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Erik Reader keeps his eye on downtowns

Tim Shelley

Erik Reader has a thing about downtowns. It doesn’t matter if they’re small or mid-sized or if they’re on a river or surrounded by cornfields, Reader wants to see them get ahead.

As president and CEO of the nonprofit, Illinois Business Financial Services (IBSE), an organization that helps a business acquire real estate or equipment through Small Business Administration 504 loans, Reader stands ready to render assistance across the state.

“We can help businesses out. We partner with local lenders. We’re headquartered here in Peoria but we serve all of Illinois,” said Reader.

In addition to his IBFS job, Reader does consulting work for towns. Some of the area communities he’s worked for in recent years include Havana, Monmouth, Pekin and Aledo. But he’s not saying he has all the answers. If you’re looking for a silver bullet that will revive small towns, it’ll be hard to find, said Reader, noting that each town must deal with a multitude of factors.

Reader’s experience with downtowns includes stints as head of the Greater Muscatine Chamber of Commerce and executive director of the Downtown Rock Island Partnership. “Rock Island did a downtown revitalization in the late 80s and early 90s. The community rallied together to form ‘the District.’ They have a new vision now,” he said.

No matter your vision, the job of bringing back downtowns isn’t for the fainthearted, he indicated. “Sometimes it’s hard to get members of the community on the same page. Now the change in how the workforce works has opened up the door to more changes,” he said, referring to the work-at-home movement that’s continued since the pandemic subsided.

With his offices in Downtown Peoria, Reader, who originally came to town over a decade ago, is directly involved with the development of the Twin Towers Mall (the first floor of the building at 456 Fulton St.) now that IBFS has taken over the property.

There are empty storefronts in the Downtown, admits Reader, noting that downtowns across the country have deteriorated since shopping malls became popular in the 1970s and 1980s.

But he sees progress in Peoria, citing the city’s Warehouse District as an example with stores like Zion Coffee, Black Band Distillery, Bearded Owl Brewing and Casa de Arte. Taking a broader view of the area, Reader said the Peoria region has also seen growth in places like Morton and Washington.

“You can point to places like Havana, a town with a population of 3,400, that’s also seen a resurgence,” he said.

Steve Tarter retired from the Peoria Journal Star in 2019 after spending 20 years at the paper as both reporter and business editor.