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West Bluff residents ask Peoria park board: What fills the space left by Columbus?

Tory Dahlhoff
This statue of Christopher Colombus stood in Laura Bradley Park until the park district board of trustees voted to remove it in 2020.

The Peoria Park District Board of Trustees voted to remove a statue of Christopher Columbus from Upper Laura Bradley Park in 2020. Since then, the conversation around a suitable replacement has created friction between the Uplands neighborhood and the park board.

On Wednesday night, the board of trustees voted unanimously to follow the planning commission in denying a request to place a statue of Hebe, a minor Greek goddess of youth, in Upper Laura Bradley park.

The decision is the latest in a long back and forth between the West Bluff Council, the Uplands Neighborhood Association, and the park district.

Since the removal of Columbus, residents like West Bluff Council President Conrad Stinnett have been advocating for a replacement. But why Hebe?

“There was a statue of Hebe in the park, from like World War I until the late 1950’s,” said Stinnett. “It was put in. The park board decided to honor Laura Bradley, the park namesake, with that as kind of a representational statue.”

Stinnett claims the statue was removed for repairs after it was hit by a car and never returned.

Board President Robert Johnson says park staff have never been able to find a paper trail to track down the Hebe statue.

Johnson says he wants to avoid the board going through another controversy like Columbus. He also argues a replacement statue wouldn't be a responsible usage of taxpayer dollars.

“I’ve said from the beginning, I did not hide my feelings and I told the Uplands organization,” he said. “I’m only one vote though, that I was not in favor, from the beginning, of another statue.”

On the matter of money, there's also a relevant policy approved by the board in August 2022. It states: "no public dollars will be allocated to proposals submitted for consideration." It also doesn't allow for honoring any one specific person, past or present.

Stinnett says he believes this situation should be exempted, since the conversation around a replacement for the Columbus statue started before the policy was revised. There is a clause in the policy that allows for exceptions in “special circumstances.”

“I find it ridiculous that, if we wanted to put a statue of Betty Friedan, who lived within a stone throw of Bradley Park, in Bradley Park, they have a policy in place to prohibit that,” Stinnett said. “We have wonderful Peorians who need to be honored and I think the park district should be the leaders in doing just that.”

Some board members seem to agree with Stinnett, on the issue of cost at least. At Wednesday night's meeting, trustee Tim Bertschy said it was unfair to expect the community to pay for a replacement. And Trustee Alex Sierra said it may be time to revisit the wording of the policy.

Johnson says this surprised him.

“We’re not in the business of building statues in parks and paying for them,” he said. “That is not radical and sensible use of funds. Now, if they themselves came up with money or funding, it depends on what type of maybe statue it is, I don’t know.”

It's worth noting, Wednesday night's vote didn't end the possibility of any replacement in the space where Columbus once stood. An amendment to the motion tasked district staff with assembling potential options and presenting them in December.

As Trustee Reagan Leslie Hill points out, this could be any number of features, anything that enhances the UX, or "user experience."

“I am an artist and thinking about kind of a statue and what that can do,” she said. “But then also something that might be more interactive or offer water, or nature. UX design is very vast.”

Johnson says he would reconsider his stance on using park district funds as long as whatever ends up filling the space is not a statue.

But Stinnett is still unsatisfied. He says the position of the West Bluff Council and Uplands Neighborhood Association members remains unchanged: they want a Hebe statue.

“Always looking to listen to ideas and reasonable points of view,” he said. “But I also think that the positions of the West Bluff Council and the West Bluff neighborhoods should have been more listened to. Particularly by those trustees who directly represent the area. I was disappointed that I didn’t hear that from them.”

It now falls to the staff of park district executive director Emily Cahill to suggest solutions. She says the request comes at a busy time for the park district, as they work to finalize a new budget.

But Cahill insists the staff can still find a way forward.

“What we want to do is make sure that, when that decision and that directive is given by the board, that it is given with as much information as possible,” she said. “So that they are fully informed when they pick a path.”

And, it's important to note, any decision made at the December board meeting won't be final. Cahill says the new year will be used to collect more public input, as they wait for spring and weather that would facilitate a new project.

“If we start with some options, we found that is much more productive than just saying ‘what do you want?’” she said. “Because you’re going to wind up with everything from ‘I want green space’ to ‘I want a roller coaster.’ And some of those are viable and some of them aren’t.”

It remains to be seen if any option presented would satisfy what the vocal members of the West Bluff community are looking for. Stinnett says the whole situation isn't representative of the leadership he's "come to expect" from Johnson.

Johnson sees it differently. Sometimes, he says, a leader has to make an unpopular decision. But, at the end of the day, he's one vote on a board.

The first December meeting of the park district board, where the options are expected to be presented, is Wednesday, December 13 at 6 p.m. in the Noble Center.

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