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Despite opposition from Peoria Park Board, Sara Connor-James still believes in 'Pavilion in the Park'

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Hannah Alani
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WCBU
Following an interview, Sara Connor-James poses for a photo in the WCBU newsroom.

This fall the Peoria Park Board of Trustees joined a group of citizens in voicing opposition to "Pavilion in the Park," a proposed 2-acre theatre that would utilize 18 acres in the south east corner of Donovan Park.

The private, not-for-profit Pavilion Arts Centre LTD proposed constructing a performing arts venue and parking lot on what is now green space – mostly grassy habitat that grew naturally after the closure of Donovan Park golf course.

The terms of the proposed lease agreement would have had 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.

While the Peoria Park Board of Trustees initially supported the project in October 2020, multiple members expressed opposition in October of this year, citing an overwhelming amount of public input against the project.

Residents' concerns have included the loss of green space, as well as the pavilion's potential effect on the Northmoor Observatory and local wildlife and pollinators that depend on the site's habitat.

'This will not take place:' Peoria park board weighs in against Donovan pavilion project

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Pavilion in the Park
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Amid the public outcry, PAV president Sara Connor-James withdrew her proposal.

But she's not giving up. Connor-James plans to resubmit her proposal to the Park Board of Trustees in January.

In a conversation with WCBU's Hannah Alani, Connor-James explains why she still believes in the project.

This following is a transcript of an interview that aired during “All Things Peoria.” It has been edited for length and clarity.

Sara Connor-James: Part of what we've struggled with, initially, there was an enormous amount of disinformation. Misinformation. And that's what the public heard. And people said, “No, no, we don't want this.” Because they were given the wrong story.

Hannah Alani: What are some of the biggest pieces of misinformation?

Sara Connor-James: Well, the number one concern that gets raised is that we're taking so much of the park. There is a misconception that we're taking 25% of the park. That is so not true. We are taking 7% of 125 acres. And only two of the acres are going to be for a building. The rest of it is going to be used and created as a green space.

Now, the second area of misconception is, “Well, you're having a parking lot, and how can that be green space?” Well, if you look at the design, it will look like a golf fairway. It will not look like a parking lot. It will be green grass that will be under-supported by a kind of a paver. It's not a paver like most people see. It's a specially designed paver that allows grass to grow up through it. So all you see is grass.

Donovan Park Pavilion Rendering
Pavilion in the Park / CORE Construction
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There's a concern about the observatory. We are planting 250 trees around the Pavilion area. So that will provide a light and sound buffer. In addition, the building is shaped so that it shapes downward, that the sound and light go downward. And finally, in the parking lot, it's dark sky down lighting, so that everything goes down to the ground … Very dim, very dark. And it's going to be motion sensitive. … We will not be using air conditioning for the building. It will be air conditioned naturally through a pagoda effect. … And finally, our performances will end by 10 o'clock. Prime viewing time, as I understand it, is after the sky has really gotten dark. I think those are the main objections.

Have I missed one?

Hannah Alani: The cross-country trails?

Sara Connor-James: The cross-country trails, of course. We're gonna work with the park district and the cross-country teams to make sure that the trails are right, that they're satisfactory. And also the cross-country skiing trails. We want to do everything in coordination with the park, and whatever entity is involved.

There is a perception that we're in this to make money, that we're a for profit company. That is 180 degrees out of phase. We are a not for profit. No tax dollars will be going towards the building, or maintaining of this operation. And there is no one that is going to benefit financially from this organization.

Hannah Alani: It seems like a major sticking point for a lot of people that we hear from is just the location. This area of the city, with its proximity to Junction City and Peoria Heights, it's already getting a lot of love. Why not Glen Oak? Why not look at some of these other park systems around the city?

Sara Connor-James: Two things. One, when we approached the park in 2018, we asked, you know, “We would love to position this in Donovan, because it's centrally located.” It's easily accessible for people from all over the city. And it's accessible, especially for kids and people coming from the downtown area, the west side, the south side, even the north side, using the city's busing. So it's very, very accessible. And that works with our education program, because we intend to bring kids who need opportunities for job training and job growth and development to the Pavilion to be exposed to that kind of an industry. Event management, production, performance. All of those things have job opportunities and career opportunities for them. So that's one of the reasons. But also, when we asked for it, the staff of the park put us in the southeast corner. That was their choice for us. And they thought it was the best synergy, because it also works with their master plan that they created in 2015, which shows that very area being designated for high intensity use.

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Screenshot: Peoria Park Board of Trustees Dec. 7, 2021 Meeting
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A March 2015 site analysis of Donovan Park created by Peoria Park District staff following the closure of the Donovan Park Golf Course.
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Peoria Park District
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An April 2015 master plan for Donovan Park created by Peoria Park District staff.

Hannah Alani: There's been some pretty vitriolic backlash, and there's been some, you know, some comments that have been made, you know, for example, the park board president saying he hates seeing groups parade Black children around. What's your response to that?

Sara Connor-James: Well, I was very surprised, especially since President Johnson was so enthusiastically supportive of us, not only at the 2020 board meeting in October, when we had unanimous support, and President Johnson was very vocal in his support. Even in April of 2021, he gave a very supportive interview. So I was really surprised that he had changed so radically. And I have reached out to him to ask for a meeting, so I could listen and understand what his new concern is, because it was shocking, a surprise. We obviously are not parading little children out to make a profit. Our whole design from the get go has been to improve the community, to polish our corner of the world.

We want to know what people think. We want to serve the community. This … is a gift to Peoria. And we want to know if people want to receive the gift.

