February 2007
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What’s best for the Heights?

This will be my 94th post in the “Kellar Branch” category, and in all those previous posts I don’t believe I’ve ever once looked at the situation from the viewpoint of Peoria Heights. I suppose that makes me a typical Peorian. Back in the ’60s, right after Peoria’s successful vote to annex Richwoods township, the city tried to annex Peoria Heights, too. That failed. They’re a resilient and independent community, and they have their own unique needs. It would be good for Peorians (including me) to remember that once in a while.

Peoria Heights AdWhen I talked to Peoria Heights Mayor Mark Allen on Thursday, he explained to me how he sees the Kellar Branch issue. Unlike Peoria, he said, the Heights is completely landlocked. They can’t just annex land to the north or west of their community to grow. They can’t build a regional mall along the fringes of town like Peoria can. All they have for economic development is what’s available to them right now within their village.

And the Kellar Branch corridor is one of their assets. They own the portion of the Kellar Branch that lies within their village. So they have to ask themselves, what’s the best use of that corridor for the Heights? A rail line or a recreational trail? In Mayor Allen’s opinion, the answer is definitely a rail line. And he believes a majority of the Village Board feels the same way.

With a rail line, there’s always the potential to carry freight, of course, and that can be used to lure a rail-served business to the Heights. But it also can provide another tourist attraction to complement the Heights Tower and shopping district: a tourist trolley. As Thursday’s Journal Star pointed out:

…according to a report from Gomaco Trolley Co., more than 40 U.S. cities are looking at running street cars. Tampa, Fla., spent about $55 million on its system and has reaped about $1 billion in development; Little Rock, Ark., spent $20 million on its line, which has returned about $200 million; and Kenosha, Wis., built a system for $5.2 million that has brought in about $150 million.

Those numbers are compelling. It would be crazy for the Heights to not consider the potential of a trolley for the development of their village. If the Park District gets their way and tears out the tracks, they’re gone forever. The Village is wise to give this idea due consideration before any permanent action is taken.

In contrast, a recreational trail can’t begin to measure up to those numbers. Trails are not conducive to shopping. Consider the average trail user: they’re exercising, they’re hot and sweaty, and they’ve packed light. They’re not going to buy clothes or jewelry or anything that they’re going to have to carry on foot or by bicycle 4-6 miles back to their car. They’re most likely to buy something to drink, and maybe something to eat, depending on how far they’ve come.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that — but the Village has an obligation to its citizens to make the best decision for the future of the Heights. Right now they’re gathering information, but it looks like they could be in a position to start making some decisions as early as April of this year.

Allen expressed his desire to work with Peoria on this project — he has no interest in being adversarial about it. He thinks this could be a mutually-beneficial partnership for the two municipalities. I’m inclined to agree.

We have a lot of unique, local attractions that are all tied together by that rail line: Downtown (including the Riverfront, Civic Center, future Museum, etc.), Peoria Heights (including Tower Park and their unique shops), Junction City (including Vonachen’s Old Place where you can eat on a vintage train car, plus more unique shops), and yes, even the Rock Island Trail at the other end of the line. Why not band together to provide a true tourist package to Peoria Area visitors?

Wouldn’t it be a great story if the Village that fought annexation forty years ago ended up being the impetus that drew our communities closer together?

40 comments to What’s best for the Heights?

  • Mahkno

    Wonder if the trail advocates will start pushing to annex the Heights too… to ensure the rail becomes a trail.

  • justanobserver

    CJ: Saw a piece on the Travel Channel last night about a Pub Trolley in Helsinki. It takes a 45-minute tour of the city and has a bar. It’s very popular with the locals.

  • I live almost right next to the tracks. I have to say I have mixed feelings on what the City should do. However, I would be in favor of the Trolly. It gives both the City of Peoria, and the Heights a way to bring connecting commerce at the same time upgrading the quality of living. Who wants rail cars with who knows what inside them next to your house?

  • David P. Jordan

    I hope Mayor Allen has come to his conclusion because he has done some of his own independent research. It sounds like he has. Large numbers of tourists will come to ride a trolley and they will patronize shops and restaurants. Peoria Heights will lose with a recreational trail as relatively few people will jog or ride their bicycles through town, rarely making a stop to buy a bottle of gatorade.

  • The Mouse

    Mayor Allen makes a lot of sense. I hope he has the courage to stand up to the trail nutcases.

