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Peoria City Council takes first steps to cover $20 million in Civic Center funding needs

Rivermen fans applaud after a unanimous vote from the City Council moves a plan to cover a funding gap at the Peoria Civic Center one step further.
Collin Schopp
Rivermen fans applaud after a unanimous vote from the city council moves a plan to cover a funding gap at the Peoria Civic Center one step closer.

The Peoria City Council is one step closer to an agreement providing an additional $20 million in funding to the Peoria Civic Center for a range of needed improvements, including replacing the machine that makes ice for the Peoria Rivermen.

The decision has drawn extensive community attention, as the lease agreement between the Rivermen and the Civic Center is set to expire, and it’s believed a new ice plant on the horizon, with an estimated cost upwards of $3 million, would smooth out the negotiating process.

At the Tuesday night council meeting where the plan was unveiled, more than a dozen fans filled the chambers wearing Rivermen jerseys. After the city council voted unanimously to have staff prepare a formal version of the plan to vote on at the next meeting, Rivermen fans cheered and applauded.

“This was a team effort. And now we're going to the second period tonight, hopefully,” council member Denis Cyr said just before the vote to draft the ordinance. “And now we're going into the third period, which means there's still a lot of work to do. But we will get there eventually.”

City manager Patrick Urich laid out the rationale and details of the plan for the council.

“(The Civic Center) did a study several years ago that identified that they had about $47 million of unmet capital needs,” said Urich. “And they have been, fortunately, the recipient of a $25 million state grant.”

There’s an itemized list of these capital needs, improvements ranging from the crucial ice plant to new flooring and carpet, hot water heaters and roof repairs.

In addition, Urich said there are about six years remaining on bonds issued for a Civic Center expansion in 2007, payable in January of 2029. The city pays debts on the Civic Center through revenue from a Hotel, Restaurant and Amusement (or HRA) tax. Urich’s staff looked at the structure of the 2007 debt, to see if it was viable to add more bonds.

“As we started to look at that, I believe that we could afford a $20 million issuance of debt to provide additional capital expenditures for the Civic Center Authority,” he said. This wouldn’t cover the entirety of the $47 million estimated funding gap, but would make great strides for improvements at the venue.

“I would ask for council’s full support as we go into this” said council member Sid Ruckriegel. “Because this is an enhancement for our Rivermen. It's an enhancement to our Civic Center. It's an enhancement to our downtown. It's an enhancement to Peoria. And this is an enhancement to all of the areas around Peoria. This is really keeping the crown jewel.”

Other council members also spoke in support of the plan, though some weren’t pleased the council had to make the decision. Council member John Kelly said he would vote yes, but said the council didn’t “have much choice.”

“I'm very upset that a facility of this size and a community asset of this importance has not been continuously reinvesting capital,” he said. “ I was shocked, as I said a couple of weeks ago, that they were $25 million behind in capital. I was just being naïve. $45 million behind.”

Kelly wasn’t alone in his skepticism. During public comment, one resident requested the council take a closer look at the Civic Center Authority Board’s management practices.

There were some other concerns with the plan to address. Urich told at-large council member Beth Jensen the plan takes into account years where revenue from the HRA tax could dip, and he believes the city would remain financially stable. Also, the replacement of the ice plant wouldn’t happen until 2024 at the earliest. Ruckriegel assured Kelly the current machine could survive a 2023-24 season.

“We will limp the ice plant along,” Ruckriegel said. “It has done really well on being able to support our Rivermen hockey for a lot of years, we will get it through for one more year.”

Ultimately, Rivermen fans and family expressed their gratitude for the unanimous vote and show of support from the council during public comment.

“I feel like we are being heard by the comments I heard today. That was really touching to me,” said Emily Hagaman, the wife of a Rivermen player and active member of the Operation Save The Rivermen Facebook group. “I appreciate all the work that you've been doing. This is not over. I've been attending all of the meetings and following all of the stories in the news. I won't promise that I know everything that you guys are doing or how you're doing it, but I am willing to learn about it.”

The next step is a formal council vote on an ordinance, expected to be a part of the March 14 council meeting. The Civic Center Authority Board also is holding a special meeting on March 13 to discuss the details of the arrangement.

Medina residents oppose annexation agreement

Though the Civic Center funding gap agreement occupied a large portion of Tuesday’s night meeting, it opened with a public hearing on the proposed annexation of two parcels of land north of Peoria that the council approved after a lot of discussion.

The properties in question are in Medina Township, an unincorporated area separated from the Peoria city limits by a strip of land owned by the township referred to as the “Medina Wall.” The proposal will allow developer Chad Herman of Fenceline Properties to subdivide the two properties on the other side of the wall into smaller lots for single-family homes.

“There's rumors of factories, Section 8 homes, a lot of fear mongering going on about what our purpose is,” said Herman. “And our goal is rural residential homes on large tract lands that are completely in realm with all the community around us.”

Still, residents had concerns about floodplains in the area, compliance with city code and what the annexation agreement could mean for the future, particularly the encroachment of city limits over the Medina Wall.

“I have nothing personally against Peoria. But the reason why we live in Mossville is because we don't want to live in Peoria,” said Mossville resident Alan Curry. “I don't want to live in Chicago. I don't want to live in Chillicothe. I want to live in Mossville.”

Peoria County Board member Brian Elsasser speaks on behalf of his Medina township constituents at the Peoria City Council meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023.
Collin Schopp
Peoria County Board member Brian Elsasser speaks on behalf of his Medina township constituents at the Peoria City Council meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023.

Peoria County Board member Brian Elsasser also spoke in opposition to the annexation, citing a petition with more than 300 signatures collected by resident Rick Schotthofer.

“I think this is about relationships,” said Elsasser. “I've been saying, and I said it in my email that I sent to all of you, the city does best what the city does. The county does best what the county does.”

When asked by council members for more explanation on the measure, Urich and corporation counsel Patrick Hayes explained the city has a 1 1/2-mile extraterritorial jurisdiction beyond city limits and the annexation was necessary since the properties won’t connect to public sewers.

“Located between this parcel in the city of Peoria is the Medina Wall. It's unlikely that this property would ever potentially become contiguous with the city of Peoria,” said community development director Joe Dulin. “ But the reality is, it's still important for the city of Peoria and the residents of the city of Peoria to have this agreement in place to protect the residents who live close to city boundaries to ensure that zoning stays what it is.”

The council voted to approve the annexation 10-1, with council member Denise Jackson voting "no."

Other issues at the meeting included a presentation on affordable housing efforts from Dulin, the approval of a land transfer for a memorial to the forgotten Moffat Cemetery on South West Adams Street and the first steps for a program that would collect “fire recovery fees” from insurance providers for the Peoria Fire Department’s services.

The next meeting of the Peoria City Council is scheduled for Tuesday, March 14.

Collin Schopp is a reporter at WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.