Photo by Wes Schmidgall.
PEORIA — For nearly 100 years, the old St. Bernard School buildings have stood as a “pillar” in the East Bluff neighborhood of Peoria.
As part of an “open-heart lease” with Catholic Diocese of Peoria, a private group of individuals are transforming those buildings into a community center.
On Jan. 1, the East Bluff Community Center, 512 E. Kansas Ave., Peoria, officially opened, after a year and a half of negotiations between the private group of individuals and the Catholic Diocese of Peoria.
“We knew that a lot of the building was empty and didn’t know what the situation was, so we headed into negotiations with Diocese of Peoria,” said East Bluff Community Center Board President Jim Combs. “It took us about a year and a half and lots of ups and downs, and lots of plans and so forth. On Oct. 1 we signed a lease and then Jan. 1 it took effect.”
The private group of individuals formed the eight-member East Bluff Community Center Board two years ago.
“Every board member is bringing something to the center — some gift, some talent, some vision,” said Combs. “We’re here for the education, the betterment, the security and the wholeness for the citizens of the East Bluff.”
The board is inviting neighborhood associations, service agencies and other organizations to use the space in the community center for offices and programs.
“We’re inviting people who have programs already running that are short of room and short of housing, to use the center,” said Combs.
Several service agencies, including the Peoria Park District, Peoria Friendship House of Christian Service, Greater Peoria Family YMCA, Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Peoria and Workforce Network have contacted the board and expressed an interest in renting space in the community center.
“We’re negotiating with all these service agencies as to what they want, how we can help them, how we can benefit them, how they can benefit the East Bluff,” said Combs, an adjunct English professor at Illinois Central College.
As part of the lease, the Catholic Diocese of Peoria is allowing the East Bluff Community Center Board to use space in the buildings for free. However the board members must pay for the buildings’ utility costs. It will cost the board members an estimated $90,000 per year to pay for the utilities.
“It’s free to people who don’t have money,” said Combs. “For example, our neighborhood associations don’t have any money, so they could use it anytime they want. But Boys and Girls Club, they’ll rent. Friendship House, they’ll rent. Park District, they’ll rent. That helps us pay the utility bills. We won’t come out ahead, but hopefully come out even. It was never our intention to make a profit.”
Agencies will start operating in the community center later this month.
“We’re moving people in the first of February,” said Combs. “The Park District is coming in with senior programs the last week of January.”
The board is turning the 14 classrooms in the school buildings into “community rooms.”
“We’re in the process of converting these rooms,” said Combs, who attended school in the old St. Bernard School buildings for eight years. “They’re huge rooms. Each room is going to have tables and chairs and there will be a white board. Anyone can sign out a room and say, ‘This is where I’m going to be tonight. We’ll be here for the next two weeks on Wednesday nights.’”
Service agencies and neighborhood associations can also utilize the gym, kitchen and stage in the community center.
The board plans to build a game room and dance room in the community center.
“We’ll do a little at a time, as we come up with funds and come up with grants,” said Combs.
St. Bernard Parish will continue to operate its offices and a community room in the old school buildings. It will also continue to use space for a food pantry and youth programs.
The Rev. Simon Holly Jr. will be the part-time director of the community center.
The board is seeking financial donations as well as tables and fold-up chairs for the community center.
To donate to the community center, call Combs at (309) 685-1768 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.