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Downtown Pekin has the businesses. Now it needs the people

Coffee Connection employee Vikki Barker works the espresso machine at the business on Court Street in Pekin.
Collin Schopp
/
WCBU
Coffee Connection employee Vikki Barker works the espresso machine at the business on Court Street in Pekin.

Improving downtown Pekin is a focal point of attention for the city and its residents.

Director of Economic Development Josh Wray says the city has big plans for the area, though the timetables may be changing.

“The budget cycle that we just went through, the projects that were previously planned had to get pushed out into future years,” he said. “I mean, they’re still on the list. They’re still going to get done. We just have to make our money work where we can.”

Wray says initial improvements total about $4 million, with about $500,000 budgeted this year and about $1 million planned for next year.

On top of this, Wray says the city has applied for a $2 million federal grant through the Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD. While the budgeted dollars prioritize "hard infrastructure" like sidewalks and roads, Wray says the grant funding could go towards "niceties."

“Making [downtown] quaint, making it nice, making it streetscaped, making it, placemaking, as they say,” he said. “Making it where people want to come and spend their time.”

Pekin Main Street president Terri Gambetti stands in front of Court Street's "pocket park," one of the beautifying features of the downtown area.
Collin Schopp
/
WCBU
Pekin Main Street president Terri Gambetti stands in front of Court Street's "pocket park," one of the beautifying features of the downtown area.

Attracting people and their dollars is a priority for Terri Gambetti, president of Pekin Main Street, a group of community members and business owners with committees on everything from greenery to homelessness.

“Every successful community has a vital downtown and this is our mantra,” she said. “And our mission is to revitalize and grow our central business district. There’s always been some sort of downtown business association for at least 90 years.”

Gambetti lists off almost twenty businesses that have opened in the Main Street area, actually Court Street and its associated crossroads, since the group reorganized their board two and a half years ago.

The list includes everything from a barbershop and restaurants to a community theater and tattoo parlor. Gambetti says things have gotten more "service oriented."

“When I was growing up, [it was] five and dime stores, shoe stores, clothing stores,” she said. “But we have a really good mix downtown right now and I’m quite proud of the direction that we’re headed.”

As an employee at Coffee Connection, Vikki Barker provides one of those services. She's also the vice president of Pekin Main Street.

“People like to come together and they like to be in a place where they’re wanted and they feel comfortable,” she said. “Everybody just loves the vibe here and they’re all very comfortable.”

Barker says the business community is tight knit downtown, brought together by their shared interest in improving the area. Of course, business owners depend on it for their livelihood, but she says there's also an appreciation for the history.

“Old downtowns have a certain feel to them,” she said. “I love the buildings, the architecture, the history. It’s just, it’s a great place to be.”

However, that history can sometimes be a hindrance. For example, as you drive down Court Street, you may notice a lot of empty second floor windows. Gambetti says many building owners can't use those spaces because there's no water service to second floors for fire suppression systems.

Restaurants like Ashers and stores like Hamm's Furniture line court street, the second stories of these historic buildings are generally unoccupied. A lack of water service means no fire suppression systems.
Collin Schopp
/
WCBU
Restaurants like Ashers and stores like Hamm's Furniture line court street, the second stories of these historic buildings are generally unoccupied. A lack of water service means no fire suppression systems.

“The water lines are on the South side of the street and the majority of the upper stories of our old, beautiful historic buildings…are on the North side of the street,” she said. “So to get those water lines underground is like, super expensive.”

Gambetti says construction bids for the project can be anywhere from $30,000 to $40,000. That's out of the financial reach of downtown's small business owners.

Josh Wray mentions the water lines specifically as a possibility for future city work through HUD funding.

“That’s one way we’re trying to help the business community get more bang for their buck out of their buildings,” he said. “When they come and they renovate an old building and want to open a store or a restaurant, then they can have this upper story living out for rent.”

Cars fill every space of available street parking on a Tuesday morning in downtown Pekin.
Collin Schopp
/
WCBU
Cars fill every space of available street parking on a Tuesday morning in downtown Pekin.

Downtown Pekin, Gambetti says, isn't really a place where people live right now. But, she would like it to be. Mixed-use buildings, the classic apartment over the restaurant or coffee shop, are the future in Pekin Main Street's sights.

“Because it makes for a more vibrant downtown. You don’t have to have a car. You can just go to the coffee shop, you can just go to seven restaurants we have downtown now, quite proud of that,” she said. “It just makes for more business downtown.”

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