A LOT To Be Desired

Times

Silence isn’t easy. In the case of the looming fate surrounding the Pekin Times building, it is more holding my breath. How do you help a city that seems to not want your help? I’ve written about Pekin sparingly here. Since it has been the place I’ve called home over the past 28 months I haven’t been too hard on it, but rather tried offering constructive criticism and a helping hand in what to most people would call – a city in need of help.

Cities are complex and fragile organisms. What makes them tick is often misunderstood, and when an unfamiliar situation arises strange techniques are haphazardly applied to solve problems. There are too many times where decisions are made in hopes of things “getting better in the future,” or that this is “the only time we should need to do this.” One thing leads to another, and after a few decades a city looks and operates completely different than it used to.

Downtown Pekin has seen its fair share of changes over the past century. Like most, it has gone through its ups and downs. Realistically, it is bound to look differently at the end of the day. So it’s not with a nostalgic eye that I look back, but an eye dedicated to the details of understanding what worked and why it worked. As an advocate of historic preservation, I was first interested in saving the charming, architectural artifacts of yesteryear, but as my passion for the past has evolved – so has my knowledge of what in particular needs to be preserved.

The Pekin Times building has been both iconic and functional since the 1890’s when it was previously known as the Zerwekh Building. Albert Zerwekh, a German immigrant established himself as a successful baker, and he built the Zerwekh Building to house his bakery and confectionery at 20 S. Fourth St.

The Pekin Daily Times, one of five newspapers at the time, located to the building next to the larger building in 1905-1906. The history of the building is quite fascinating and I recommend reading more [here] and visiting the Pekin Public Library’s community history section. But the history of the owners, the events that occurred there, and the businesses that have occupied space there are not the reason I write this.

Pekin serves as the County Seat of Tazewell County, and the County operations are set amongst a traditional downtown square. As the fifth largest employer in the city of Pekin (2012 demographinc profile), the County has also been faced with a challenge of recent. There is no parking available for jurors come time for jury duty, workers have limited day-time spaces, and their buildings are at capacity. Now depending on your range of sympathy for this, it has been taken as something of a pressing need to be addressed.

With the Pekin Times operations slowly dissipating due a decrease in print services, combined with the consolidation of resources at Gate House Media at the main location in Peoria, the building had been listed for sale for some time [Loopnet]. The original asking price of $695,000 is what caught my eye. Hearing mixed rumors regarding the condition of the interior of the building, this seemed a bit high at the time. The price decrease of $100k was necessary, but yet, the price of $595,000 still was too high for the average investor.

Enter Tazewell County and their parking epidemic and building needs. As taken from an article from September 2011, by the news outlet of which is at the center of focus [article]

After more than a century at 20 S. Fourth St., the Pekin Daily Times will move locations — pending county board approval of a deal for Tazewell County to purchase the Daily Times building and turn it into a parking lot.

County Administrator David Jones said the county and the Daily Times have reached a tentative agreement in which the county will buy the old brick building and the adjacent parking lot for $255,000.

Jones said he has recommended the county raze the building and replace it, at least short term, with a parking lot because the location right across the street from the McKenzie Building means the building is sitting on prime real estate.

“Parking is at times an issue for the county now that we’ve consolidated most of our constituent service offices in the McKenzie Building,” Jones said.

At times an issue is right. Only at very, very particular times does this cause a minor inconvenience to those summoned on a particularly unpleasant day. Aside from those times, downtown remains a ghost-town. A hollowed out shell of its former glory. Those back in the day sentiments hold some truth. Yes, it was better. That was before things that I have previously chronicled here, and it wasn’t just architecture or shops we loved. It was the entire experience. Downtown meant something. It wasn’t just a place to park.
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The County approved the acquisition of the Times Building and the neighboring building as well for $267,000 in 2011. What? Yep. Not quite the asking price right? Well, someone has a different real estate agent than I do apparently. The fair-market value, which is only that of a flattened parking lot, was going for twice the agreed upon price. Something’s a bit foggy there. I digress.

That purchase ended up being delayed until April of 2012 as some of the finer print was worked out [delays]. All was well for the Times as they were happy to be relieved of their ownership of the building. They were eager to pack up shop and move on [clearance]. Once the contract was ironed out, the Times transitioned, but the County seemingly hadn’t done their homework to find out how much demolition, clearance, and paving of the lot would cost.

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The new TIMES bunker… I mean building.

Moving along the timeline to February of 2013, the County approved the demolition and awards the contract for the removal of the asbestos to the tune of $33,850 [story]. Along the way, the demolition bid of $208,300 was awarded and hopefully some of the remnants can be sold on eBay [link]. True story folks.

Recent news has unfolded that Tazewell County Board approved the purchase of the neighboring property and the 3 buildings across the street, which were also for sale and purchased for a combined $305,000 [story].

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There has been a failure to recognize why these building need to be saved.

For those counting at home, the tab is up to $814,150 for the acquisition of property, remediation, and demolition. We still have yet to get the numbers on the cost to actually, you know… make it a parking lot or repurpose the buildings. So far, this sounds like an expensive endeavor, one that will not only tear at the seams of the community’s history, cost them in the pocketbooks at the same time, and all the while, fail to make downtown Pekin a pleasurable place and vibrant center again.

It seems that our civic leaders hadn’t been coordinating on the issue that affects both City and County. At the very same time, the City of Pekin was dealing with an issue of their own – what to do with a problematic parking lot? You see, the City owns a parcel of land in very close proximity to the Courthouse, which is at the center of attention. Previously, a fire damaged two buildings on Court Street. When the buildings were demolished in the mid-1980s, the debris from the buildings was allowed to fall into the basements, dirt was placed over it and it was paved. As you might imagine, this was very short-sighted and caused problems further down the road [City To Fix Collapsing Parking Lot].

