Pekin hopes Business Development District will bring in ‘New Deal’ for city

Mike Kramer
Chad Kautz  vice president of Tazewell Animal Improvement of Life Society, or TAiLS, checks inventory in at TAiLS of a Bookworm, the Pekin bookstore that serves as a fundraiser for the group, Friday, October 30, 2020. The bookstore, at 3265 Court St, is located within a proposed Business Development District.

The city of Pekin hopes that the proposed creation of a Business Development District will result in a municipal New Deal.

They could vote to move forward with one as soon as Monday’s City Council meeting.

“I believe Pekin’s at a crossroads,” said Pekin City Manager Mark Rothert. “If we’re happy with the way things are, let the status quo remain. But, if we really want to see improvements – see our community grow and have good infrastructure, job development and reinvestment – we need to utilize the tools that we have available to us to make that happen.”

Two of the biggest challenges facing Pekin are the lack of infrastructure and a general lack of investment in community growth and development, Rothert added. A large investment is needed to reverse what he perceives to have been years of under-investment in capital expenditures, infrastructure and growth. He pointed at Court Street and Derby Street as specific areas needing improvement.

“We’ve been struggling for the last decade or more in figuring out what to do with Court Street,” he said. “We’ve not only gotten some grant money that has helped, we’ve also gotten $20 million in grant funding through the Capital Bill and other means to do Court Street. However, Court Street is a $33 million project at this point. So, there is a funding gap still there, and that’s something a BDD would help with.”

According to Rothert, a BDD is a geographical area that creates funding to help address major issues facing the community, such as Pekin’s need for street, sidewalk and storm water improvements. Funding for a BDD comes from a sales tax of up to 1% on goods and products bought at retail locations within the district, as well as a 1% increase in the hotel/motel tax. Pekin’s proposed BDD will begin at the Illinois River and follow Court Street as far as Veterans Drive. The district will also include Derby Street and north Eighth Street.

“Those are the major commercial areas in the community, so we decided to include this whole area as the Business Development District,” Rothert said.

BDD funds can be used for business development and improvements, rebuilding infrastructure, improving neighborhoods, developing vacant land, and removing blight and deterioration. Rothert estimated that the BDD will generate over $3 million in new revenue annually, while resulting in economic growth and revitalization.

As the owner of a business in the proposed BDD, Dan Steinbach, owner of The Twisted Spoke Saloon on Derby Street, hopes BDD funds will help make much-needed renovations possible there.

“Derby Street used to be the main street for businesses in Pekin,” he said. “(The city) let it go over the years, and I wish they hadn’t done that. (The BDD would) give us an opportunity to revitalize it and bring it back to life. “

The Tazewell Animal Improvement of Life Society (TAiLS) operates the used bookstore TAiLS of a Bookworm on Court Street, which will be within the proposed BDD. TAiLS vice president Chad Kautz said that BDD funds applied to infrastructure improvements on Court Street and to the Courtside Shopping Center, where TAiLS of a Bookworm is located, would be a welcome development.

“The plaza here is fairly dated and can use some improvements,” he said. “The roads and sidewalks definitely could as well. I think that would be to everyone’s advantage.”

Possible improvements specific to TAiLS of a Bookworm could include updated lighting and new window shields. But the most pressing need, he added, would be new bookshelves and fixtures.

“The store here had been in business for 13 years,” explained. “We just took it over last May. All the fixtures and everything have been here for 13 years or so.”

The city plans several steps to mitigate the impact that Pekin residents and businesses will see through a BDD sales tax increase, according to Rothert. They include reducing property taxes by 10% on the city’s portion, lowering monthly sewer maintenance fees while increasing them to current levels over the next four years, and realizing consumer savings through electric aggregate billing.

“Taken together, those savings would substantially reduce the impact of the BDD sales tax to near break-even in the first year,” he said. “This would allow the city to still benefit from those visiting and shopping in the community. The city could shift more of the burden for infrastructure maintenance and repair to external users of our (community). Lastly, the BDD would serve as a dedicated funding stream for infrastructure improvements and business and economic development.”

The Pekin City Council and city staff have hosted two public forums to discuss the proposed BDD and to hear questions and concerns. One Pekin resident who expressed reservations about the proposal is Shad Newton, who said he is dubious about the city’s general thought process.

“It’s just one more way to tax us,” Newton stated. “We’re in Illinois, where taxes are already atrocious.”

Newton expressed skepticism that the measures Rothert outlined to mitigate Pekin residents’ financial burden of additional sales taxes in the proposed BDD would actually take effect. He also said he is concerned that a disproportionate amount of BDD funds would be channeled into specific businesses, rather than community infrastructure or overall commercial growth.

“I want transparency,” he added. “(The city) doesn’t answer questions about where the money goes. They don’t want to tell you where the money goes or how it’s used, and every time they bring up a new district, it seems like they make promises they don’t keep.”

Tales of a Bookworm volunteer Brenda Adams stocks shelves at the Pekin bookstore Friday, October 30, 2020.