Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of stories examining school enrollment in the Pekin area. This segment examines what attracts families to a community.

Home Instead Manager Nathan Domenighini’s life was changing in 2012 — he was newly married to his wife, Suzanne, 33, and had a child on the way.

Domenighini, now 34, worked and lived in Morton. The family needed more space and bought a house in Pekin.

“Our realtor ... probably took us to 30 to 35 homes as we were touring,” said Domenighini. “So we had something in mind, but also our budget was a little bit smaller at the time.

“A new family expecting a child, we really had to keep that in mind. We went and toured a lot of homes throughout the central Illinois area — Bartonville, Morton, East Peoria, Washington, Pekin — and as far as square footage, cost and everything Pekin was just hands down the best. We could get more home for the dollar. Coupled with that are the amenities Pekin has always had.”

Domenighini said he can drive two minutes to 10 minutes and have all of the things that he needed.

“That in reality was an improvement from where we were living in Morton, which is a beautiful community — no doubt,” he said. “But it certainly didn’t have all of the amenities that Pekin did.”

Education for their son was important. The couple wanted a district also with a diverse enough population that their son would be able to appreciate everybody — rich, poor or whatever, Domenighini said.

Pekin District 303 lost 200 students over the past few years, which has educators concerned and questioning the issue. Other districts are thriving. Dunlap has jumped every year by more than 100 students since 2013, though its sixth-day enrollment this year is down by 34 pupils, which can change quickly at the beginning of the school year. 

New housing starts in the Pekin have dropped from 22 houses and nine duplexes in 2015 to four houses in 2017. Large new housing projects have been mostly supportive living for seniors and retirees. According to the U.S. Census Bureau 2016 estimates of the population, Pekin now has 33,038 residents, which is down from the 2010 Census number of 34,096 — that’s 1,058 less people — in six years.

The city’s efforts

Pekin City Manager Tony Carson came to Pekin last year from out of state for the position he holds. He is now in charge of making Pekin attractive to people like Domenighini.

“My first impression, and it still holds true, is that our park system, and living in a lot of different places, the park system that we have in Pekin is not typical — it’s above what a lot of communities have,” said Carson. “It’s something that we need to continue to build upon as a city, to highlight, and I think it’s a good basis for people with families — they like to come to a community that has a robust and vibrant park system along with all of the other amenities that a city offers.”

Two decades ago, it was common to go to a Pekin City Council meeting where the Council approved plats for expansions of existing subdivisions or for new subdivisions. Today houses spring up from time to time in subdivisions. The Council over the years has mostly approved plats for senior living/retirement villages.

“I don’t think we’re positioning ourselves to be anything specific from an age category,” said Carson. “I think a city that is successful has a good mix of all ages, be it from the elderly to the young and everything in between.

“Some of the ways that we as a city are trying to look to expand our base of the young professionals — and we’ve been working on this as a group over the last three or four months — is to identify ways to allow downtown living in the upper levels of some of our existing structures. That’s always a trying proposition to ensure that the life and safety codes are met, but allowing the property owners of these businesses an ability to renovate and offer the loft type of living. That’s been very successful in a lot of communities.”

Carson said that would also encourage business development downtown as those living there need restaurants to eat in and so on.

“It goes from, does a business come because you have a built-in customer base or does the customer base come once the business comes?” said Carson. “I see that (downtown living) certainly would position ourselves to encourage, increase restaurants and other amenities that young professionals are going to want in a community they live in.”

Carson said he has heard from major employers that the city needs more townhouses or higher-end apartments with amenities to attract young professionals. He said it is difficult to get people to invest “millions of dollars to make that happen. That’s going to have to be market driven.”

Carson said it is also important to show the improvements the city is making to the infrastructure. Pekin spent $2 million this year on infrastructure and funded downtown and Derby Street upgrades.

An employers position

UnityPoint Health-Pekin employs approximately 700 people — one of the largest employers in Pekin.

Potential employees all have different interests. The recruiting department points out Pekin’s amenities — great parks, a lot of activities for kids, the schools, a high school with vast opportunities like the tech center and classes for college-bound students and more, said Wendy Hess, regional director of human resources operations for UnityPoint Health. 

Hess said she has seen an “uptick” in recruits moving to Dunlap. She said some recruits live in Pekin — several ProHealth Family Medicine doctors. Others found Tremont more desirable because of its small town feel and the reviews of the Tremont schools. Others moved to Morton and North Peoria.

Debbie Gaines, Unity Point physician and advanced practitioner recruiter, has been a recruiter with various companies for over 30 years. She said where an employee locates is related to their comfort zone and they often rely on their own research. If they are interested in the schools, they look at the school report cards for each area they are considering to live.

“The first thing that they ask about is the size of the community, and to most people that are relocating, they have a comfort zone (that’s) the size of the community that they live in,” said Gaines. “That’s based on some people wanting a certain array of amenities.

“Some don’t care. Some are happy living in a rural setting, and they like smaller towns. Some like mid-sized towns and the affordable lifestyle and still having, the amenities and then you have those who are completely set on being in a metropolitan area.”

Follow Sharon Woods Harris at Twitter.com/sharrispekin