He suggested it jogged some Peorians’ memories about the good times they spent at the stadium. The councilman mentioned his own memories, which included fireworks displays and high school football games in the old Mid-State 10 Conference.
“You can’t deny the history of that,” Riggenbach said. “Everybody’s got a story about something that happened at the stadium. I think it’s a shame when we lose those things.”
Memories met money when state Sen. Dave Koehler and Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, both Democrats from Peoria, helped secure PPS a grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.
During her State of the Schools address earlier this year, Desmoulin-Kherat announced publicly the $8 million in state funding. That leaves about $3 million for the district to pay.
The cost of the project has increased, thanks in part to broader supply-chain issues, Desmoulin-Kherat said. Some general-fund money is to be devoted to the renovations, but the superintendent suggested donations are welcome.
Funds also are to be targeted toward ongoing upkeep of the facility. Basic maintenance costs are about $75,000 annually, said Tracey Jones, Desmoulin-Kherat’s executive assistant.
Deferred maintenance over the decades helped lead to the stadium’s current state, Desmoulin-Kherat suggested. Her hope is to avoid a repeat once Peoria Stadium 2.0 is completed.
That hope might be expected from someone who, during a recent interview, used the personal pronoun “she” repeatedly in referring to the stadium.
“We’re just really excited that we have that opportunity to pay attention to the stadium and give her the well-needed love that she deserves,” Desmoulin-Kherat said.
The stadium also can be a “he” the superintendent acknowledged. Either way, stadium supporters appear happy the human touch is being applied at long last to a crumbling brick-and-mortar local landmark.
“It was really great to see there’s still life in this thing,” Riggenbach said.