By Phil Luciano published in the Journal Star
By the mid-1960s, Peoria’s image needed a makeover. An expansive, expensive makeover. At least, that was the dream of a cadre of local business leaders. To them, outsiders thought of Peoria not as a modern, energized city but as a weathered, stagnating backwater. To them, “Will it play in Peoria?” carried a brutal answer: not anymore, as time was passing Peoria by. “The old image of Peoria as a ‘provincial river town’ must be laid to rest once and for all,” the group roared at the kickoff of a nationwide promotional campaign.
A 16-page, full-color tabloid – a pricey and ambitious effort for the time – would be first shared with readers of the Journal Star, then shotgunned across the country to mayors, entrepreneurs and public officials, including every decision maker in Washington, D.C., all the way up to the Oval Office. All told, a remarkable 375,000 copies would be distributed, some across the globe, others to out-of-town family and friends of local citizens who paid 25 cents per copy to help subsidize civic boosterism. What the reader found inside the publication: promises Peoria offers “the good life.”
Peoria had enjoyed a boon in the first half of the 20th century. In part, it was known as a fun-loving place, where vaudeville and other stage performances helped cement the slogan “Will it play in Peoria?” Plus, into World War II, gambling and other illicit entertainment flourished; City Hall turned a blind eye to such activities, except when it demanded its customary cut. Peoria was known far and wide as “Saturday Night City,” every day of the week.
From 1900 to 1950, Peoria’s population doubled to 112,000, many of whom flocked to the area to take jobs at the thriving Caterpillar Tractor Co. But other manufacturers also enjoyed success, and Peoria reigned as the distillery capital of the nation. Yet in the 1950s, reformers neutered Peoria of wide-open gambling and prostitution. Despite efforts to reshape and rehabilitate that image, Peoria suffered a population flight to the suburbs and a decrease in its tax base. By the late ’50s, Peoria languished with high unemployment, mostly from a national economic downturn that had prompted mass layoffs at Caterpillar.
Amid this backdrop, Peoria entered the 1960s, apparently still foundering. About a dozen local businessmen decided to push Peoria into the present and position the city for a solid future. The exactitudes of the group’s beginnings are unknown. Publicly, its debut occurred with the June 3, 1966, issue of the Journal Star, under the headline, “New progress group unveils ‘City of the Century’ image.” The group was called the Council for Peoria Area Progress, described in the newspaper as “a newly formed, non-profit corporation created to tell Peoria’s story.” Its chairman was John Altorfer, president of Pioneer Industrial Park, who would serve on multiple civic boards and eventually work for the Nixon administration and advise the Ford administration.
“For some time it has been on the minds of many Peorians that there should be some way to tell the story of Peoria to the rest of the nation and give this metropolitan area an up-to-date image,” Altorfer said. “… It is important to everyone in the community that this be done, for as we attract new people and new companies to our area we all benefit in terms of new prosperity, greater support for our schools, churches, fund drives and other community projects, and the infusion of new people and new ideas that will keep our community a fascinating, rewarding place to live, work and rear our children.”
To that end, the group designed a marketing campaign “to deal a lethal blow to the 19th century image of Peoria which still persists in many minds.” The goal was “to erase any vaudeville image of Peoria which might persist.” The group fashioned what it called a “brochure” – actually, a tabloid-size mini-newspaper – extolling many facets of “the good life” in Peoria. Its 375,000 copies would be printed on 23 tons of paper, with dozens of color photos.
Copies would be sent not only to state and federal governmental leaders, but also outside Illinois to 13,000 Bradley University graduates and 65,000 business owners. Though the supplement would be included in the June 26 Journal Star, locals were encouraged to send in names and addresses of out-of-state loved ones, along with 25 cents per copy, to help spread the word about modern Peoria. Remarkably, the brochure included no advertisements, nor did it involve any municipal funding. Aside from the 25-cent contributions, the group’s leaders and businesses covered the cost, which was not revealed. However, if each of the 375,000 copies required a 25-cent investment, the total would be $93,750 – or an impressive $767,000 today.
The brochure starts by telling the reader to get ready to be impressed: “Most people should forget what they think they know about Peoria. … Peoria is usually a surprise. It is larger than expected, more scenic than expected, or newer than expected. And sometimes it shocks a visitor by being all three.”
For the most part, the content would not surprise any local resident, then or now. The brochure boasts about the Illinois River Valley, the city skyline, area medical facilities and Bradley University. Entertainment options tend toward the outdoors, especially fishing, boating and golfing, along with the Peoria Park District. New construction is highlighted by two new projects, the Caterpillar Inc. world headquarters and the Peoria County Courthouse.
There are no real prognostications for the future, though the promise of a revitalized Downtown business district faded in the coming decades. Hindsight might raise eyebrows over claims of “corruption-free” governance, as well as programs “assuring Negro citizens equal opportunities, particularly in education, employment and residence.” Apparently, though, the effort made a splash, at least initially. In a follow-up piece the next month, the Journal Star reported individuals and businesses had bought 50,000 of the 25-cent brochures.
Meanwhile, movers and shakers in Washington, D.C., raved about the campaign in letters and comments to Rep. Bob Michel, Peoria’s congressman. According to the newspaper, “More than 100 Washington dignitaries from the president down through cabinet members, bureau heads, senators and representatives have praised Peoria and the new ‘City of the Century’ brochure.” Moreover, the White House social secretary dashed off a letter with regards from President Lyndon Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson: “It is a pleasure for both the President and Mrs. Johnson to keep in touch with the outstanding progress that Peoria is making.”
Still, in the end, did the campaign succeed? Of five goals of the campaign, three were relatively abstract. One stressed the need to help boost “personal pride” in the area. The other two aimed to relate a “truthful version of Central Illinois” – mainly, convince outsiders that Peoria wasn’t Palookaville. It would be nearly impossible to quantify whether the promotion achieved those ambiguous aims.
The other two goals were somewhat more concrete, focusing on raising Peoria to be competitive with other cities (of the same size and larger) to draw new opportunities, namely residents and businesses. Economically over the past half-century, the area has diversified beyond its former manufacturing core. But did the campaign play any part? There is no record in the Journal Star of any analysis of the effect of the campaign.
The city’s population rose from 103,000 in 1960 to 127,000 in 1970. However, most of that increase could be attributed to the 1964 annexation of Richwoods Township. The Peoria population is now estimated at about 110,000, though that total doesn’t include outlying cities and villages, many of which have expanded in the last 50 years on both sides of the river.
The group apparently considered further promo ventures. In the original newspaper account, the group stated, “This project will, hopefully, be the first in a series of projects undertaken by the Council for Peoria Area Progress. It is realized that to build a new image for Peoria is a long-range objective. It will take a continuing effort to achieve it.” However, aside from the 1966 campaign, the Journal Star had no further mention of the Council for Peoria Area Progress. The core members of the group are dead, as are that era’s leaders in City Hall.
Henry Holling, 78, a retired Caterpillar Inc. executive who twice served as acting city manager, took a job right out of college as an assistant to Peoria’s mayor and city manager from 1965 to 1969. Though still sharp as a tack, he cannot recall the campaign nor the Council for Peoria Area Progress. “I’m not sure of the impact the brochure might’ve had,” he says.