Donovan Park Arts Pavilion proposal remains a thorny issue

Hannah Alani: Understanding that if the project is approved, we're years out from it being completed … can you give us an overview of what that programming is going to look like – what might be available to the children and families of Peoria?

Sara Connor-James: So our goal is to provide an opportunity for kids to become experienced … in an industry that has lots of potential … the event management industry, as well as production and performance. So they will come into contact, either through volunteerism, or internships, or paid positions, learning the ins and outs of each industry. There will be things that will be like audio visual kinds of things, lighting, actual performance, sound. And then there'll be event management kinds of things, which will be finance, marketing, administration, that kind of thing. So it, it has a broad appeal for kids, and also, adults in transition. You know, some people don't like the job they've got, they'd like a new one, and what better thing to be involved in then performance and event management? So we're looking at providing them with classes taught by professionals, taught by industry experts. And that's why Carl Cannon and Jay Goldberg are going to be designing this.

… And in the building of it, there are going to be over 200 jobs that are going to be available to the trades. So people who want to learn a trade can work on that. And the equity portion of that, of course minority-owned businesses will be involved in that construction, hired by CORE. They have a history of using minority-owned businesses. So all we're covering it on the front and the back.

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Hannah Alani
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WCBU
Sara Connor-James addresses the public during a press conference at Donovan Park on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021.

Hannah Alani: Last time we talked, you mentioned wanting to have some public meetings. What has the feedback gathering process been like? And have you received any feedback that's actually led to any concrete changes, or consideration of concrete changes in the proposal?

Sara Connor-James: We have had fabulous responses. As I mentioned, when people are told the truth, and they're showing that what they had been told was not accurate, and they get the real picture of what the Pavilion is going to be like … they are 100% supportive. … So far, nobody has given us any information or things that would cause us to change the design. We're still seeing that this as world class.

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

One of the things that I found very interesting when I was talking to some people who were in the performance industry, is that because of the way we're building the building, with the wood interior and the acoustics for natural sounds, orchestral sound, is that we will attract international orchestras, like the Vienna Philharmonic. So that we can bring to Peoria, talent we've never had before. Because when they're planning their worldwide tours, or national tours, they don't come to Peoria. Because we don't have a facility that has the acoustics that they require, they go to Bloomington. Well, we don't want to lose the business to Bloomington. So having this kind of thing attracts more talent than we've ever had before.

And some of the things that people have expressed concern about is, “We’ll we have so many performance centers.” And what I've learned by talking to the experts in the field, is that the more performing arts centers you have, the better. Due to the nature of bookings … when the Civic Center, for example, has a show coming in, it's booked for two weeks, while another group can't come in. And so they go to Bloomington or Champaign. … It doesn't mean that the smaller entities like Betty Jayne or the Women's Club or something like that won't get talent. The people who come to the Civic Center, or to the Pavilion, are not the people who are going to go to those smaller venues, because the price per ticket would be astronomical. … So it's not competitive, it's actually cooperative, so that we can bring more talent together.

Hannah Alani: I'm glad you brought up ticket prices ... People are probably wondering, “Is a show at the Pavilion gonna, you know, cost me an arm and a leg?” Can you explain how the pricing of tickets is going to work?

Sara Connor-James: Part of it is the number of seats we have – 2000 seats; 1500 undercover, 500 outside – that means that when the performer, big ticket performer comes, the cost is spread out over the seats, so it naturally brings it down into the $40 to $50 range, depending on the performer.

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Pavilion in the Park
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A rendering for the proposed Pavilion in the Park in Donovan Park.

Being a not for profit, we don't pay tax. So that also helps with the ticket pricing. And furthermore, because we are giving $100,000 back to the Park District over each year that we're open … we're able to benefit the park by the increased attendance.

Hannah Alani: Can you tell us a bit about yourself? How long you've lived in Peoria and your history in the city?

Sara Connor-James: I am a Peoria native. … I come from a legacy of people who made it their mission to make pure better. My dad's motto was, “Polish your corner of the world.” And he led the downtown redevelopment back in the 60s. So he was a major force. And my grandfather, George Luthy, was integrally involved in the Park District. … He was president of the park board for several years … and Luthy gardens are named for him. So environmental issues are part of my background. I'm a birdwatcher. I love the outdoors. I feed deer in my backyard. I mean, it's, it's part of the synchronicity of how I look at things. You have to be integrated into your environment. God gave us the creation for us to tend. And that's the way I look at it. … Our design with the Pavilion is to make it something that's organically harmonious with the environment, not something that is a, just an imposition.

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Hannah Alani
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WCBU
Sara Connor-James poses for a photo in the WCBU newsroom.

Hannah Alani: And what is your professional background? What skills are you brining to this project?

Sara Connor-James: I was a professional actress and a director in Chicago for several years. And then I got married and became a mom. So I was very active in our community. We lived in Pennsylvania and Chicago. And then we came back to Peoria. And here I have been involved in various community things … the Heartland Festival Orchestra … I was an event manager for Riverside Community Church. So I have been trying to follow in my family family's footsteps of making things a better place, leaving the world better than when you entered it.

…I left the theater [in 1985] to become a national account manager. So I worked on an international company called Arthur Andersen and Company, and Anderson Consulting. So I traveled extensively to handle that clientele. And so I I've learned a great deal about business and how business works. As well as being a banker’s, daughter and granddaughter, I have to understand how finances are.

Hannah Alani: What is the best way for our listeners to get in touch? To provide more feedback?

Sara Connor-James: Go to our Facebook ... And also, they can go to our website ... or email info@pavilioninthepark.com. We really want to meet with homeowners, so please contact us.

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Pavilion in the Park
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A rendering for the proposed Pavilion in the Park in Donovan Park.
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