PEORIA — Five years ago on a chilly Saturday morning, leaders gathered Downtown to dedicate a block that had been years in the planning.

That ceremony on Oct. 20 marked the opening day for the Peoria Riverfront Museum and the Caterpillar Visitors Center, and five years later officials at both facilities are celebrating not only a successful half-decade of operation, but the transformation of a dilapidated city block into a regional destination.

Doing so was the result of a long effort and a sometimes contentious referendum in which taxpayers in Peoria County narrowly approved a sales tax hike to build the building the privately run museum now occupies.

Even five years in, "we have a strong responsibility to be able to live up to what the people asked," museum board chairman Sid Ruckriegel says. "I would hope — and the public has to be the judge of this — that as they're looking at what has come to fruition over the last five years that we're building trust with them that what they asked for, we're able to provide."

What they have provided on the museum side of the block is a space focusing on art, science, history and achievement — with a planetarium and a Giant Screen Theater. That many things sharing the same location allows for a "multidisciplinary approach that is unparalleled in the country," museum president and CEO John Morris says.

"Objects tell stories, stories inspire people. We will bring the most inspiring stories possible through objects to central Illinois (that is) imaginable," he adds.

Programming success

Some programs recently unveiled at the PRM are seeing rapid success. The Every School Initiative — a donor-funded program to bring thousands of schoolkids through the museum doors — has already brought several thousand students in, primarily from Peoria Public Schools, eclipsing during the usually slower fall the number of field trip visits seen the prior spring.

That program will expand into other districts around the region as well.

"The reason it's so effective now is that it's not just a bunch of schoolkids being dropped off for a field trip, it's curriculum tied up to the minute," Morris says, with museum educators working directly with school officials to tie lessons from exhibits into units in the classroom.

As a not-for-profit, particularly operating in a public-owned building, "in some ways, our mission is to convert these financial investments (from donations) into social return," Morris said.

Meanwhile, a strategic planning process is underway to help chart the direction of the museum in future years and "build on our solid foundation," Morris said. But some things are already certain.

An exhibition on the state's bicentennial will open early next year, followed by a family-oriented summer show on mythical creatures — unicorns, mermaids and the like — that leaders enthuse will be a boon for summer camps, creative writing and other outlets of expression.

And there's a long-term goal to go through the facility's metaphorical attic — actually off-site, carefully controlled storage — and bring out other items in the permanent collection for display, Ruckriegel says, freshening up existing exhibit space.

Steady finances

The PRM just wrapped up its fifth fiscal year of operations in the summer, and board members have dramatically dialed back the funds transferred in from capital campaign fundraising, making the facility more self-sufficient. Along the way, they've streamlined expenses to adjust to realities not foreseen in the original consultants' plans.

Attendance has steadily grown from the second year through the fifth, with the most recent year seeing a record 179,934 admissions. By the end of the current fiscal year or the start of the next, the one-millionth ticket is projected to be sold.

The number of higher-dollar donors has expanded — now more than 130 people annually are donating $1,000 or more — and annual membership rolls have just topped 4,000. Two years ago, it stood at 3,000.

That's substantial growth from a sometimes-rocky beginning.

"Some of our biggest critics — and I appreciate them being vocal at the beginning, because I think they held us accountable — are now some of our biggest fans and supporters," Ruckriegel says. "And I think that says a lot about the community, but I think it also says a lot about how far we've come in the last five years."

Caterpillar Visitors Center

The Caterpillar facility, formally renamed Thursday after retired CEO Doug Oberhelman, has served as "the face of Caterpillar" since its opening, site manager Susan Morton said.

"It's an inside look at what goes on in the four walls of Caterpillar that the general public typically could never see until this facility was built," she said.

The building serves multiple purposes, catering not just to aficionados of Caterpillar equipment — who come from all over the world — but also to dealers and other customers who visit the region to see company operations as well as to families of employees.

It's seen some 350,000 visitors since opening, at a fairly steady annual rate, Morton said.

The company has grown a field trip program as well, hosting about 2,000 kids from the region in the past year, many at the middle school level.

Company history is popular — an exhibit on Holt Tractor Co. begins next month, and displays on the 1952 Olympic gold medal basketball team (composed largely of Caterpillar Diesels players) and the Dieselettes softball team drew crowds and have helped spur community donations to corporate archives — but so are some offbeat topics.

Last year's Black History Month exhibition drawing on material from the new Smithsonian museum in Washington, D.C., received wide acclaim, Morton said, and the holiday lights decorating a piece of equipment has proven to be "a huge hit" returning again this winter.

Chris Kaergard can be reached at ckaergard@pjstar.com or 686-3255. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisKaergard.