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Donovan Park pavilion now on ice as project leaders look to collect community feedback

donovan park
Hannah Alani
Sara Connor-James addresses the public during a news conference at Donovan Park on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021.
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Following fierce opposition from some residents and community leaders last week, a plan to construct a two-acre music pavilion at Donovan Park has been put on hold.

The group behind the Pavilion Arts Centre project announced Tuesday it was withdrawing its proposal and tabling plans until January.

Instead of asking the parks board to vote on its proposal on Oct. 27 as planned, the private, not-for-profit Pavilion Arts Centre LTD (PAC) will spend the next few months soliciting more public input.

The group plans to resubmit its plans in January after speaking with more members of the public.

Tuesday's announcement came after more than two hours of impassioned public comment and presentations atlast week's Peoria Parks District Board of Trustees meeting.

Donovan Park Arts Pavilion proposal remains a thorny issue

As presented last week, the terms of the proposed lease agreement would have the not-for-profit pay $100,000 rent a year for the first 10 years of an initial 30-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.

Opponents of the Pavilion Arts Centre attend a press conference at Donovan Park on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021.
Hannah Alani
Opponents of the Pavilion Arts Centre attend a press conference at Donovan Park on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021.

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.

Pavilion opponents who attended Tuesday's news conference were pleased to hear the pavilion vote would be tabled until next year, however Luan Railsback, a volunteer with a group called Friends of Open Space at Donovan Park, remained concerned.

Any project of this magnitude was not a good fit for Donovan Park, she said; the 18 acres comprise wild grasses that are essential for pollinators.

"I'm not giving up," she said. "We are going to continue on with our efforts to educate the public. ... You cannot replace the natural that attracts all the birds, the butterflies, the bees, the snakes. ... the people ... it speaks to their soul."

On Tuesday, PAC president Sara Connor-James said many large, older trees would be preserved. What will be mowed down, she said, are the wild grasses and weeds that have cropped up since the Donovan Park golf course closed nearly a decade ago.

Additionally, she said, dark sky-down lighting would be used, and permeable pavers would make the parking area eco-friendly.

"And we will plant over 250 trees," she said. "Just think of the happy birds who can build nests there. Specialized grass-filled pavers will be used to accommodate parking. No concrete. ... We are not paving paradise."

Sara Connor-James, president of the not-for-profit behind the Pavilion Arts Centre, at Donovan Park on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021.
Hannah Alani
Sara Connor-James, president of the not-for-profit behind the Pavilion Arts Centre, at Donovan Park on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021.

Between now and January, Connor-James said she hopes to hear from more members of the public, homeowner associations, neighboring businesses — any and all stakeholders.

"We need the public to be able to have all of the information and have a dialogue, so we understand, 'What are your concerns? What is it really gonna look like?' and, 'Do the pros outweigh the cons?'" she said.

Connor-James said the nonprofit will host a series of public meetings to gather feedback.

The public can begin email feedback to info@pavilioninthepark.com.

A heated fight

The public has between now and January to tell project leaders what they think.

But one major sticking point may not be open to discourse — and that's the proposed location of the pavilion.

On Tuesday, some opponents said they wanted the nonprofit to consider other locations before ruling them out.

Joined by Railsback, activist David Pittman urged the PAC to consider other options in the Peoria area.

"I think it's really important now for us to look at the alternative locations," Pittman said. "Put this idea to rest. ... Make sure the park board speaks, and says, 'No Pavilion at Donovan Park.'"

David Pittman, left, and Luan Railsback of the 'Friends of Donovan Park' group
Hannah Alani
David Pittman, left, and Luan Railsback of the 'Friends of Donovan Park' group

Connor-James said these demands counter the desires of the Peoria Park District, whose leaders expressly stated years ago that they wanted a pavilion at Donovan Park, adding district staff have investigated other locations.

Donovan Park's size, central location — along busy Knoxville Avenue in the center of the city limits — and proximity to nearby shops and restaurants indicates the pavilion would attract both musicians and concert-goers alike, she said.

The theater, which would seat between 1,500 and 2,000 people, would attract mid-level career performers who may not be big enough to sell out the Peoria Civic Center. Conner-James stressed that the pavilion would not put Donovan Park in competition with local venues; instead, having the pavilion would attract more artists to the city.

The real competition, she said, is one of markets — will performers play in Peoria, or in similarly-sized venues in Bloomington-Normal?

In 2019, the park district's finance committee approved plans for the project. Last year, the entire park district board unanimously voted to allow the project to move forward with the drafting of a land use agreement, Connor-James said.

In that process, the nonprofit completed a traffic study and hired engineers and architects to map out what the pavilion would look like.

The land use agreement was finally presented last week, and terms of agreement were submitted to the board.

What's happening now, Connor-James said, is that the nonprofit is withdrawing the terms of agreement — and will spend three months listening to community concerns.

"This is too important to rush," she said.

Pavilion in the Park / CORE Construction

Carl Cannon not a conflict of interest, Connor-James says

Social equity and workforce development programs would be a part of the pavilion plans.

Carl Cannon was slated to talk about those aspects during last week's park board meeting, 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."

On Tuesday, Connor-James said Cannon would work with local music industry leader Jay Goldberg on a series of youth programs at the pavilion.

She said her group's attorneys reviewed potential conflict of interest and did not find one, since Cannon's ELITE youth mentorship program is separate from his work with the park district.

Hannah Alani is a reporter at WCBU. She joined the newsroom in 2021. She can be reached at hmalani@ilstu.edu.