February 2018
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40 years of Northwoods Mall

Artist's rendering of Northwoods Mall from 1971 promotional material

Artist’s rendering of Northwoods Mall from 1971 promotional material

It opened on August 16, 1973 — 40 years ago next month.

Northwoods Mall was Peoria’s first indoor shopping center, and it was a long time in the making. It was conceived by Carson, Pirie, Scott, & Co., longtime downtown department store anchor and successor to Block & Kuhl. In 1961, they acquired the land bounded by I-74, US-150 (War Memorial Dr.), and Sterling Avenue. Back then, this was the very northwest edge of town. There was no Westlake Shopping Center (that would come shortly after Northwoods was built), let alone Glen Hollow. The land and roads were rural.

Soon, Carson’s partnered with two other downtown stores to become equal partners in the venture: Montgomery Ward and JC Penney. In 1965, a coalition of downtown merchants and some merchants from Sheridan Village raised objections to the rezoning and filed suit against Carson’s. By 1970, the lawsuits were settled out of court, and in February 1970, the Peoria City Council gave final zoning approval.

Construction of the interior of the mall, 1973

Construction of the interior of the mall, 1973

Groundbreaking took place on October 26, 1971. It would have retail space of over 700,000 square feet in the middle of 56 acres of land and cost $25 million to build. That’s roughly equivalent to $144 million today. There was space for over 100 stores in addition to the three anchors. Almost 3,700 parking spaces were provided for shoppers. When it opened, it was the largest indoor mall between Chicago and St. Louis.

The mall was designed by Chicago architects Sidney H. Morris & Associates. Original tenants (in addition to the three anchors) included Seno & Sons Formal Wear, Campus Music Shop, Moore Jewelry, Stride Rite Shoes, Susies Casual, Baker Shoes, Jeans West, B. Dalton Book Sellers, Kay Howard Shop, Petrie Stores, Brooks, Byerly Music, Browns Spoting Goods, O’Connell’s Restaurants, Kinney Shoes, Thom McAn, Foxmoor Casuals, Konee’s Restaurant, Fannie May, Tie Hut, Fact Foto, Florsheim, Aladdin’s Castle amusement center, Musicland, Evenson’s Card Shop, Just Pants, Claire’s Boutique, Dutch Mill, Burton’s Shoes, Fab-N-Trim, Page Jewelry, Honey Bear Farm cheese and gourmet food store, Gallenkamp shoes, National Shirt Shops, Paul Harris Stores, Helzberg Jewelers, Orange Bowl fast food store, Regal, General Nutrition, Singer, and Savings Center Enterprises (development corporation owned by First Federal Savings & Loan Assoc.). [See complete list of tenants c. 1984 by clicking here]

The mall was managed by Harold Carlson Associates of Chicago from its opening in 1973 until November 1983. In May 1983, Carson’s sold its one-third share in the mall to Cleveland’s Jacobs-Visconsi-Jacobs mall management firm, and in October, Wards sold their share to Melvin Simon and Associates (now Simon Property Group) of Indianapolis. Simon was chosen to manage the mall in November 1983, and it now fully owns and manages Northwoods. The change in management wasn’t without its critics. Several store owners at the time told the newspaper that Simon was more interested in getting national chains than supporting local stores. Simon countered that they felt they were providing the right mix of chain and local shops to serve the needs of the community.

Original Northwoods logo

Original Northwoods logo

The original center court included a 40-foot-tall wood sculpture and a large, four-faced clock tower. There were also sunken seating areas throughout the mall where weary shoppers could rest. These have all been removed in subsequent renovations. The most recent renovation was in 2005. JC Penney is the only remaining original anchor. Carson’s closed in 1983 and was replaced with Famous Barr in October 1985. Famous Barr was later acquired by and changed over to a Macy’s store. Montgomery Ward went out of business in 1997; Sears moved from downtown to Northwoods in 1998.

