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Peoria Heights already touts a strong local business scene. Now the village is beefing up focus on residential and tourism

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Tim Shelley
/
WCBU

Peoria Heights' bustling central business district along Prospect Road has become the envy of many local communities.

Mayor Mike Phelan said the small, family-owned businesses are one of the village's biggest strengths.

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Tim Shelley
Peoria Heights Mayor Mike Phelan

"People think of dining and bars and entertainment when they think of Peoria Heights, but we also have Williams Brothers Construction here. We've got Pearl Insurance, which is a big employer, Alwan's grocery, and on and on. So we have a pretty small but diversified economy, and the credit goes to those businesses," Phelan said.

But the Heights are also familiar with challenges. When the Pabst brewery closed in 1982, it took more than 800 jobs along with it. That started a trend of population losses Phelan said the village is still trying to reverse decades later.

In 2010, 6,156 people called Peoria Heights home. That declined to 5,908 in the 2020 Census. The village's new 20-year comprehensive plan takes a deeper look at how the Heights might begin reversing the trend.

"We do have a challenge in that a lot of our housing stock is two bedroom, one bath housing. So it's not really the type of housing that families are looking for. So we're looking at ways that we can reset the market," Phelan said.

Peoria Heights applied for a grant with the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity eyeing housing grants.

"Families most often, I think, are going to be looking for a home and a property to raise kids and with the with the yard," Phelan said.

He said adding more sidewalks, and streetscaping the secondary arterial roadways would also help build up and energize the existing neighborhoods.

Another challenge is connectivity. Peoria Heights is boxed in geographically on three sides by the city of Peoria, and bordered to the east by the Illinois River. But Phelan said he'd like to better link the areas along Galena Road to the neighborhoods up on the bluff.

"It's only accessible basically, by War Memorial Drive, and Forest Park Drive. So the comprehensive plan addresses some of those challenges. And we're hoping to explore ways to enhance that connectivity both by bike, by walking , and maybe other methods. But it's really important for us," Phelan said.

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Courtesy Tim Shelley
The Illinois River as seen from Grandview Drive in Peoria Heights.

$68 million directed to improving Route 29 by the capital bill signed into law by Gov. JB Pritzker in 2019 would not only make the roadway safer, but also make the riverfront area more viable for economic and residential development, Phelan said.

The village also wants bike lanes and better pedestrian access allowing for links with the Rock Island Trail and a proposed trail project across the McClugage Bridge in East Peoria. There's also an application out for a state trailhead grant for the area near Prospect, Phelan said.

The village is currently looking to hire its first director of community development. That person will have several major job functions, Phelan said. Their primary role would be applying for and administering grants, but they'd also need to take a boots-on-the-ground approach.

"Maybe some old fashioned ways of branding neighborhoods, communication amongst the neighbors, a little bit of everything," the mayor said.

Another goal: attracting more tourism to Peoria Heights.

"If you think about it, we're really positioned in between Indianapolis and the Quad Cities and Chicago and St. Louis," Phelan said. "We know people probably aren't going to come here to spend a week, but we feel very strongly they come here, we've got enough to keep them busy for a couple of days, and to provide good revenue and some jobs for the region."

He noted the region is looking to model itself partially on the Ottawa and LaSalle-Peru regions. Like Peoria Heights, those river towns once depended heavily on industry. They've shifted to a more tourism-centric identity, capitalizing on environmental beauty and amenities.

"It's helped reinvigorate and reinvent the whole area. So we've paid attention to what what they've done. And we feel that we can evolve into something similar as well," he said.

Growing tourism also has the pragmatic benefit of generating more sales tax revenues. That's the primary method for funding basic services like police, fire, and road maintenance, Phelan said.

It also ties back into the long-view of increasing Peoria Heights' population to grow the property tax base and reduce the overall burden on individual property owners.

"We're trying to do everything possible to continue to encourage those people who are coming here to visit, that they take a look at us as a place to live. We've got a great school system. We've got great recreation, parks, we're walkable communities," Phelan said. "So that's one of the next goals, is to try and increase the population have people take a look at us when they're looking to either to raise a family, or we've got a lot of empty nesters. To then take a look at the community."

Click here to dive deeper into the Peoria Heights 20-year Comprehensive Plan.

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