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'I look forward to it so much': Park District looks to reinvent Third of July at Glen Oak Park

The 3rd of July fireworks at Glen Oak park are a tradition dating back decades, some Peoria area residents grew up with them. This photo is of the large stone sign at the entrance to Glen Oak Park, it reads: Glen Oak Park, Peoria Zoo, Luthy Botanical Gardens, Peoria Playhouse. It is surrounded by bushes.
Collin Schopp
The 3rd of July fireworks at Glen Oak park are a tradition dating back decades.

The future of an East Bluff tradition is up in the air.

After years of declining attendance and rising safety concerns, the Peoria Park District is re-evaluating the July 3rd fireworks at Glen Oak Park.

Changes are noticeable to Breanna Moses. She is a Bartonville resident now, but she grew up on the East Bluff and returns to Glen Oak Park for the July 3rd fireworks every year to watch fireworks in the same spot with neighbors.

“Most of the people that we would go and sit with and sit around, do not go anymore,” she said. “I think they have, pretty much since COVID, stopped going.”

Moses has also noticed fewer local vendors, and she had her own run-in with violence at the event.

“Not last year, but two or three years ago, we were postponed leaving for a good 45 minutes because somebody punched somebody out on my car, like on the hood of my car,” she recalled.

Moses says her family now has a serious conversation every year about whether or not to go. They have discussed strategies to leave quickly after nightfall, when she says most of the issues seem to arise.

Moses' family is far from the only one having these conversations. The Peoria Park District is aware of this too. Executive Director Emily Cahill said the event needs to be "reimagined" and the first step is a survey the district is circulating through the community.

“What happens around the fireworks, before, during, after, are things that we certainly want to hear from the community,” she said. “To see if, that inventory of offerings, if it were to change, what impact that might have on levels of participation and engagement in the event.”

Cahill says the district's target is to offer a "family friendly" event. But Moses says she's noticed a demographic change over the last few years, with families with young children supplanted by more teenagers and younger people.

These observations line up with a view held by Park District Board member Steve Montez that the problems can be traced back to unaccompanied youth.

“I’m going to say it’s a very small number, of the number of a particular age group,” he said. “That’s really not interested in community events as much as they are disrupting, or being a disruptive group, at events like this.”

More security at the event presents its own challenges. The Peoria Police Department, Park District Police and Fire Department already send personnel.

Peoria Police Chief Eric Echevarria explains it presents a staffing issue as it is.

“Because guess what? When everybody else gets to go home from sitting at an event, we’re out here until two, three, four in the morning dealing with the rest of the parties around the city. It’s not just the event that happens downtown on the Fourth of July,” he said. “Same thing happens on the third of July because of what happens at that park. So, I need my team rested up.”

Echevarria describes the security concerns last year as widespread.

He can't pinpoint an exact number, but he said there were a lot of fights. He told WCBU about one incident when police observed someone running through the crowd with a gun, and then throwing it away. The gun was never recovered. He said it's also difficult for emergency vehicles to get in and out of the area.

“Then all of a sudden you have this group think,” Echevarria said. “One person gets in a fight, the next person gets in a fight. And let's involve alcohol in this and drugs in this, right? And everyone is consolidated into specific areas, just a recipe for disaster.”

If it were up to him, Echevarria said the event would be canceled until the park district comes up with a plan to pivot.

Others, like Steve Montez, believe that's unnecessary. He said the safety issues could be addressed by attracting more parents and their children back to the event again, and by reversing the attendance numbers that slid and never bounced back after COVID.

Still others, like Breanna Moses, just don't want to see a long-held community tradition go. She said she is encouraged by the park district's survey and their efforts to find a way to rework the event in a way that addresses the concerns.

“It’s just, I don’t know, I look forward to it so much every single year,” Moses said. “Like, this is one of the few events that I contribute financially to that isn’t like a, I don’t want to say nonprofit, but like a charity, because it means so much to me.”

The tradition isn't going anywhere immediately. Cahill said the park district is working through to purchase fireworks from their vendor for this year's Third of July event.

The survey remains open through this Friday. You can find the survey here.

Cahill says the Park District staff will compile the results of the survey and present them to the Park Board in late March or early April.

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