A new reading garden in East Peoria’s Levee District is designed to be much more than just a comfortable spot to eat lunch or read a book.
“We can all appreciate the value of parks and public spaces for the community to enjoy, but what makes Levee Park so unique is that it will be the anchor to East Peoria’s new and thriving downtown,” said Sue Portscheller, president of the East Peoria Community Foundation, at a recent dedication of the reading garden. “It embodies the new iconic face of East Peoria: green, growing and family-centered,”
Located adjacent to the Fondulac District Library and East Peoria City Hall at 401 W. Washington St., the new park sits on what had been a concrete wasteland just 10 years ago.
“People who have lived here for a long time have had a number of images of East Peoria over the years,” Portscheller said. “Years ago it was lots of railroad tracks and the Four Corners (District). At one time it was just tons of ugly concrete that used to be Caterpillar buildings that were razed. Now it’s transformed.”
She envisions the park not only being a community gathering space but also a place for residents and visitors to take a break while shopping at the numerous retail stores nearby or to eat a takeout lunch from one of the area’s many restaurants.
Mayor Dave Mingus told a large crowd that gathered for the dedication that the reading garden is the first phase of an ambitious project that will make Levee Park a city centerpiece.
“It will be a destination place that people can come to enjoy activity events or quiet reflection in the heart of our city,” he said.
While the park sits on city-owned land, the $550,000 reading garden was funded entirely by private donations made to the East Peoria Community Foundation.
The donations included $250,000 from the estate of philanthropists Ray and Peg Bahnfleth and $50,000 from the family of former Mayor Jim Spinder. Other major donors were Cullinan Properties, Fondulac Bank and the Fondulac District Library.
A statue of the Bahnfleths created by artist Greg Johnson was unveiled in the reading garden during the dedication and honors the couple for their lifelong contributions to the city of East Peoria.
Portscheller said about $500,000 in donations remains in the Levee Park fund and will go toward completing the park with plans for a water feature with splash pad, venues for markets and festivals in an open multipurpose lawn, space for sporting and music events and terraced seating areas.
She estimated that completion of the park on the 1.5 acre site will cost about $2 million and said the foundation has already embarked on a fundraising effort to finish the project.
“Just before the (dedication) we had two new donations of $75,000 each from the Uftring Auto Group and CEFCU, so we feel like we’re getting a little bit of momentum,” Portscheller said. “We’re trying to get the word out that anyone can make donations on the website, but a lot of our work will be going after the larger gifts and getting sponsorships. If somebody wants to name the park for a million dollars, they just need to come see me.”
There’s no timeline for when the foundation hopes to complete the park, but Portscheller expects it will take at least a year or longer. “We’ll build it when we have the money,” she said.
In the meantime, the Fondulac District Library will be utilizing the reading garden and green space for outdoor programming for all ages.
“I’ve been with the library since 2011 and surely this triangle of land has come a long way,” said Fondulac District Library director Genna Buhr. “I’m so happy to have watched the Levee District as a whole grow both in infrastructure and opportunity.”
Among activities the library has planned in the space are a Big Rig Petting Zoo from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Saturday, May 19, offering a chance to explore and climb on heavy equipment such as fire and rescue trucks and construction vehicles.
Also planned are a grilling program for adults this summer and an afternoon pow wow for all ages, as well as Fun Friday events and an event Buhr said her staff will only say is called “Messy Madness.”
In addition, the Fondulac District Library Board will be the steward of a new Free Little Library that the foundation has installed in the reading garden to ensure that any visitor will have a book to read if desired.
Levee Park was first envisioned by the late Jim Mamer, who was president and CEO of Morton Community Bank before he died unexpectedly in 2016.
“Jim had seen a park in Lexington, Ky., and it gave him the idea that we could do something similar with our footprint downtown,” recalled Portscheller, who took over as chair of the nine-member foundation board after Mamer’s death. “I think he would have been real thrilled with what’s happening here.”
Portscheller said most East Peorians likely weren’t aware of the foundation’s existence prior to the reading garden dedication. The all-volunteer group was established in 2014 with a goal of making East Peoria a better place by providing a channel for local philanthropy.
“The foundation will live on even after this project. We’re also a conduit for people who want to leave a gift to the community. Our hope is to get a community advisory board started so we have more people involved,” Portscheller said.
For more information, visit the website at East Peoria Community Foundation.
— From concrete to green, East Peoria’s Levee Park becomes reading garden —-