Perhaps the most famous tenant of Northwoods Mall was the Skewer Inn. In October 1983, 28 people who dined at the Skewer Inn contracted botulism from tainted onions served sauteed on patty melt sandwiches. The sickened restaurant guests survived (well, one person died months later, possibly in part due to complications from the illness), but the restaurant didn’t. Although they tried to reopen, they never could rescue their reputation.

One restaurant that didn’t make lists of tenants was The Nordic House. It was located inside Carson’s on the lower level and had a Scandinavian theme. According to the newspaper, the restaurant “face[d] an outside garden area on two sides, with sculpture and plantings enclosed by a wall attractively blended into the architecture of the building. The restaurant will offer buffet and waitress service for lunch Monday thru Saturday, dinner Monday thru Friday, and will be open for buffet service only on Sunday.” It received good reviews for food and service in later newspaper accounts.

It didn’t take long for Northwoods’ impact to be felt downtown. Just a year after it opened, a study was released that showed sales were down in the old central business district. Downtown retailers tried to stay positive, but within a decade, most of them had closed their downtown stores and either moved to the suburbs (“if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”) or disappeared for good. Today, the central business district is predominantly parking, offices, and civic buildings.

I called Northwoods to see if they have any plans for a fortieth anniversary celebration. They said their plans were not finalized and they were not ready to announce anything at this time, but they’d let me know. If I find out anything, I’ll post the update here.

Share your memories of Northwoods in the comments section below.

1978 postcard advertising Northwoods Mall

1978 postcard advertising Northwoods Mall

Wal-Mart wants Peoria Stadium for new Super Center

walmart-supercenterPEORIA — Attorneys for Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., have notified the City of Peoria, the Peoria Park District, and Peoria Public Schools (District 150) that their client wants to purchase “a portion of Peoria Stadium on War Memorial Drive … for the construction and operation of a Walmart Super Center.”

The letter states that they have read the recent Peoria Journal Star articles on public reaction to selling the stadium site, and that they are “committed to working with each of the public bodies to arrive at a mutually beneficial development.”

Wal-Mart proposes that the school district sell the entire 76-acre site to the City of Peoria. The City would then sell a portion of the site, adjacent to War Memorial Drive and New York Avenue, to Wal-Mart for them to construct their Super Center. Another portion of the land, “within the Stadium Site closer to Lake Street,” would be leased to the Park District to satisfy terms of the Park District’s grant from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR). Any remaining parcels would be sold.

Wal-Mart also proposes that the City of Peoria create a business district for the entire stadium site. A business district is an economic development/incentive program under state law. Incentives include reimbursing a business a portion of the cost of redeveloping land within the district, rebating occupation taxes, and even levying taxes within the business district for the purposes of redevelopment. The City currently has such a district downtown called the Hospitality Improvement Zone Business Development District; an extra 1% tax is collected in the HIZ BDD to help pay for the Pere Marquette redevelopment and Courtyard by Marriott construction.

Walmart-Peoria-Stadium Letter (PDF)

More not-so-shocking news from the museum group

The finagling museum CEO Jim Richerson is trying to get more of your money, Peoria County. You thought the museum would be satisfied after you foolishly agreed to raise your own sales tax rate during a recession to give them $40 million. Now you’ll see why giving money to the museum is like feeding a stray cat — they keep coming back for more.

The Journal Star chronicles some of the ingenious ideas Richerson the Schemer has cooked up to get his fingers in your pockets:

  • Have the county reimburse the museum for some “outstanding capital costs” so they can free up some private money to purchase some Ansel Adams photographs for their collection — or have the county just buy the photographs outright and give them to the museum! I’d like to know why there are “outstanding capital costs.” Didn’t Dave Ransburg raise all the private funds needed to build the museum, plus enough to fund the endowment for operational expenses? Wasn’t that a requirement for the county to give their $40 million? From where is this shortfall coming? But the best line in this part of the story is Richerson’s quote: “I was not asking for public dollars for this purchase.” We can put that down in the annals of untrue statements, along with “Our theater will be an IMAX,” and “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.”
  • Have the county sponsor a “free day” at the museum for county school children by donating public dollars to cover the cost of their attendance. Wait, you mean all the kids in the county aren’t already attending? I thought this was going to be an educational mecca for area school kids. That’s what all the museum literature touted during the run-up to the sales tax referendum, remember?
  • “[C]lose off a portion of the grounds — the ground-level sculpture garden and part of the deck-level viewing platform — for a fundraiser open to museum members and their guests prior to and during the annual fireworks display over the Illinois River.” Yes, they want to block off public land for private use … just like they do on Water Street for Kellehers and like they used to do at Riverfront Village when Old Chicago/Retro American Tap were still there. But this is County, not City, property, and the County doesn’t think it’s as hot of an idea as the City does.

The good news is that he was rebuffed by Steve Morris on all these ideas. The bad news is that you know he’ll keep trying, and eventually will likely succeed. Some public body will end up bailing him out. Just wait until the museum threatens to go under. The City will jump at the chance to infuse more public cash into this private business, just like they’re doing now for the Peoria Chiefs.

And if all else fails, they can go directly to the people. Promise them an IMAX and they’ll follow you anywhere.

Passenger rail plans go from bad to worse

The Journal Star has a report on the latest passenger rail scheme dreamed up by the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission.

Essentially what’s now being pitched is a multi-stop commuter rail line running from Peoria’s airport to Bloomington’s, with stops in each city’s downtown area as well as in the bedroom communities between the cities.

And, before you object, there’s this:

Though there’s been some pushback and some doubt expressed by folks in the area, the time for laying the plans and attracting support needs to be now, [Tri-County transportation planner Kyle] Smith says.

So we all need to get behind this terrible idea, see? When faced with pushback and doubt, it’s best to make a clarion call for groupthink — especially when it involves lots of taxpayer money.

The original (and logical and good) plan for direct passenger rail service to Chicago was deemed too expensive because we’d have to fix up some existing track and it wouldn’t be high-speed. Now we’re talking about acquiring all new right of way, constructing all new track to make some of these connections, and slowing down the travel time to Bloomington/Normal by making a bunch of commuter stops. Really, what’s not to like about this slower, costlier alternative?

Peoria’s airport has free parking. Bloomington’s airport has free parking. Normal’s Amtrak station has free parking. Neither community is compact; both are sprawling metro areas. Neither community has frequent or convenient mass transit. It’s easier to drive in both communities than to take other transit alternatives. Translation: This passenger rail plan will not draw sufficient ridership to justify the cost of constructing and operating it. It will be much more convenient for people to drive.

Think about it. Pretend you live in Peoria and work at State Farm in Bloomington. You decide you’re going to take this swell new commuter train. You can catch it either at the airport or downtown, but odds are they’ll charge you to park downtown. So you opt for the free parking at the airport. Then you get on the train, and it takes you to the Bloomington airport — in about an hour and a half, maybe. You get off the train, and … how do you get to work? There’s no bus service between the airport and State Farm. You can walk (50 minutes) or bike (15 minutes). But there are no sidewalks along Empire, and it’s a four-lane highway. So, given the time and obstacles, and the fact that you can drive to work in 45 minutes door-to-door with free parking, maybe the commuter train isn’t going to be your best option.

In contrast, Chicago does not have free parking. While large, downtown Chicago is a compact urban area. It has frequent and convenient mass transit. It’s easier to take other transit alternatives than to drive. Plus, it’s a major transportation hub. And Chicago is a destination city. That’s why direct passenger rail service to Chicago would have sufficient ridership to justify its establishment and operation.

But hey, TCRPC, don’t listen to any “pushback” or “doubt” you may be hearing. It’s only taxpayer money. Let’s see if there’s anything else we can come up with to make this idea more inefficient and unlikely to succeed. What if we put the train station someplace where it can only be accessed by ferry?

For further reading: David Jordan has a little pushback and doubt of his own.

Zoning Commissioners apparently don’t understand rezoning process

At the last Zoning Commission meeting earlier this month, commissioners took an unorthodox approach to a simple request for rezoning, if the Journal Star’s description is accurate:

During its meeting Thursday [April 4], the Peoria Zoning Commission deferred a decision regarding the rezoning of 14 parcels of land located south of the Glen Hollow shopping center. The owner of the land, developer David Joseph, wants the zoning changed from single-family residential to large-scale commercial.

Joseph’s attorney said his client has no specific plans for the land along Farrelly and Glen avenues.

“We’ve got a lot of options from seriously interested tenants,” Bob Hall said. “Tenants aren’t willing to commit until such time as they have a better indication.”

Also apparently unwilling to commit until they have a better indication are commission members.

“If you’ve got tenants who want to know, you should be able to show us what you’re thinking about doing,” commissioner Tim Shea said to Hall.

Absent that, commissioners were unable to make an informed decision, according to Greg Hunziker, the group’s chairman.

“When you rezone, it’s a blanket — very broad-based,” he said. “We wanted a little more knowledge.”

It’s remarkable that many of these commissioners have been on the Zoning Commission for many years, and yet they display this profound ignorance of the rezoning process.

When you rezone a property, it doesn’t get zoned for a specific use. It gets zoned for potentially any use that is allowed under that zoning designation.

Under C2 (Large Scale Commercial) zoning, there are no less than 108 permitted uses (including new and used auto sales, auto repair, gas stations, ministorage, and convenience cash businesses). It makes no difference what plans Mr. Joseph may have for the use of this property right now. If it gets rezoned, any of those 108 permitted uses will be available to him — and to whomever he may choose to sell the property someday (subject to certain regulations and oversight, of course).

That’s why, on the Zoning Commission application, it specifically states that a site plan is not required for rezoning. The question before the Zoning Commission is not, “What tenant is Mr. Joseph pursuing for this property, and will that tenant fit well in this area?” The question is, “Is C2 zoning — and the intensity of all land uses permitted thereunder — appropriate for this area?”

The Zoning Commission is wasting the applicant’s time be requesting irrelevant and non-required information, and it’s being derelict in its duty to the residents by ignoring the larger question of whether the intensity of the proposed land use is appropriate for this section of the city.

Translation: Attendance is low and we’re losing money.

In a stunning revelation no one could ever have seen coming, the Journal Star reports that the Peoria Riverfront Museum is not holding up their end of the bargain with Peoria County taxpayers.

For months, county officials have asked for — but not received — audited financial statements from last year, federal tax forms and a copy of the museum’s operating and capital budget. […]

The museum’s fiscal year ended June 30, 2012 — nearly 10 months ago — and Scott Sorrel, one of the county’s top administrators, said the county has been seeking financial records since shortly after the new fiscal year began.

Jim Richerson, the museum’s president, said Tuesday in an email response to questions that last year’s audit hadn’t been completed.

And by “hasn’t been completed,” he no doubt means, “we haven’t figured out how to spin this yet.” It’s pretty obvious to anyone who has driven by or even visited the museum that this place is not reaching its attendance goals, and that means it’s not meeting its revenue goals either. So why not just own up to the truth?

Well, first of all, the museum folks don’t like being told what to do, and part of their contract with Peoria County is that the County can dictate a scaling-back of operations if the museum is not profitable. That would be embarrassing for the museum folks.

Secondly, when was the last time the museum folks told the truth? Not about the IMAX they promised. Remember when they said they had a contract with IMAX on their desk just waiting to be signed once the referendum passed? Remember when they said they were going to get 1,000 visitors a day to the museum block–240,000 per year to the museum alone? Then they tried to revise history a few months ago, saying that the goal was really only 180,000 per year? The spin factory has been in full production for a while down at Museum Square.

In fact, looking at the Wikihow article on “How to Lie,” I would suspect that the museum folks have made it to step 14 (“never lie to government officials”). And if you can’t lie, what option is left?


Sinclair selling WYZZ to shell corporation Cunningham

Sinclair Broadcast Group is selling WYZZ-TV (43) to Cunningham Broadcasting for $22 million, according to an article in and an official filing with the FCC. The sale was necessary to comply with FCC ownership rules after Sinclair acquired WHOI-TV (19) from Barrington Broadcasting.

Cunningham Broadcasting has several ownership objections pending against it before the FCC. Local watchdog groups in other media markets as well as the Free Press organization accuse Cunningham of being a shell corporation for Sinclair — a company controlled by Sinclair and used solely to circumvent FCC media ownership rules.

Indeed, in their own filing, Sinclair states that “the majority stockholder of CBC [Cunningham Broadcasting Corporation] is the Carolyn C. Smith Cunningham Trust.” Carolyn Smith, along with her husband Julian Sinclair Smith, is a co-founder of Sinclair Broadcast Group, and the trust beneficiaries are her sons, who are also co-founders of Sinclair. Carolyn died in 2012.

Thus, media consolidation will deepen here in Central Illinois. We have five local commercial stations (WHOI 19, WEEK 25, WMBD 31, WYZZ 43, WAOE 59) which heretofore have been owned by five separate companies but operated by only two companies (Granite Broadcasting Corporation, which operates WHOI, WEEK, and WAOE; and Nexstar Broadcasting Group, which operates WMBD and WYZZ). Now two of those stations — WHOI and WYZZ — are going to be controlled, if not outright owned, by the same company.

Media consolidation is bad. As a perfect case in point, I’ll bet you didn’t know any of the information in this post before I just shared it with you. If we had more media diversity, you would have known about it long before now. But because the Journal Star has had its staff decimated by Gatehouse Media, and because there are only two television news organizations in town — and they both have ties to Sinclair now, by the way — you won’t hear about it. (Well, maybe the paper will mention it in a couple weeks buried in one of Steve Tarter’s columns, especially since I’ve published it on my blog. But don’t count on it. Generally speaking, you’ll never hear about it.)

There are many other things you don’t (and won’t) hear about, because when newsrooms shrink and reporters are let go in the name of efficiency, it means there are fewer people around to act as watchdogs for the public. Do you know how the Journal Star gets its news about Peoria Park District board meetings now? The Park District director (Bonnie Noble) writes up a summary and sends it in. Bet you didn’t know that, either. That’s what passes as “reporting” these days in our fair city. Take a look back through the Park District’s minutes and see how many of them indicate “Press Present: None.” The Park District — a municipal organization with a $15+ million property tax levy — and not a single member of the press attends their meetings to see how they’re spending our money or conducting business.

But I digress.

The sale of WYZZ to Cunningham should be opposed by this community. Other communities have filed official and unofficial protests with the FCC, and have started online petition drives. Here in Peoria, we haven’t even heard about it.

The procedures for filing formal and informal objections to the sale (or “assignment” in legalese) of a TV license are available from the FCC website here.

Journal Star to exclude all non-Facebook users from commenting

Mark Zuckerberg is feeling the love coming from Peoria’s only newspaper of record.

The Journal Star posted on its website today a new policy: to comment on stories, you have to have a Facebook account.

Beginning Friday morning, readers who wish to comment on articles will do so using their Facebook account. Facebook accounts bring context to our commenting platform, linking to the identity of a registered user who might think twice before saying something they might not otherwise say face-to-face. Consider it similar to an Opinion Page letter to the editor, which is verified by our newsroom before being published in our print edition.

It’s our hope that the move to Facebook commenting will raise the level of dialog on and encourage more readers to participate. We will continue to invite debate and contrary opinions – we just encourage that the discussion be respectful.

