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Here's a closer look at the planning underway to revitalize downtown Pekin

A wayfinding sign along Court Street in downtown Pekin.
Tim Shelley
A wayfinding sign along Court Street in downtown Pekin.

The city of Pekin is developing a plan to revitalize its downtown business district along Court Street.

It's an effort years in the making. Earlier this year, the city hired on Reader Area Development, Inc. to begin formulating a vision of what downtown Pekin could be.

Erik Reader is the president of the company. He said while the Tazewell County seat has a functional downtown where people work and live, part of what makes a business district vibrant is getting people to linger and have fun, too.

"So whether it's being able to park down at the riverfront being able to walk on up through downtown, or if you're just stopping into to get a bite to eat, could you park once and be able to wander around? So, you know, ultimately, the goal is to have that great mixture of things going on. Really good public spaces that people feel comfortable spending that time in," Reader said.

Matt Fick is the economic development manager for the city of Pekin. He said communication has become more critical over the past two years, as COVID-19 transformed business retention and attraction efforts. That includes closer coordination with the Pekin Area Chamber of Commerce, and reinvigorating the Pekin Main Street group.

"It's not really us as economic development people that move the needle, it's the business community and the property owners and those types of folks," Fick said. "So we're just kind of the conduit to try to help them engage and have some resources to offer them as far as some financing options and things like that. So we're here to help but really, they do the heavy lift."

Reader said part of revitalization is preservation.

"When you think, I guess, in terms of revitalization, people are starting to envision what's next to come. But that's not to forget what's already there," he said.

That not only pertains to the businesses already operating in the city's downtown, but the physical infrastructure, too.

"(It) doesn't matter if it's a small or a large community, but preserving those buildings, making sure that your your historic core is in great working condition for the next 50 to 100 years, is one of those first steps."

Reader said the upper stories of some of the older buildings may also offer residential opportunities. He said having housing options downtown opens the door to new residents.

Tazewell County's footprint in downtown Pekin could be changing

Tazewell County government's plans for its downtown Pekin properties will figure prominently into the area's future. The county has $23 million in COVID-19 relief funds available for construction projects, as well as an additional $6 million in funds set aside. Reader said the county's actions could serve as a catalyst for additional development.

"If you've already got some major investment, soon to come, some good things that have happened along the way over the last 5 to 10 years, you can start to leverage and stack those investments," he said.

Fick said the city of Pekin has met with the county about its plans, and he hopes for more discussions before the county government locks its plans in.

"I know they've acquired some land and they're going to demolish some buildings, but I guess preserving some of their underutilized assets like the old post office and some other structures," said Fick.

The county's discussions include possibly moving the county health department from Tremont to Pekin, and potential remodeling or additions to the county courthouse. Deteriorating structures like the Tobin Building and the Arcade Building could potentially face demolition.

Opportunity on Pekin's waterfront

Much like Peoria and East Peoria to the north, Pekin is an Illinois River city. But both Fick and Reader agree the waterfront isn't living up to its full potential as an integral part of the downtown area.

That's not to say there's no activity happening on the river. Reader calls the Pekin Boat Club a "hidden gem," and said the Riverfront Park also has potential to host music, yoga, and other events. But he said making the most of the opportunity may come down to which direction the city wants to take.

"The city of Pekin does own real estate there and has worked over a lot of years to assemble property. So that is a huge strategic advantage, in terms of economic development," Reader said.

He said riverfront development could run the gamut from commercial to residential.

Fick said the city tentatively explored possibilities for riverfront development five years ago, but the timing wasn't right, but he feels momentum behind downtown revitalization may eventually spark progress along the river, too.

"It's not a very scientific way of explaining things, but it just feels like things are changing. In the downtown, there's just a different energy, more interest. The business owners are engaged. So I would think, you know, the riverfront is next," Fick said.

What's next?

The planning team will host a downtown walking tour on Saturday, Nov. 19 at 9 a.m. It starts at the Coffee Connection on Court St. The tour allows walkers to assess the current state of downtown, and offer feedback and suggestions for improvements. A consumer survey is also planned.

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.