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Peoria Park District's executive director touts event success, aims for progress

Peoria Park District Executive Director Emily Cahill sits at her desk in the administrative offices at the Noble Center.
Joe Deacon
Peoria Park District Executive Director Emily Cahill sits at her desk in the administrative offices at the Noble Center.

On the heels of a second Park-A-Palooza event she deemed a success, Peoria Park District Executive Director Emily Cahill has a full slate of programming for the weeks and months ahead.

“It's just one of those things, I could talk for days about all the stuff that we do,” said Cahill, who also touted facility upgrades in an extended interview with WCBU.

“Our team is so creative, and we look forward to just bringing a lot of really fun, new things to do. There's always something to do in Peoria; don't let anybody tell you otherwise.”

A big change Cahill hopes residents will embrace is how the district will pivot to five midday hours of alternative programming at Glen Oak Park on July 3 following the cancellation of the traditional fireworks show.

The offerings from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. will be a part of the district’s “The Streets Belong To Me” series.

“We'll have reduced admission to the Peoria Playhouse, the Children's Museum and Peoria Zoo; lots of fun activities,” Cahill said. “We'll have food trucks, we'll have music, we'll have activities for the kids, all for free. So we hope people will come out to experience that.”

In March, the Peoria Park District board voted to cancel the fireworks for this year, after police and neighbors raised concerns about safety and youth unrest.

Along with the scaled back July 3 at Glen Oak Park, Cahill plans for a larger celebration later this year are on track but still a “work in progress.”

“We have suggested to our board, and they are excited about the idea of us trying out something new; so, on Sept. 7, we'll be hosting our first ‘Founders Day,’” said Cahill of the idea to mark the 130th anniversary of the park’s dedication.

“That will be a larger scale Glen Oak Park celebration that really, really celebrates the history of Peoria and all the great things that we love about the park district and being on the East Bluff.”

Cahill noted both of the new Glen Oak events will utilize park district funds that had been intended for the July 3 fireworks in the 2024 budget.

She said park district personnel will continue to provide support for the “Red, White and Boom” fireworks show along the riverfront on July 4, which this year is sponsored by Choose Greater Peoria.

“So we'll be busy. It will look a little bit different, but we hope people will embrace it as we start to get more information out about those two – actually, three – events,” she said.

Cahill says last weekend's Park-A-Palooza event on the riverfront improved on last year's inaugural program.

“It's one of our favorite things that we do; I think it went really well,” she said. “We measure that by not only attendance but also just experience, and I feel like this was another really quality, positive experience on the Peoria riverfront, which is what is really valuable to us.”

Cahill said attendance for the Saturday night drone show increased significantly from a year ago, and food trucks were still busy more than an hour after the show ended. She said other attractions also proved to be popular.

“We loved the soda pop experience and look forward to trying to do that again,” she said. “So, it checked the boxes for us. Is there room for improvement? There always is. But it was an outstanding event.”

Cahill says she expects the riverfront will be busy again this weekend, with the Taylor Swift tribute band Burning Red performing a sing-along show at 6:30 p.m. Saturday.

Another upcoming programming adjustment involves a switch with a popular Halloween event.

“Over the last four years, we've done Lakeview Park After Dark, which was our drive-through event,” Cahill said. “Last year, we reached a point where people were sitting in their cars waiting for two hours at a time to get through the event. We really took that as a signal that we've outgrown Lakeview Park.

“So what we're going to do is utilize Peoria Zoo and put all of our exhibits and animatronics and really fun activities into that space, and then utilize it for the entire month of October.”

Cahill said work on replacing the Tri-Centennial playground at Glen Oak Park is in the final stages. The decades-old wooden structure was removed last fall.

“Everyone was sad to see it go, and we were too,” Cahill said. “If you drive past there today, you will see the bulk of the elements are in place for a fully inclusive, accessible playground that will be finalized later this year. We still have poured-in-place surface to go in and then some fencing.

“But that is an absolute gem for us, that's about a $1 million playground investment in Glen Oak Park that we look forward to celebrating soon. In conjunction with that, we are also putting in new restrooms there and a shelter house in that space, so that people will be able to enjoy that space in groups.”

Cahill said in the next few years, the district will need to explore a “reimagination” for the Owens Ice Center since the R-22 refrigerant used to keep the ice frozen will no longer be available.

“Obviously, it's not an ‘ice’ center and you can't ice skate if you don't have ice. So that's a necessity for us,” she said.

Cahill added they hope to have a new splash pad installed and operating at Lakeview Park by next spring or early summer. Additionally, she said they may add more pickleball courts at some locations and improvements at the Peoria Zoo are being considered.

“If you're not changing, if you're not meeting the changing expectations of your evolving community, you're not doing your job,” Cahill said.

Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.