The conversion of the former Greeley School building into an artists' colony has received an initial municipal recommendation. But ambiguities appear to remain regarding the presence of children there.
"That area has been used as a toilet stool," Jonathon Romain said about the North Valley location. "I'm saying, 'No more.'"
The Peoria Planning and Zoning Commission concurred.
By a 5-0 vote Thursday, commissioners suggested the City Council approve land-use changes that would allow Romain and his wife, Marsha, to repurpose the Greeley building as a studio for themselves and other artists who would rent space there.
The council is to have final say June 12.
The Romains also have proposed the building at 919 NE Jefferson Ave. be the site of free, after-school arts programs for children. But an objection came from an organization that operates a halfway house across the street.
Some of the residents of the Human Service Center-operated house are sex offenders, whom state law bars from living within 500 feet of a school, park or day-care facility.
What state statues define as a school is not what the Romains plan to offer, according to city officials and codes.
"If this is approved, it is not in conflict with the halfway house," said 1st District Councilwoman Denise Moore, who represents the area. "By the letter of what we have on our own books, this is eligible."
An official city legal opinion was unavailable. Municipal planner Leah Allison said one was requested about three weeks ago by email, but the city legal department had not responded.
"Not having a response back from legal is kind of unacceptable," said Mike Wiesehan, the commission chairman.
Still, the response to the Romains' plans was positive from commission members and most of the eight people who addressed them about that subject.
"What these people are doing, bringing that school back to life ... you've got to stand up and congratulate them every day of the week," commissioner Richard Unes said.
Jonathon Romain regaled Unes and the others with his life story. The Chicago-area native graduated from Bradley University as he was facing a prison term for selling illicit drugs. While incarcerated, he rediscovered a love for art.
"I want to have a sustained impact on my brothers and sisters who have been forgotten by everybody else in the world," Romain said.
A commission decision had been expected last month. It was delayed to give Romain a chance to talk with Michael Kennedy, the Human Service Center president and CEO, about possible solutions and accommodations.
They met about three weeks ago, but no progress was made, apparently. Kennedy fears childrens' presence on the Greeley property would jeopardize the center's federal contract to house eligible halfway-house residents.
That argument appeared to cut no ice with Romain.
"When you say, 'I don't want you to use a school for children because I'm hosting some sex offenders,' I say that is a problem," he said.
When the center sought municipal sanction six years ago for its plans, it was granted, on the assumption the Greeley building no longer would be used for a school. Then again, according to the city, the Romains won't be operating a school.
"It feels like, to me, we're splitting hairs," Kennedy said. "Who will interpret that is our contractor, the Federal Bureau of Prisons. I don't know how they're going to look at this."