Oh yes, I’m sure it will raise the level of dialog, because people never say uncivil things under their real names. People using their real names are the epitome of restraint and civility. I’m confident this move will create a comments section for the Journal Star that is full of real people talking about interesting things in civil ways.

There will likely be spontaneous conversations about Pindar and Chekhov breaking out all over the place. Perhaps when the next science story is published, Facebook users will instinctively turn the course of the conversation toward reconciling general relativity with quantum physics.

We’ll undoubtedly see more people saying respectful phases like, “pardon me,” “if you please,” and “with all due respect.” At worst, if someone is really upset, they may lash out with an impudent “great balls of fire!”

I can’t wait to see the comments once this new Facebook policy goes into effect. The reserved and prudent language will be like reading a Jane Austen novel. It may even encourage more readers to participate — just not the 40% who are not on Facebook, like me.

Three City of Peoria departments consolidated

PEORIA — The City of Peoria has consolidated the Planning & Growth Management, Inspections, and Economic Development departments into the newly-christened Community Development department. City Manager Patrick Urich has appointed Ross Black as director. Black was formerly the interim Planning & Growth Management director. According to a recent Issues Update:

The three [former] departments had a combined total of 51 employees during the 2011 budget year. The 2013 budget authorizes the new department to have a total of 37 employees; a 27% reduction in staff. With new procedures that have already been put in place and with an ongoing program targeted at identifying and implementing efficiencies, the new Community Development Department will be able to provide enhanced service to the community with far fewer employees than in past years.

The new Community Development Department will continue to provide the same suite of services that were provided under the prior three departments. These services include planning, zoning, mapping & analysis, neighborhood development, grants management, code enforcement, building inspections, economic development, and real estate management.

The new department will also have two assistant directors. Joe Dulin, former interim Inspections director, will fill one of the positions. The other position, which will focus on economic development, is expected to be filled by early second quarter.

My Take: So we’ve combined three departments, but we still have three management-level employees, each overseeing one of the three former areas. Sounds like an exercise in semantics. And does anyone really believe that we’re not going to see a drop in service as a result of this supposed 27% reduction in staff? Speaking of this “reduction,” isn’t it interesting that they compared proposed 2013 staffing to 2011 levels instead of 2012 (current) levels? Curious as to what the 2012 levels are? I’ll tell you: 33. So the new 2013 level of 37 employees is actually an increase of four employees, or 11%. (It’s better at budget time to give the impression you’re cutting, even if you’re not really.)

Nevertheless, that’s way down from ten years prior:

Department FY 2002 FY 2012 Change Pct
Planning & Growth 25 12 -13 -52%
Inspections 54 20 -34 -63%
Economic Development 8 1 -7 -88%
Total 87 33 -54 -62%

These decreases in staffing are going so well that the City (in addition to adding staff while pretending they’re cutting it further) is now seriously considering outsourcing code enforcement due to lack of performance. This must be part of that “new and strong foundation upon which we can build for the future of our city” that Mayor Ardis talked about in his State of the City address this past January.

Sinclair buying WHOI, selling WYZZ

PEORIA — Sinclair Broadcast Group is buying 18 television stations from Barrington Broadcasting, including WHOI (channel 19) in Peoria, Ill. Sinclair already owns a television station in the Peoria/Bloomington market, WYZZ (channel 43), but FCC rules say they can only own one due to the size of the market. Thus, Sinclair has also announced they will be selling WYZZ.

Currently, WHOI is being operated by Granite Broadcasting (owner of WEEK, channel 25) through a shared services agreement. WYZZ is operated by Nexstar Broadcasting Group (owner of WMBD, channel 31) under a local marketing agreement with Sinclair. How the changes in ownership will affect these agreements is unknown at this time since the story is just breaking.

WHOI is an ABC network affiliate; WYZZ is a FOX network affiliate.