WEST PEORIA — As Raber Packing Company burned down the night of Nov. 8, 2018, owner Buddy Courdt was welcomed into the West Peoria business community.
But, distracted by his view of the chaos of the life-changing four-alarm blaze, he didn't realize it at the time.
"I told Buddy that night to let me know if there was anything I could do or anything the city of West Peoria could do to help him rebuild," West Peoria Mayor Jim Dillon said this week. "Raber's is the kind of business that anybody would be happy and proud to have in their city. To get them to stay in the neighborhood is a really big deal for us."
The West Peoria welcome wagon worked. Courdt, who took charge of the family business four years ago, will formally announce on Monday his plans to move Raber Packing Co. a half-mile up Farmington Road to a site near the intersection with Swords Avenue. Now freed from the constrictive boundaries of the lot on Raber Road in Peoria, Courdt is planning an $8 million expansion and update of the 65-year-old meat packing business, and hopes to be open in time for the smoked ham and turkey holiday season.
"We hope to have the financing together to begin construction in early May and open in November," Courdt said.
In the aftermath of the fire, Courdt was courted by many local municipalities. Most offered some variety of financial incentive to relocate to their town.
"Draw a circle in a 20-mile radius of Peoria and we heard from just about every town and city in that area," Courdt said. "We were shocked by the interest in our business."
He settled on the small-city warmth, close proximity, less complicated bureaucracy and pressure-free approach of West Peoria.
"Mayor Dillon was great, so easy to work with," Courdt said. "There was never any pressure, and we were offered a deal similar to what Haddad's (grocery) got after it burned down (in West Peoria on New Year's Day in 2011). We didn't want to move too far away from our customers."
They are moving about a half-mile, from 1413 N. Raber Road in Peoria to 2920 Farmington Road in West Peoria, next to the Circle K gas station at the intersection with Swords Avenue. It was the site of a former landscaping business and is the combination of five properties into one that totals just shy of 10 acres.
The property is in an established Enterprise Zone, which allows the waiver of sales taxes on the purchases of construction materials. The city will also create its third tax increment finance district in the area and will loan the business the purchase price of the properties, to be reimbursed by future property taxes paid on the enhanced value of the newly developed property.
The West Peoria City Council is expected to vote on a redevelopment agreement for the project at its regular Tuesday meeting.
The new facility, designed by Courdt's younger brother, Brad Courdt, who is an industrial design engineer with a degree from Bradley University, will be a 40,000-square-foot meat processing plant with an expanded retail area, a larger slaughter floor, processing area and office space. The new design will also provide for the most efficient flow-through from slaughter to counter as well as incorporating new, cost-effective methods. The company expects to employ 40 full-time union employees, many of whom have remained on the payroll since the fire.
Work areas behind the retail space will be separated by glass, allowing customers to literally watch how hot dogs and bratwursts are produced. The retail space will expand from 2,000 square feet to 8,000 square feet.
"We plan to add a real educational element to the operation, for the smallest children to grown adults who are interested in learning and understanding where their food comes from and how it is processed," Courdt said. "We are not afraid to show how we do it. People will see what it is like to prepare 200 hams and turkeys a day during the holiday season."
Also, for the first time since Sam Raber and Courdt's great-grandfather Fritz Weterauer opened Raber's in 1954, live animals trucked to the plant will be kept in indoor, climate-controlled holding pens.
"Weather will not be a factor in unloading animals," Courdt said.
Hein Construction will be the general contractor.
The November fire, the precise cause of which was never determined, was disruptive and traumatizing, Courdt said.
"A lot of history burned down in the fire," he said.
But in a way, it was also liberating.
"I care about my products and have a lot invested in them," Courdt said. "And now we have room to grow. I fully intend for this new facility to be something that is handed down to my grandchildren and great-grandchildren."
Scott Hilyard can be reached at 686-3244 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @scotthilyard on Twitter.