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Donovan Park Arts Pavilion proposal remains a thorny issue

Donovan Park Pavilion Rendering
Pavilion in the Park / CORE Construction

The Peoria Park District Board of Trustees got more than an earful's worth of passionate feedback on the Pavilion Arts Centre proposal in Donovan Park during more than two hours of public input and presentations on Wednesday.

The private, not-for-profit Pavilion Arts Centre LTD wants to construct the indoor/outdoor performing arts venue on what is now green space in Donovan Park.

The terms of the proposed lease agreement would have the not-for-profit pay $100,000 rent a year for the first ten years of an initial thirty-year lease on the land, and adjust according to the rate of inflation thereafter. The 18 acres of land itself would remain park district property.

The not-for-profit would be tasked with fundraising for the design and construction of the venue, as well as a $2.5 million endowment to support it. The private group would operate and manage the venue.

Sara Connor-James is the president of the Pavilion's board. She said the venue will offer what she calls "a new vibration" for Peoria.

"It's something that's going to give us excitation because we're going to be doing something that that will help businesses like OSF and others attract top professionals to this area," Connor-James said. "We've seen a large migration of people leaving Peoria because there are greener pastures in other places, and we don't want that to happen anymore."

Connor-James said the group would plant 250 trees for light and sound dispersal to alleviate concerns from the nearby observatory and residents. She also said dark sky down lighting would be used, and permeable pavers would make the parking area eco-friendly.

Jay Goldberg, a prominent concert promoter in the Peoria area, said he doesn't believe the Pavilion Arts Centre would compete with other venues like the Peoria Civic Center or Scottish Rite Cathedral for events. Rather, he believes it would in conjunction with those venues attract different acts at various stages of their careers.

Board vice president Joyce Harant asked why Goldberg believed this venue would be successful, when others like the Limelight Eventplex have failed in recent years. Goldberg blamed that closure on management and ownership failures, but said the people behind the Pavilion project would bring in the "best management" to run the facility and book shows.

Trustee Timothy Bertschy said the location is perhaps the biggest objection he's heard from people about the Pavilion project. He asked if Goldberg believes it could be successful in a different location.

Goldberg said that's a hard question to answer, but the central location in the city and transportation accessibility are attractive qualities.

"It's just such a great location. The concept of taking it to the level we want to take it to just make so much sense," he said.

Activist David Pittman suggested an alternative location for the Pavilion.

"Let's talk about the (Peoria) stadium. Let's talk about the the fairgrounds. They have buses, they have access to the community. The park board, the park district, may not get all the money, but they'd be able to share it with Peoria Public Schools. It'd be some money that's still within the area," he said.

Deborah Roethler, the city of Peoria's former assistant city manager, said a private-public partnership could alleviate some of the financial pressures the park district is facing.

"What we have happening right now, with respect to starting in the Heights, and coming up to Junction City and terminating right now at Keller Station and Cyd's is a corridor of concentrated activity," Roethler said. "People are willing to walk from one end of it to the other. People live in the middle of it and love they can go they can go either way."

She said the Pavilion would help more people discover the area, shop local, and create a real opportunity for Peoria that doesn't exist now.

Social equity and workforce development programs would also be a part of the Pavilion plans. Carl Cannon was slated to talk about those aspects, but board president Robert Johnson asked Cannon not to speak, as it gave the appearance of a conflict of interest. Cannon is both a park district employee and a member of the private Pavilion board.

Later in the meeting, Johnson said the purpose of a park district is to serve the public, not make a profit, and projects like these haven't turned out well in the past.

"It bothers me, when I see people parade, little black children around saying they're going to do this and do this, they're going to do that for our children, so they can get a money benefit. Or they can get some type of stipend, because they got children in the mix," Johnson said. "I've seen it over and over again, that when they do that, that never transpired. The kids suffer."

Johnson said he wasn't accusing this project of being one of those, but he said he's seen that pattern play out too often over the 27 years he's been on the park board.

Dr. Nina Bush, a mother of mixed-race children, said she understood Johnson's concerns, but disagreed with his remarks about Black children being used as props.

"I'm not on their (Pavilion) board. But I have met them and I have spoken with them. So I challenge you to do the same thing because you might be surprised. And hopefully your biases could be put aside to really see what could impact Peoria well," she said.

Bridget Burke, who spoke during public comment, suggested the Pavilion project build on the South Side to make the site more accessible.

"I feel like there are a lot of people here with good hearts and good intentions. But I'm not a fan of trickery or using people, either," she said.

But Connor-James said though the project could go "anywhere," the Donovan Park location is ultimately the best for what they want to do to give back to the community.

"Our heart's desire is to have it be where it is, in Donovan Park, because it's centrally located," she said. "It's easily accessible by children from the South Side, and from the west side, because the bus routes are very accessible there. It's a very amenable...it works."

The park district board was slated to vote on the Pavilion proposal on Oct. 27, following four more public input sessions, but Johnson asked to possibly move that vote up to the Oct. 13 meeting.

More information about the Donovan proposal is available on the park district's Park Possible page.

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.