This would have cost $346,355 to fix according to estimates. It would have provided 40 spots that could have been rented out for $25/month, and would have saved $X,XXX,XXX.xx as compared to the running tab that has come with the County’s plan for the Pekin Times Building. Win-win? Nope. The City, short on vision and funds, decided to turn the lot into greenspace for $20k! Come on Erik, you’ve got to be kidding me, right? Nope.

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My tone is not only to reflect the financial disbelief, but the complete breakdown of leadership and those who are allowed to make these decisions that affect the entire community. We have engineers, administrators, economic developers, and managers alike to watch over this. And to an extent they do, but the elected officials are the ones who unanimously vote these things through.

Preservation, as the name indicates, can not only save buildings, but it can save money in the bottom-line. It’s not only less waste in a landfill, but less waste of space in a setting like downtown. Pekin has been dealt the same hand as many cities across the country where downtown is no longer the central focus. Subdivisions, strip malls and typical sprawl have gutted the downtown. This has been recognized for a long time, as there was a TIF District created for the central business district.

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Tax Increment Financing is meant to be used as a tool to redevelop blighted and under-performing areas. Without going into a full-tilt explanation of how they work (wiki), the goal is to increase property values and capture the increase in taxes to use towards future developments. They have had varying degrees of success across the country.

Specifically to the argument in Pekin, the TIF has been used to improve building facades and interior renovations. You can look down the 200 Block of Court Street to see how a block from the mid-1800’s has been given a new life. The old Elk’s building has been repurposed. Many other properties in the district have seen improvements, and as a result, an increase in property values.

However, with the primary focus of development still being placed on the outskirts of town [Veteran’s Drive], no strategy has ever been put into place to actually have a structured plan of development in the area that needs it the most and serves the most people.

Serving on the Board of Directors of the Pekin Main Street organization, sitting on the City of Pekin Planning Commission, and previously serving as a member on the City of Pekin’s Zoning Board of Appeals – I have had my fair share of thoughts regarding downtown development. I’ve even gone so far as to create my own library of documents and concepts (see Community Development)

A TIF works best when you INCREASE the tax base.

Removing buildings from the tax rolls for parking does the complete opposite. Not having buildings to see improvements or gains from removes that ability to aid future development.

What happens when you DECREASE the tax base? No one has been able to answer this question. If you demolish buildings and are left with parking, does this reduce the amount of the TIF Fund? It would seem that would be the case.

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If we think that these are tough economic times I’ve got news for you – they’re only going to get tougher when we don’t collaborate, spend more than what’s needed, remove buildings which remove the tax base that our tax system is based off of, and continue down this path of least resistance.

So you voted for the guy or gal who you thought wasn’t going to increase your taxes? If you increase spending and remove taxable buildings, what do you think the end result is if you still require the same day-to-day services? Yup, higher taxes…

Here’s a five year summary of the taxes collected of the properties that have been purchased by Tazewell County:

taxes

My research indicates, that from the years of 2008-2012, the County received $98,453.32 from these properties which they just purchased. The chain of events that follows is as you can see on the property of 28 S. 4th St. That is the old radio station building which the County bought and it was EXEMPT from taxes in 2012 – meaning no taxes are collected because… they are the taxing body.

Please feel free to do your own data mining on the Tazewell County Tax Assessor website [LINK].

As you can see, there will be severe financial implications from these transactions. Not only was the $814,150 to purchase, remediate, and demolish $467,795 MORE than the cost to fix up the old City owned lot, but now you are taking money out of the coffers to be used for everyday services a town needs.

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But it doesn’t stop there. The last thing Pekin needs is more parking. There are readily available lots to create new parking, arrangements that could be made differently, and there are buildings around town that might actually be able to serve the needs now and into the future for the County.

For instance, the SUD Building is currently for sale for $990,000 [LISTING]. This is large enough for immediate accommodations for both parking and offices needed. In fact, because of its suburban-style, it has those features built-in. Not having seen the inside of the building myself, I would have to assume that by Commerce Bank’s current location there, it is immediately habitable.

Parking, parking, parking… Is it a problem? No. Tearing down functional buildings that add to the fabric, heritage, and diversity of a downtown is the problem. All of the properties purchased by the County have viable life left in them – especially the Times Building.

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As I mentioned at the beginning, the history of the building itself lends to what the future could hold. It wasn’t built to serve as a location for a newspaper, but it was able to evolve into it. There are no shortages of ideas of what to do with the building itself. It is rich in history and can serve as a long-lasting reminder of the purpose of a downtown.

Recent critics of the new regional economic development push have to take a good look in the mirror. If you expect your counties to grow, you won’t be able to do so by tearing down what made them sustaining in the first place. Mixed-use, compact, and connected cities are poised for much success in the future. It’s funny how collaboration has been a continuous issue. It’s also ironic how short-sighted decisions and the lack of a coherent planning strategy has created what we currently live in. Right now, the title of this post says about as much as the content. The vision and direction of Pekin and Tazewell County – leave a LOT to be desired.

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4 thoughts on “A LOT To Be Desired

  1. What about all the TIf monies the city is using to expand their area?? Between 5th and rt29 and Koch and VFW??? They have a rather large area of land now. Then the plans not only to put in the ring road, but the expansion of rt29 to a 5 lane road. I live in Normandale and they plan on putting that in front of my house. Taking land from my lot, instead of taking it to the east which is the industrial park. Just a thought.

    1. Thanks for reading Ron! The industrial park is on a different TIF, I hate the idea of the ring road and other road expansions that have leveraged State monies (which we don’t have) and are now obligated to long term maintenance which we can’t afford due to lower EAV’s. It’s a mess to put it simply.

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