  • Sharon Deckard

    The trolley program includes the commuter rail system that will connect with the downtown in relieving traffic, fuel emmisions, stop and go traffic that is getting worse by the day. The second part of the trolley program is to bring tourist to the “other” side of town, the Heights, Junction City, etc. Then there is the part of the program where you can rent the trolley for weddings, retirement parties, birthday parties, business meetings. The original program calls for putting on a dining car in the evenings or on the weekends. A shuttle from the station stop on Prospect takes passengers up to Tower Park and to the antique stores in the Heights, to Leaves N Beans for coffee, etc. Junction City is putting in many great shops and a very upscale restaurant right along side of the tracks. Take visitors to our area on the Trolley ride and to dinner there. There are many options with the trolley. Its not just one sided. And the trolley can carry bike racks just like the buses downtown do. Also it will be retrofited with a handicap lift and it will be heated and air conditioned for the appropriate time of the year. It can run on batteries or a hybrid version that is coming out that is battery/diesel. One of the buildings in Pioneer Industrail Park with a railroad spur can be bought to park it in at night for daily cleaning and maintenance service. As Mayor Allen has pointed out in his research there is money to be made here both with the trolley and with the people it will bring to the Heights especailly to spend money. Also it will bring at least 44 people at a time, not one or two.

  • Sharon Deckard

    Another note on the trolley and the commuter rail service is that Midwest High Speed Rail is working on getting Amtrak connected to all the major areas in Illinois within the next few years. Studies are currently being done and planning is underway. This trolley will assist in bringing people from the outskirts of the area to downtown to catch Amtrak and go to Chicago, St. Louis and wherever with in no time flat. Do your business, go to work, shop, etc., and be back home within the same day and still within reach of your vehicle in the city limits of Peoria to conclude your day. You can use your laptop, Ipod, whatever as you travel back and forth.

  • Martin Palmer

    Curious if the City of Peoria will sit down and talk to the Heights. Seems the Heights has been left out of the process.

    Can we say “Railroad” and trail combined?

  • bob

    Will the trolley run till 4:30am on weekends? That would help a lot when coming back from the bars. It’s a 40 minute wait for a cab on the weekends. This could probably prevent a few DUI’s.

  • I think the Heights standing up to not wanting discontinuance of rail is great news, but I think this Trolley business is a dead-end. I’m surprised at how many seem to think that people will actually use it. Look, I think tearing out the tracks would be a terrible terrible mistake, but I think the argument should stick to the nuts and bolts of business development; the tourist trolley is just a distraction from the real issue. If it helps the end result, then I applaud all of you who are behind it.

    From what I’ve seen, all this trolley talk only give the trail-only advocates humorous fodder to put down the non-trail-only advocates and/or show how desperate and delusional the non-trail-only advocates are.

  • I forgot to add- it’s not just that we shouldn’t tear out the tracks, but we need to get to a point where businesses are comfortable that they could locate on the Kellar rail line without fear that they’ll be ripped out in 5 years. That is, and has been, the biggest problem at hand and I hope Peoria Heights will help in this cause as they seem to want to.

  • Mazr

    Let’s not forget Khazzam.

    I have a feeling that someone that has put that much money into an area that is affected by the decision will have some sort of influence in the matter. And he is on the “no trail” side.

    His ascension as a “player” in such a short period is pretty interesting.

    What’s your opinion, C.J.? I know you’ve conversed with him regarding the subject.

    (Plus he was handpicked to eat with Dubya)

  • Mazr, Khazzam is for the trail. However, he recognizes that a trail isn’t going to be an economic boon to him, either.

    PI, they can scoff at the trolley idea, but it has proven successful in other cities, such as El Reno (Oklahoma) and Kenosha (Wisconsin). There’s actually pretty good evidence that a trolley would be a more successful tourist attraction than a trail.

  • Mazr

    I meant Khazzam is “no rail”.

  • Sharon Deckard

    Alexis Khazzam is in the process of putting in some pretty pricey apartments on the Junction City site that will butt up against the rail line. Part of his selling points to the new apartment owners is that there will be a trail right outside their doors. Also several of the businesses that have established within Junction City have a clause in their lease that if the rail stays in they can get out of their lease with no penalty. He told me that this was not a big problem but that it did exist. What I don’t like is him getting up in front of the city council and telling them that if the trail doesn’t get put in he won’t finish his development and put another $45 million in it. Now this is a actions of a petulant child. You eithe play my way or I am going to take my toys and go home.

  • anonymous

    I don’t believe that such a clause exists in those leases at Junction City. That only became somewhat public knowledge well after Alexis Khazzam got involved in this. I know he’ll never do it, but I’d love to see a copy of one of those leases. Even if by some minor chance that’s true, do you think a business is going to leave there if a streetcar dumps 40 people at the place every half hour on a Saturday in June?

  • Mahkno

    Hmm Junction City… the name kind of implies there should be a railroad there. Maybe he shouldn’t call it Junction City if there isn’t a railroad.

  • My thinking may be whack here, but it would seem odd to me that someone who has spent as much time, effort and money to restore Junction City to its current better state as Khazzam has, wouldn’t\couldn’t stand to see undeveloped space not making him more money.

    I’m with P.I. on this one…I don’t know if the trolley would work, but as long as its a private, non taxpayer funded identity, go for it…can’t hurt.

  • Does Peoria Heights really own the line that runs through it? I mean just because the rail line runs through the Heights doesn’t mean they own the land (right of way) that it sits on. Example: say it was a heavy used line owned by Union Paciific. The cities it runs through don’t own the rail nor control it. So, it seems to me that way back when Peoria City bought the line, they bought the rights to the whole line no matter if it runs through the Heights or Moline. It seems to me that although the Heights would like to use the rail, they have no rights to it anymore than they would if say..Union Pacific owned it. Am I wrong here? Please enlighten.

  • Aside: I know Peoria paid over a million dollars for the Kellar Line, what did the Heights pay for their side? Or did they pay anything for it? I haven’t seen a post that says only posts that say the Heights own their portion. If the Heights does indeed own their part, then it was stupid not to take Pioneer’s offer, which by the way didn’t even mention the Heights? Who would by a split up line?

  • anonymous

    Far as I know, the section in Peoria Heights was in fact, deeded over to the Heights. There is no doubt that Peoria Heights OWNS its section. Pioneer offerred to be buy the entire line, not a section of it. Without Peoria going along with it, Pioneer would have no interest in owning a section that no one even receives freight on.

  • David P. Jordan

    Peoria Heights paid $250,0000 for their section of the line, reimbursing the City of Peoria, which purchased the entire line from Chicago Pacific Corp. for $856,000.

  • It was my understanding that Peoria bought the entire line for over a million. If Mr. Jordan is correct, then the city has only about $600,000 invested in the line. Why in the name of all that is holy didn’t the city take $750,000 offer from Pioneer? And if the Heights owns it’s end of it, then did anyone ask them about selling? The trail people say they have grants and money in place for their trail. What is it going to cost me, the taxpayer, to keep this trail up every year? Is the Park District, the same one that let Glen Oak go down the toliet going to manage it?

  • David P. Jordan

    The City of Peoria did put an additional $350,000 into rehabilitation of the line but it’s unclear where that money came from. It may have been grant money as well. Property taxes generated by Gateway Milling when it was located at 1625 W. Altorfer from October 1986 to early? 2003 (Gateway came to Pioneer Park specifically because user fees were eliminated) certainly helped as did those from an expanding O’Brien Steel.

    One thing for sure, the City would have received very little revenue if they’d kept the $175 per car user fee. If I were Pioneer, I’d pay the $750,000 for just the Kellar Branch and let the City deal with the western connection. Maybe Pioneer could lease it from the city if they can develop some business at Growth Cell Two as otherwise, it’s useless. Some of the $750,000 should go to Peoria Heights but perhaps Pioneer will offer Peoria Heights additional money for their portion. I don’t know if that money is for just Peoria’s portion or not.

  • Karrie E. Alms

    Emtronics writes “Is the Park District, the same one that let Glen Oak go down the toliet going to manage it?”

    Not sure. However, it is troubling that the same PPD is involved that is also draining taxpayer’s pockets for the Riverplex and the Zoo Expansion. It is sad indeed that the basics are not covered while new flashy projects are created.

    New projects are not just the ‘brick and mortar’ costs which are sometimes privately funded. It is the ongoing maintenance funding as well as additional staffing with benefits and retirement pensions which add further cost to the taxpayer.

  • Sharon Deckard

    1. Yes this is the same park district that let Glen Oak Park go down the tubes and it is also the same park district that runs the Recplex that is continutally in the red.

    2. I asked Alexis Khazzam directly face to face if this clause to allow businesses out of their lease was in the leases and he said yes, but he didn’t think it was going to be a problem. Also, he is intending to advertise the trail for the new tenants of his apartments at Junction City. I spoke to him and he confirmed this in a meeting we had. I had someone with me that can confirm this.

  • Alexis Khazzam

    JC supports the trail There is no doubt that we will have to completely change our develpoment plans if the rail service continues. It would be almost certain that we would NOT develop apartments there for obvious reasons, and would have to consider new, potentially more industrial options for development and revenue. Having said this, it would be a sad end to what is currently a beautiful project that we hope will forever be an aesthetic enhancemnet to our city. The same is true for Knoxville place. They are not developing an approx 15m-20m because of this issue, and JC’s numbers are substantially higher than that. As far as the Trolley is concerned, as much as I like the idea, I just dont think it has any legs, for many reasons. The main one being, that if the rail stays, and the city plans to attract new businesses to use the rail, a Trolley line will only be an interference in those dealings. most of the cities that operate a trolley service, DO NOT have active freight services of those same tracks. Peoria is a booming economy right now, we have many many attractive places to locate businesses to. What we need are more cultural and health environments to attract citizens. The trail is a very easy choice for me to vote on, for personal, economic, and PEORIA benefit reasons

  • David P. Jordan


    Rockford’s park district operates a trolley on Union Pacific’s otherwise freight-only “Loves Park Spur.” The Freight trains are short and run Monday, Wednesday and Friday and the trolleys generally operate the other days.

    Regarding the Kellar Branch, a siding is already in place at Peoria Heights, so a trolley and a short freight train could pass each other without causing any interference to each others’ operation. Radio communication between crews would allow for coordination of operations without any problem (trolleys would get the priority for the benefit of its passengers).

  • Returned To Peoria

    Why can’t condo development occur along an active rail line? For example people in Chicago purchase $400K+ condos and $1M+ houses that abut commuter rail lines. These residents endure far more rail traffic and noise than trains on the Kellar Branch would create, but it’s not stopping them. Additionally Moniers Flowers and Three Dog Bakery owners expressed ambivalence about the Kellar Branch when asked about it on local news (WMBD?). If they have no problem with rail it stands to reason rail would not deter other retailers. I appreciate your investment in Peoria but I don’t believe revival of Kellar Branch rail spells doom for Junction City.

    The PPD controls almost 9000 acres of land, providing plenty of open space for Peorians to enjoy. There is no need to tear up a rail line that could serve businesses more effectively than the Western Spur. I’m fine with a trail, but not at the expense of the tracks.

  • Bill Pearsall


    I do understand how you could use the trail to market, as it can be a good selling point. But I do not understand why they could not be there if the rail stays. I know this is not Chicago or Moline but there are good examples of condos being built next to higher used rail lines than the Kellar Branch would be. In Moline, The Aeries condo units are going for around $300,000. They abut up to the rail line, although the Mississippi River is across the street, the rail line is more heavily used then the Kellar would be.

    Again, I do understand how the trail would make a good selling point for the condos, but I think there are other options than pulling out the rail line to put a trail in. I think it would be best for Peoria to go with dual use!

  • alexis khazzam

    I truly understand everyone’s point of view, and I said before, there is really no right or wrong in this issue. Its just opinions and people fighting back them up. There are successful and unsuccessful examples of both. The deeper you dig, the stalemate grows further. So, from my point if view (and this is only 1), I believe that JC cannot develop apartments by a rail. I suppose we could, but we wont, because it does not fit the vision (aesthetic and economic) that we envision for this project. We are trying to develop a 1 and only (extremely unique) shopping living center and the rail just does not fit. There many more reasons im backing the trail, but in the end, I just think its better for Peoria. The trolley on its own has no legs, the trail rail solution has no legs. Its just a trail or rail debate, amd for me, I like trail

  • prego man

    Alexis, you think that an apartment overlooking a trail OVERPASS is going to pack ’em in? The kids on the OVERPASS will be able to look into the third story windows of your apartment complex. And, don’t tell me that the Park District will not put an overpass over Knoxville. It’s going to be dangerous enough to have Cub Scouts and bikers crossing Pioneer Parkway, Glen and Prospect. Having them cross Knoxville is asking for a death a month.

    So, you’ll have to ask yourself… what will your apartment tenants want to look at. A maintained rail that brings, say, about 5 or 6 loads of stuff a WEEK, and a cool streetcar passing by… OR, looking out into an OVERPASS where the kids are throwing gum at the windows.

    You just have to get some distance between yourself and Uncle Ray. I know your business instincts are telling you what the right course is, but you just figure that business will be better with those politicos in your corner. That will work for awhile, but not forever. The streetcar will make everything on your property MUCH more valuable than the OVERPASS, for cryin’ out loud.

  • Alexis Khazzam


    Appreciate your comments, and I understand your point of view. Once again, I will state my position. Everyone has their point of view on this issue, and the more you dig into economics or politics, the further the stalemate grows. I just represent me, and for anyone that knows me, I will say that I do as I feel. I do not ally myself, or act to gain any political advantage whatsoever. Frankly, that is not an issue to me. The issue is what I think is right for the J. We have a dream here, and that is to make 1 of the best and most unique new urbanism centers in the US. A complex that will gain National recognition. I simply will not develop apartments overlooking a freight line. It would kill the vision. Of course, we will still develop, but it would probably be something entirely different. Having said this, it is my non-economic personal belief that the trail is better for Peoria. So both my economic and personal ineterests are pro trail.

  • Alexis,

    First, thanks for your input on this issue. I appreciate you taking the time to explain your stance.

    I would be interested to know why you think “the trail rail solution has no legs,” though. I think that’s a very viable solution — a win-win, in fact. Most of the corridor can be shared — even the park district admits that. There are some places where a trestle would have to be built or the trail would need to move onto a residential street that sees little traffic. The only objection the park district has to this solution is that they say they would lose their grant money.

    A few things about the grant money:

    1. They jumped the gun in applying for that grant in the first place. They applied for it and got it before they had legal authority to replace the rails with a trail, and they still don’t have legal authority to do so. So poor planning on their part shouldn’t be dictating what “must” be done with this corridor.
    2. The grant is for a Class I trail, meaning that it has to be separated from the roadway. But the scope of that grant has already changed once. The ITEP grant was originally for 6 miles of the trail (1999), but was reduced at the Park District’s request to cover only 3.1 miles (2005). This indicates to me that the scope could be reduced to only the segment of the ROW that can be built to Class I standards, and the remaining portion could be put on-street, just like they’re doing in Springdale Cemetery.
    3. Other grants are available. In fact, most of the trail has been completed with IDNR grants.

    Maybe that’s too much detail, but my point is that there is room to compromise. The Park District tries to make it sound like there is no way to make a rail/trail solution work because of a supposedly ironclad contract, yet they have demonstrated their ability to modify that contract when they want/need to. I don’t believe the Park District is being forthright on this issue.

    Rail and trail can happen. It should happen.

  • MDD

    Wouldn’t the renters of these high-end apartments generally work in downtown Peoria or even Pioneer Park enjoy commuter rail taking them to/from work right from their door steps? Since you are spouting the new urbanism thing, wouldn’t that totally play into it?

  • Alexis Khazzam

    MDD, that is a good point and I have considered it as well. CJ, never enough detail!!!! anyway, from the information I have received, the price to do both the rail and trail is abs prohibitive. So with that in mind, I wont even pursue it since I feel the obstacles to get it done are just too great, we could never afford it.

  • If you think it’s prohibitively expensive, it’s most likely because you’ve gotten your info from the Park District, either directly or through the RTA. Is it this spreadsheet by any chance? If you have other info than that, I’d be interested in seeing it.

    The Park District info to which I linked is unreliable. It wasn’t done by an engineer, it doesn’t include information on how they determined how many trestles were needed, it doesn’t say how they determined the cost per square foot for construction, and it assumes that on-street solutions are not possible.

    The Park District has not made a serious effort to try for a win-win here. Their numbers were written with the predisposition that a rail with trail solution is too expensive and won’t work. You can bet that if the Park District wanted a rail/trail solution, they would find a way to make it work, just like they found a way to make other portions of the trail, the RecPlex, the Zoo, and other projects work.

    Don’t believe them when they say it can’t be done, Alexis. You’ve already proven that a little creativity can overcome a lot of obstacles. Embrace the “genius of the and,” as Jim Collins would say! 🙂

  • Alexis Khazzam

    CJ, I have not even seen a park District spread sheet, but thanks for sharing it. Our cost analysis has been done by an independent out of State engineer, whom has experience in these dealings. I know the Heights is conducting a similar survey. I will keep our copy undisclosed for the time being, until we need to use it. Trust me though, it cannot be done on our budget

  • Sharon Deckard

    “Now this is a actions of a petulant child. You eithe play my way or I am going to take my toys and go home.”
    I have to apologize to Alexis and to the rest of you for my name calling. It was inappropriate and unmannerly. I should be above this kind of thing but I think my old age and temper got the better of me. I do sincerely apologize and will restrain myself in the future from such name calling.

  • Alexis Khazzam

    Dear Sharon,

    thank you so much for your comments, I really appreciate it. It easy to carried away when issues are so emotional and so much is at stake. I very much admire your perseverence with this issue and your dedication to teh cause, even though it does not match mine. Thank you again.