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Familiar arguments resurface as advocates again pitch performing arts pavilion to Peoria park board

The Peoria Park District Board of Trustees hears an update from the Pavilion in the Park group advocating for a performing arts center at Donovan Park.
Tim Shelley
The Peoria Park District Board of Trustees hears an update from the Pavilion in the Park group advocating for a performing arts center at Donovan Park.

Proponents of a performing arts pavilion in Donovan Park are making another sales pitch to the Peoria Park District's board of trustees.

Wednesday night's meeting at the Noble Center drew a large crowd of opponents and proponents alike. Many of the arguments for or against the pavilion echo those voiced at length last year.

Sarah Connor-James is the president of not-for-profit behind the Pavilion in the Park. She said the agreement on the pavilion in the southeastern corner of Donovan Park was withdrawn after the group realized they needed more community engagement.

Connor-James said the pavilion is a "basically carbon-neutral" structure that would use 1.6% of the total park as non-green space. She said the rest of the 18-acre project would be green grass akin to a golf fairway, but with the ability to support vehicles of up to five tons.

The parking area would use permeable grass pavers made from 100 percent recycled plastic. She said the pavilion group would also collaborate with the Illinois Central College Horticulture Department to plant 250 new trees and an assortment of landscaped natural habitat.

"Families and people from every walk of life will enjoy this magnificent world class gathering place for decades," she said. "We have no debt and no investors. We will create an endowment for sustainability. We will interview top venue management and talent booking companies to ensure its success. The Pavilion project will not cost the taxpayer a single penny."

The park is a former golf course that the park district is allowing to largely return to a natural state. To the Friends of Open Space group, the parkland in the heart of the city is a natural oasis worth preserving as-is.

Joshua Gunn is president and CEO of the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce. He said talent attraction is the number one challenge he faces, and projects like the Pavilion in the Park could make the city more attractive and convince more youth to stay in Peoria.

"There are thousands of youth who feel like this is Nowhereville. And the last thing they want to do is live in a place where they feel they have no access to opportunities," Gunn said. "So I challenge you to do your best to be open minded to this project. Because it could completely transform the experience for so many of us, and not just relegate those experiences to those of us who have means and access and will happen to live in proximity to the experiences that we desire."

But Peoria resident Peter Baumgartel told the board preserving Donovan Park or promoting arts and economic welfare is a false choice.

"The trade off, it just isn't there. We want this pavilion. This is a wonderful idea, and we want the arts, but not at the expense of Donovan. It is too precious of a jewel. And once it starts to go, it disappears and it won't come back," he said.

Former park board trustee Matt Ryan said green space was named as the highest priority on the park district's needs assessment during his tenure. A performing arts center on public park land wasn't.

"I don't see any representation from any organization who's in performing arts this evening saying they're going to work with you. I want to know that you will go out and work with them. They probably all have some financial need. And now you're going to compete with them," Ryan said. "So, I don't think you should. You need to work with all those people. There's plenty of venues out there."

Alex Crowley of Peoria said that's not necessarily true from his perspective as a millennial and father of a young family.

"I'm sick and tired of going to stuff and me being the youngest person. I just am. And we need some change," he said.

Eric Clifton is a 60-year veteran of the Peoria Astronomical Society. He said stargazers are skeptical about claims light and heat pollution from the pavilion won't disrupt activities at the Northmoor Observatory, despite measures described by the PAV in the Park group. Clifton said the group also heard assurances Cyd's in the Park wouldn't affect the views - a promise he said hasn't held up.

"So when we hear talk about light pollution, and (how) that's not going to be a problem, we're a little gun shy about hearing that," he said.

Pavilion in the Park advocate Dr. Nina Debello Bush dismissed concerns about light pollution from the venue affecting stargazing at Northmoor Observat

"With Proctor Hospital, Junction City, when Knoxville was put in, that light pollution has really (been) maximized. So in terms of the telescope, we are already at peak light pollution at this very moment. So the damage to the observatory would be no different than right now," she said.

Connor-James asked the park district to form a new subcommittee focused on the pavilion, with park board trustees, PAV in the Park board members, community members, and park district staff involved.

After the meeting, Peoria Park Distict Executive Director Emily Cahill said the Pavilion in the Park proposal was left "in limbo" a year ago. She said the park board voted by consensus to bring the proposal back and make a final determination whether it should receive further consideration.

The board is set o take that vote at its December 14 meeting.

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.