Can a contemporary urban city still feel like a small town?
These days, one of the questions city planners and developers ask themselves is if it’s still possible for a community to be coaxed into becoming a large, prosperous city while retaining the small-town principles, values and character that defined it when it was first founded.
The answer to that question resides, quite happily, in Peoria, Arizona.
The city of around 150,000 residents was settled in the 1880s by a handful of homesteading families that had moved to the outskirts of Phoenix from Peoria, Illinois—the very same place that became the subject of a popular catchphrase to measure the chances of success for vaudeville shows with the question: “Will it play in Peoria?”
But, for generations, very little actually played in Peoria, as the sleepy Phoenix suburb slowly and unassumingly grew from a farming community into a modest municipality. After all, Peoria wasn’t even incorporated as a city until 1954, 80 or so years after its original settlement. (Remarkably, its population was then a mere 1,900 residents.)
Even well into the 1980s, Peoria remained a quiet, low-profile appendage of Phoenix, 13 miles to its southwest. Back then, one could take a leisurely drive from Phoenix, along historic old Grand Avenue, and eventually reach Peoria’s city center, where the ambiance was decidedly quieter and more peaceful compared with Phoenix’s then booming growth.
Over the years, Peoria added some manufacturing and industry to its agricultural profile, and gained further traction with the advent of railroad and highway development. From the 1970s on, a small sports complex that served as the minor league training facility for the Milwaukee Brewers baseball team proved effective in bolstering the city’s tourism dollars and tax revenues.
In 1990, using the sports stadium as a springboard of sorts, the city saw its way to proposing, designing and building what today is one of the country’s most notable spring training facilities serving two major league baseball teams—the San Diego Padres and the Seattle Mariners. Named the Peoria Sports Complex (PSC), the impressive compound of stadiums, practice fields, retail stores, restaurants and boutiques has evolved into a year-round-use facility, and a major pillar of Peoria’s enterprising new identity.
Today, no one who visits the city could help but notice a palpable buzz in the air. Peoria is in the midst of a substantial transformation, a re-invention of sorts. The historic Old Town downtown is being revitalized, small businesses are vying for space and being readied to open and all around the city, major new construction is conspicuously underway.
One of the hundreds of city leaders and staffers behind the current growth is Scott Whyte, Peoria’s Economic Development Services Director. It’s his job to implement the city-council approved Economic Development Implementation Strategy, otherwise known as EDIS, and the scope of the job, by any measure, is huge. On Whyte’s docket are the initiatives—pillars as he refers to them—of business attraction, retention and expansion; real-estate development; workforce development; and aid to small businesses.
Among the economic development initiatives Whyte sees as most promising for the city’s growth a project called P83, which could best be described as the city’s entertainment district.
“It includes our PSC sports complex, a whole host of restaurants and retail shops, Class-B office buildings…it’s kind of like our employment, entertainment and restaurant retail area,” he explains. “We’re working right now with the Plaza Companies as master developers on a 17-acre parcel that is adjacent to the PSC. What we’re looking to do is to develop it into a mixed-use project that includes true, Class-A office space, a hotel with supporting retail and a restaurant. We see this project as our best shot for attracting the advanced industries that we’re seeking.”
Additionally, Whyte says, the city has yet another exclusive agreement with the Plaza Companies to develop a 14-acre parcel off of Loop 101 and Peoria Avenue that is earmarked to become a corporate business park.
“A lot of our efforts are focused on real estate development to add to the city’s inventory of suitable commercial office space and, equally important, workforce development,” he continues. “This will help ensure the city has a sizeable pool of qualified workers to fill the jobs the new industries will make available.”
Perhaps the culmination of Peoria’s climb into prosperity occurred in 2008, when Money Magazine listed the city as one of the “top 100 places to live” in the U.S.
Small town in a big city
Like Whyte, Cathy Carlat is another Peoria resident who has become a major agent of the city’s transformation. Carlat, the city’s current mayor, was elected to office in 2014, following a decade or so on its city council. She brought to the city’s top job a remarkable enthusiasm and a vision for urban development she experienced when, in the 1980s, she lived in the Dallas suburb of Plano, Texas.
“I saw in Plano how such a small community could go from essentially a bedroom community, to one where children could envision a future for themselves that included gainful employment, and where they could have high aspirations for themselves.”
Carlat explains how she saw Plano evolve to gain an economic, civic and cultural identity of its own—separate from Dallas’s.
“It was just an incredible transformation that I had a front-row seat to watch,” she says.
Carlat carried that lesson with her when she and her family returned to Arizona in 2001, moved to Peoria and decided to roll up her sleeves and get involved in the city’s development.
In the nearly two years she’s been in office, Mayor Carlat has been a force for moving her city forward, but in such a way that it doesn’t forsake the identity and charm of its early years.
“Even though we’re a relatively large city now, we maintain these amazing small-town characteristics—slow-paced neighborhoods where people know one another and can walk to a neighborhood store or walk their dog at night. We have principles and values that are worth keeping.”
On the other hand, the Mayor is fully given to advancing the city’s economic fortunes.
“I want to be sure Peoria has a future that has employment corridors in it, places where our children can say, ‘I want to work there when I finish my education. I want to come back and raise my family in Peoria.’”
Among the many businesspeople taking advantage of some of the opportunities Mayor Carlat, Scott Whyte and other Peoria city managers are helping to make possible, Chris Lucidi stands out.
Not long ago, Lucidi was scouting around Arizona, seeking a location for his Lucidi Distilling Company and its attached tasting room. For a lot of reasons, Lucidi says he liked what he saw in downtown Peoria—called “Historic Old Town”—and so he purchased the 1920s-vintage, Historic Fire Station No. 1 and converted it into its current incarnation as a distillery.
As Lucidi explains, since he opened his doors in February of last year, he and his 11 employees have been busy crafting (and in some cases importing) 22 batch flavors of vodka and moonshine, along with gins, whiskeys, bourbons, agave spirits, rums, bitters and other miscellaneous specialty spirits.
Even though he’s been in business only a short time, Lucidi says his commitment to growing his business in Peoria (where he also lives) is a solid one. He’s purchased the two lots adjacent to his distillery building, has his eye on four additional lots, and is planning to design and build a restaurant on the premises. His confidence in these plans stems in part from the supportive, fluid relationship he’s had with the Mayor and the city’s elected officials.
“We’ve always had good communication and cooperation with the city on what we’ve wanted to do and on giving us direction,” Lucidi says.
Lucidi is bullish on his plans for Old Town and, by extension, the city at large.
“What Old Town Peoria needs is a draw, and that will be our ‘phase II’ after we develop the restaurant, something that actually brings people into Old Town and shows them what’s possible and what it can be,” he says, mentioning an entire host of cultural and commercial activities that Old Town can offer. “We’re talking a music venue, concerts, weddings, car shows…things that will help the Old Town area become more of a destination than just an aging city center.”
As Lucidi says, “When it comes right down to it, Peoria—and specifically Old Town—is something I care deeply about.”
Story by Bruce Farr
Photography by Mark Lipczynski