Anyone who has read my articles over the past few years knows that I’m a big fan of regionalism. The entire work of Greater Peoria EDC is based on our region working together toward a common goal. While each county, city or village offers unique assets, we are all interconnected such that a success in one corner of the region is good for the rest of it. We structure our efforts to capitalize on and harness these individual assets so that we can move forward together. For clarity, we do focus our work to five counties: Peoria, Tazewell, Woodford, Mason and Logan counties. But in reality “Greater Peoria” is actually quite a bit larger and areas outside these boundaries play an important role in the success of the region.
Let’s face it: while county or municipal boundaries are important for lots of reasons, they don’t mean very much when it comes to economic development. People move freely between our communities to go to work, shop, recreate, etc. Most of our citizens would not be able to tell you where the City of Peoria ends and where the Village of Peoria Heights begins, or explain to you which part of Sunnyland is in East Peoria vs. Washington. The outer perimeter of the technical map of the region is equally blurry, only noted to the casual observer by a roadside sign announcing a new county. But think about how boring – and frankly unsuccessful – it would be if commerce was limited to just the residents and businesses of our five counties.
Two of the region’s premier cultural assets help to make this argument. Consider the economic impact of the Peoria Civic Center and Peoria Riverfront Museum. People who attend concerts, theatrical performances, art exhibits or special collections come from miles around. Though the Museum’s membership is largely composed of relatively local citizens, its visitors hail from far beyond Greater Peoria. Similarly, some of the bigger concerts at the Civic Center will pull in patrons from across the Midwest. In addition to the concert ticket itself, these visitors are often staying in our hotels, eating in our restaurants, shopping in our malls and filling up their cars at our gas stations. When we say these assets and others are “regional draws” we are talking about more than just Greater Peoria.
Our healthcare assets are similar magnets for people who live outside Greater Peoria. Every day, dozens if not hundreds of “outsiders” are taking advantage of the excellent services of OSF Healthcare, UnityPoint Health or some of our smaller critical access hospitals and specialty services. I’m fortunate to be on the board of directors for Ronald McDonald House Charities of Central Illinois, which has houses in Peoria and Springfield. But you only can stay at the Peoria house if your family lives 30 miles or more away from Peoria. We’ve hosted families from Streator, Canton, Pontiac, Bloomington and dozens of other cities, none of them in GP counties.
The fluidity of employment is another great example. How many people do you know that work in the Peoria area, but live in Canton or Galesburg or Normal? The opposite is also true. There are plenty of people who live here but go to work every day outside of the region. Rivian and State Farm in McLean county rely on Greater Peoria for a significant portion of their workforce. That’s why we should celebrate wins in McLean or Knox or Stark counties. They are our wins, too! I once joked that Greater Peoria is the type of place where a 45 mile drive is a 45 minute drive; that nonexistent congestion stretches the boundaries of what we consider our region.
We need to start thinking bigger. We are not just five counties, a few dozen municipalities and 400,000 citizens. We are both Greater Peoria and Central Illinois, home to over a million people who choose to live, work and play in this amazing part of our country. When we think too small, we miss opportunities. A small group has already started this work. Greater Peoria EDC is joining forces with our economic development colleagues in McLean, Champaign, Macon, Douglas and Sangamon counties to work more intentionally and collaboratively to draw attention to our part of the state. That doesn’t rob us of our individuality, but recognizes that we have common strengths and assets – like a world class workforce – that can be leveraged. I know that our chambers of commerce and convention and visitors bureaus have similar partnerships.
Greater Peoria is not an island. We benefit from our neighbors, and they benefit from us. We are a powerhouse. We just need to let the rest of the world learn what we already know.