August 16 was a good day to celebrate. Partners from across the region gathered to share the good news about the Good News Challenge, a nearly $15 million grant the US Economic Development Administration (EDA) awarded to the region. The grant was awarded to Illinois Central College, leading a consortium that included Bradley University, Eureka College, Greater Peoria EDC, and a host of local social service organizations. Together, this collective and its partner employers pledged to train 1,000 people in information technology skills over the next three years. It will be a dynamic and comprehensive program that will both fill critical employer needs and provide life-changing opportunities to low-income individuals and families.
On hand to celebrate with us last week was Susan Brehm, the Regional Director of EDA’s Chicago Office. The EDA, part of the US Department of Commerce, may be one of the nation’s best-kept secrets. Their mission statement is pretty clear: “To lead the federal economic development agenda by promoting innovation and competitiveness, preparing American regions for growth and success in the worldwide economy.” While they might not be a household name to you, they definitely are to us. In the past three years alone, the EDA has awarded over $20.5 million to projects and programs in Greater Peoria.
I would be happy to put that record of investment up against any other region our size. EDA isn’t just showing favor to us Greater Peorians – we have consistently provided them with excellent projects that meet their programmatic guidelines and investment priorities. It all starts with a solid foundation of our regional plan, the Big Table Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy. This is more than a document that sits on a shelf in my office; it is the region’s guide to greater resiliency, diversity, and ultimately greater economic success. For over three decades, Greater Peoria EDC has been EDA’s local partner in crafting and stewarding this plan.
A key eligibility factor in obtaining investment from EDA is being able to demonstrate how programs and projects align with this regional strategy. Here is a quick rundown of the projects funded just since 2019:
- Good Jobs Challenge (2022): $14,600,000 (over three years) to create the IT Workforce Accelerator. The program aligns with Goal 2, Strategy 2: Develop opportunities and mechanisms to provide citizens with the skills they need to be gainfully employed.
- Workforce Sustainability Center (2019): $3,000,000 to help construct a $10 million workforce training facility on ICC’s East Peoria campus that will train individuals in 13 different career areas, from HVAC to truck driving. Like the Good Jobs Challenge, this program aligns with Goal 2, Strategy 2.
- Distillery Labs (2021): $2,000,000 to help with the renovation of a vacant structure in downtown Peoria into a center of innovation and entrepreneurship. This program aligns with Goal 1, Strategy 1: Support economic innovation and digitization for the full range of businesses, from startups to legacy corporations.
- Illinois Central College (2022): $911,900 to help renovate and expand classroom facilities in both East Peoria and Pekin, allowing more students to be trained in fields like welding, truck driving and public safety. Like a few others, this fits with Goal 2, Strategy 2.
- Mapleton Industrial Corridor Study (2021): $60,000 in technical assistance and planning funds awarded to Peoria County to study limitations of utilities in the Mapleton Industrial Corridor (Route 24) and provide recommendations that will allow business growth in the area. This aligns with Goal 1, Strategy 1: Develop real estate and infrastructure to make it attractive for investment.
This list doesn’t even count earlier projects like helping to reconstruct North University Street in Peoria and build a publicly-owned industrial park in Havana. A good CEDS isn’t the only reason, or even a primary reason, that these projects were merited with consideration. But they all emanate from a strategy that connects these individual projects to a shared vision of our regional success. When people unfairly criticize plans as “make-work efforts” that never leave the public meeting, I can give them 20,571,900 reasons why they are important, especially in Greater Peoria.
I’m fond of saying that economic development is a team sport. If that is true, and I believe it is, I’m glad we have teammates like EDA to help us become more successful.