NEWS

East Peoria buys land that once housed Caterpillar's first factories

Michael Smothers

The city now owns the land where Caterpillar Inc. was born, and its future use may finally loom on the horizon.

"The sky’s the limit" for how the 87 acres that straddles West Washington Street may be developed, Mayor Dave Mingus said Friday after the City Council held a special meeting to buy the land.

Technically, the city will pay the non-profit Caterpillar Foundation up to about $9.8 million for the site, but only after it sells the site to private developers.

Caterpillar "basically is saying, ‘It’s all yours,’" City Attorney Dennis Triggs said. "They just want to get their $3.50 (per square foot) back" once the city sells it.

Except for the concrete floors remaining from Caterpillar’s first factories, the fenced site that’s as large as downtown Peoria has sat vacant since those factories were torn down a decade ago. For the past six years, the city has hoped for its development, first as a new downtown of commerce and retail, then as a technology business park.

Those hopes have stagnated with the state’s failure to fulfill promises of up to $17.5 million in capital funding for new streets and other infrastructure the site needs. It’s still not known when, or if, that money will ever come.

Developers, however, have approached the city over those years, said Mingus and Triggs, who brokered the deal to obtain the land. Now that the city owns it, events could move rapidly, they said.

Council members strongly hinted at that in their comments on the land deal.

"The possibilities are endless, and this is an exciting time," said Councilman Gary Densberger.

Added fellow Councilman Mike Unes, "The city is now one step closer to turning a brownfield and blighted area into ... a new downtown."

In fact, said City Administrator Tom Brimberry, the city in early January will issue RFP’s, or requests for proposals, seeking developers’ ideas for the land, two blocks south of Interstate 74 and bordered by three of the city’s busiest streets — Washington, Main and Camp.

Mingus and Triggs said the city will not limit developers’ proposals with suggestions for how it would like to see the site developed.

If recent experience regarding another large, city-owned site repeats itself, the city can be expected to seek developers’ proposals for most or all of the Caterpillar site, rather than accepting a hodge-podge of small concepts.

An overall concept, possibly based on a condominium community, is now being developed for the so-called CILCO ash pond site, located north of the Murray Baker Bridge, by Central Illinois Properties of Bloomington, which the city this fall selected over Cullinan Properties of Peoria for the effort.

The only specific project the city has pursued for the Caterpillar site so far is a proposed Caterpillar Heritage Museum, featuring a rotating collection of antique Cat machines owned by a non-profit collectors’ club that would lease the facility from the city.

As for the roads the site still needs, Triggs said it’s possible their construction could be financed by a private developer, "but we would probably get less development (as a result) and it would take more time."