PEORIA — In an email to Peoria officials, the developer of a proposed Portillo's restaurant says East Peoria is willing to provide the company free land to build on the east side of the river.
But East Peoria officials flatly deny that such an offer was ever made.
And developer William Torchia says he was just passing along information he'd heard to city leaders, not seeking leverage to get a better deal than the proposed 1 percentage point sales tax hike he's seeking to pay land acquisition and development costs.
The communication from Torchia was sent last Wednesday to Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis, assistant city manager Chris Setti and to Torchia's attorney, Bob Hall. The Journal Star obtained it through a Freedom of Information Act request.
In it, Torchia tells the trio that he met last Tuesday with the company's real estate representative, who told him that the city of East Peoria "has contacted Portillo's and offered them land next to the new library in EP for FREE!"
East Peoria's city manager, Jeff Eder, says no such conversations ever occurred.
"The city of East Peoria in the past has reached out to Portillo’s to see if they would be interested in a location," Eder said. "Portillo’s has never indicated they were interested in an East Peoria location. The city never offered free land or even discussed incentives with Portillo’s. City Council would have final say on any incentive package but none has been discussed."
Nick Scarpino, Portillo's vice president for marketing and public relations said in an emailed statement that "we have had conversations regarding expansion with various cities, including Peoria and East Peoria. However, we have no comment regarding any pending real estate developments."
In the email, Torchia also raises the issue of disparity in incentives between the communities.
"I have to stand back and scratch (my) head," the email from Torchia reads. "Why can one city offer free land and the other city (across the river) has very little incentives in their tool box? This offer from EP is another shot at your city! Is it time to do what's best for the city of Peoria and dismiss the naysayers?"
Asked in a phone interview Tuesday afternoon, Torchia said the communique was meant "as an informational purpose only, and wasn't trying to insinuate at all that the city wasn't doing enough for me.
"I believe our (special service area sales tax) proposal is extremely fair. I have no intentions of trying to get more or (saying) it wasn't enough," he continued.
His meaning instead?
"I just said, hey, let's get this done," Torchia said. "Let's get this across the finish line and get this done. The city of Peoria has Portillo's locked up; they can have them if they want them. ... East Peoria can wish all they want, but there's nothing they can do."
That could still change depending upon a City Council vote, though. Torchia reiterated that if the sales tax increase isn't authorized, he wouldn't go forward with the development in Peoria.
At-Large City Councilman Sid Ruckriegel — who has been a vocal opponent of the proposed special service area tax increase — said he hoped the company would be making its decision on where to locate on more solid business ground than incentive offers.
"I believe Portillo's chose the location in Peoria based on drive times, demographics, things that made that site appealing," he said. "I hope those sort of pieces would end up winning the argument about where Portillo's goes."
While Portillo's may be up in the air until the Nov. 14 vote on the sales tax incentive, Torchia has already begun demolition of buildings on the property, which he bought earlier this year.
"If it's not going to be Portillo's, it's going to be something new," he said. "... There's progress that's going to go on no matter what."
That construction might not begin until next year if it's not a Portillo's. But Torchia said if the sales tax is approved, he expects the company to seek a construction permit posthaste to begin construction of the Portillo's restaurant — with land including the parcel now containing a UPS store, the purchase and clearing of which is also contingent upon the tax's passage.
He estimates the hot dog eatery could open as soon as April 2018.
Chris Kaergard covers politics and government. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 686-3255. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisKaergard.