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Business & Economy

After Anxious Year, Peoria Area Hospitality Employees Are Hopeful For The Future

WCBU: 210604 Peoria Hospitality Industry 5
Mike Rundle / WCBU
Jim's Steakhouse in Downtown Peoria has struggled since the reduction in business travel and local entertainment.

As the hospitality industry in the Peoria area begins to bounce back with relaxed COVID-19 restrictions, more residents are taking to the town, but behind the scenes, many employees are still working to shake the effects of pandemic-induced furloughs.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate in Peoria peaked at 17.1% in April 2020. Employees across all categories were financially impacted. As life slowed down, so did the cash flow—especially at entertainment hubs like the Peoria Civic Center.

The Civic Center pressed pause in March 2020, and eventually was awarded funding by the Peoria City Council to stay afloat. In the fallout of the closure, a number of employees were furloughed, including marketing manager Kelsy Martin.

WCBU: 210604 Peoria Hospitality Industry 1
Mike Rundle / WCBU
Typically a crucial part of daily operations at the Peoria Civic Center, Marketing Manager Kelsy Martin was furloughed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Martin had been with the Civic Center since 2018 after being hired as marketing and graphics coordinator. Current General Manager Rik Edgar also had recently taken the helm of the 100,000-square-foot facility, and the Civic Center was riding a wave of increased bookings. As closures were announced and cancellations were made, Martin said it all came as a bit of shock.

“We were in such an exciting time...and all of the sudden it was just a dead stop,” she said.

During a summer without work, Martin said her husband’s position at Caterpillar provided extra reassurance from a financial standpoint, though the uncertainty of the future still weighed heavily.

“When the complete furloughs (happened), it was like, ‘Now what do I do?’” said Martin. “I’d been putting my heart and soul into this job...it’s hard to be in that vulnerable place where you can’t do anything.”

At the time, Martin also was in the midst of planning her wedding. She was forced to postpone the original plan and instead opt for a private celebration at a family cabin. In the fall of 2020, she was able to return to the Civic Center on a part-time basis, making use of the down time to better prepare for its reopening.

“The building’s quiet—that’s not what we like to see obviously, but it’s been our new normal for the past couple months,” said Martin. “We’ve made use of our time, but it’s still not what we would want to be doing.”

Now, having returned to work full time, Martin is excited about the new string of shows the Civic Center has announced and feels that the future is bright. In her opinion, those working behind the scenes to get the stages back up and running are the real superstars.

“I can’t think of a more hard-working, dedicated group of people to work with,” said Martin. “There’s so many parts that go into everything that happens here, and a lot of it goes without recognition.”

Across the river at the Fairfield Inn in East Peoria, behind the scenes is the specialty for Gail Jackson, who manages the hotel kitchen.

WCBU: 210604 Peoria Hospitality Industry 2
Mike Rundle / WCBU
Gail Jackson, who manages the kitchen at the Fairfield Inn in East Peoria, took care of her young grandson while furloughed.

Jackson had worked at the Fairfield for nine years when she was furloughed in March of last year. She said her favorite part of the job is talking with guests about their travels, and not having the job left her feeling adrift.

“I wanted to just cry because I’m used to working,” said Jackson. “It just took a toll on me.”

Jackson, who learned of the layoff upon her return from seeing family in Chicago, was able to stay afloat thanks to money she had saved. Eventually, she was able to return to the hotel two days a week to assist with laundry, but there was still uncertainty hanging over her head.

“I saved money, but I didn’t know if I would be able to maintain, take care of my household,” said Jackson. “I just was on a hope and a prayer.”

Later in the year, Jackson’s brother was hospitalized in Chicago due to COVID-19, but she was never able to visit—thankfully, he survived.

While furloughed, Jackson also looked after her 5-year-old grandson who was participating in virtual learning. Now, back at Fairfield full time, she said that she has a renewed appreciation for teachers.

“Instead of being a cook, I had to be a teacher,” said Jackson. “I really applaud the teachers because you never know until you’re in their shoes.”

For Mike, a former kitchen manager at Jim’s Steakhouse, virtual learning presented problems for his teenage grandchildren who he looks after. Mike, who requested his last name be omitted from the story, had worked at Jim’s for 30 years before being laid off in March 2020.

He said his grandchildren’s grades suffered in the shift to online learning, and it affected the entire family. Between educational concerns and financial hardship resulting in deferred house payments, the initial impacts of the pandemic were taking a toll.

“Early on, it was very rough,” said Mike. “It’s even more scary looking into the future not knowing how business is going to build back.”

Having worked at Jim’s for three decades, Mike has seen the landscape of Downtown Peoria change dramatically—a change he said manifests in the success of area businesses.

WCBU: 210604 Peoria Hospitality Industry 3
Mike Rundle / WCBU
Jim's Steakhouse has been a staple of Downtown Peoria for decades.

“Downtown has changed dramatically. Caterpillar leaving is going to put a huge hurt—we hope Saint Francis will bring in a lot of people,” said Mike. “It’s not what it used to be.”

With autographed photos on the wall featuring everyone from Jesse White to Rob Schneider, Jim’s is a fine dining restaurant whose clientele is primarily made up of business executives and those gracing the stage at the Civic Center. As those customer pipelines were put on pause, the steakhouse began to struggle.

For the future, as travel restrictions are eased and live entertainment starts to return, Mike has some hope that Jim’s will be able to bounce back and he will be able to return to work—but not without caution.

“I honestly try not to think about it too much because I don’t have a whole lot of control over it,” he said.

If entertainment hubs like the Civic Center are any indication, the hospitality industry in the Peoria area could be on its way back to pre-pandemic operations.

A variety of new events have recently been announced, including rescheduled dates from Reba McEntire, Jason Aldean, and more. Management at the Civic Center is excited, and Martin said they’re ready to hit the ground running.

“When we come back, we’ll be better than ever,” said Martin.

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