This Is Big

Rendering of proposed new Caterpillar headquarters in Peoria, IL.  Source:

First, a little Corner Side Yard news.  Three years ago today, I dipped my toe into the blogging waters after some positive exposure to an article I wrote for the Urbanophile.  A day after that piece ran, I started this blog.  Three years later, I’m grateful to have developed a platform for the urbanist ideas I’ve had running in my head for years.  I want to thank Aaron Renn for encouraging me to start this blog, and all the readers and commenters who provide the fuel to keep me going.  Writing here has been a blast for me, and I want to continue to see how far this will go.  Look for changes and upgrades coming this spring.

On to current events.  Friday, international heavy equipment manufacturer Caterpillar Corp., a Fortune 50 corporation, announced its intention to keep its headquarters in Peoria.  After a two-year evaluation of headquarters options, Caterpillar elected to stay in its hometown — and build bigger and better.

The press conference Friday brought all the Illinois dignitaries to celebrate the announcement:

CEO Doug Oberhelman was joined by Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis and Gov. Bruce Rauner for the news conference Friday morning.

Oberhelman says the new headquarters will be located in the heart of a six-block campus, roughly bordered by I-74, Southwest Adams Street, Fulton Street and Water Street.

It will cover 31 acres and include a three-tower building, connected by three-story horizontal office space. Each of three office towers will have eight occupied floors.

And of course, Caterpillar pulled out all the stops for the announcement.  The presentation was held at the Caterpillar Visitors Center, where a scale model of the site was unveiled.  The release of a Youtube video was timed with the unveiling.  Some of the details include outdoor workspace, a green roof, street-level retail, and views of and connections to the recreational activities along the Illinois River.  Currently, Caterpillar has about 3,200 workers in downtown Peoria, with about 2,400 located in their present headquarters building.  With more than 12,000 Caterpillar employees in the Peoria metro area, there is the potential to increase the downtown number.

This is big for Peoria.

Caterpillar’s predecessor company was founded in California, but has been in Peoria since 1910.  It wouldn’t be unreasonable to say that Peoria’s economy — and life — revolves around the company.  Losing Caterpillar, even to another destination within Illinois like Chicago, would have had a devastating impact.  Keeping the region’s most significant employer will help it to avoid the fate of so many Rust Belt cities that lost jobs and headquarters to other places nationwide.

However, Peoria should not be satisfied with simply maintaining the status quo.  Caterpillar’s commitment to Peoria means the city and region have an opportunity that few of its size will enjoy.

In my experience, I’ve come across few cities of Peoria’s size with a downtown of its scale.  Downtown Peoria, as I’ve mentioned before, has a scale that belies the city’s size, and that gives it a unique opportunity among similarly sized cities.  Indeed, downtown Peoria has the kind of scale that would allow it to compete with much larger cities, generating a distinct competitive advantage.

Let me show you what I mean.  In the Google Earth image below, I’ve outlined the approximate boundaries of downtown Peoria and major employment anchors:

My best guess at downtown is outlined in blue.  To the northwest in light blue is the Bradley University campus.  Directly north of downtown in light purple are OSF St. Francis and Methodist Hospitals and associated clinics and offices, Peoria’s de facto medical center.  The yellow within downtown represents the new Caterpillar site.

If you take just those three anchors together, a reasonable estimate of employees in or adjacent to downtown Peoria would be about 10,000.  And that doesn’t include the numerous other small businesses located and thriving downtown.  How many cities of Peoria’s size, particularly in the Rust Belt, can boast that much employment in or near its downtown?

What Peoria does not yet have, however, is a critical mass of people, especially young people, living downtown who can drive the real estate, retail and entertainment markets.

As for Caterpillar itself, it is making all the necessary moves to allow it to succeed.  Everything about the proposed new headquarters — the street-level retail, the open space, the face to the riverfront, even the bike lanes and food trucks pictured in the video — indicates that Caterpillar wants to appeal to the young, educated and affluent workers that typically head for the major coastal cities to start their careers.  If Peoria utilizes this opportunity appropriately, its downtown could be vaulted to the level of a Grand Rapids, or Chattanooga, two larger cities that have reaped the benefits of downtown investment.

But one caution — even with the Caterpillar announcement, success for Peoria and its downtown is not guaranteed.  The location of a headquarters alone is not enough to create a dynamic downtown.  That will be up to the City of Peoria, the new residents who move in and create a new demand for urban amenities, and — most importantly — tolerance and acceptance by Peoria’s current residents for urban transformation, and active participation in it.

One thought on “This Is Big

  1. Congratulations on your three year anniversary. Your efforts in posting new material every few days are appreciated. Regarding Caterpillar, I was secretly hoping they would increase their corporate presence in Milwaukee, where their mining equipment division is headquartered. Perhaps they still will. But as a native of Peoria, and with at least four previous generations of family members having lived in the city, I'm happy for Peoria's success. With Johnson Controls considering plans for a 52-story headquarters in downtown Milwaukee, perhaps its time to tell a new narrative (perhaps on the re-ascendance of the Midwest manufacturing economy) that acknowledges the existence of firms like Caterpillar and Johnson Controls that have fully adapted to the global economy and now have headquarters filled with thousands of engineers, scientists, and information technology professionals..


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