Last week, Ameren Illinois and The Greater Peoria Economic Development Council hosted a Site Selectors’ Guild Advisory Forum focused on Greater Peoria’s (GP’s) Pharma, Medical, and Life Science Industries. The tour’s purpose was to introduce three consultants to GP’s life sciences cluster and learn how to improve our attractiveness, competitiveness, and chances of attracting businesses in these industries. Bob Hess, Andy Shapiro, and Rajeev Thakur were our guests, and the visit was a productive learning opportunity for us all.
GPEDC and Ameren invested in this tour for several important reasons. First, the Greater Peoria region used to be known as Caterpillar’s hometown and is now on the national radar for being Cat’s former home. We set out to share a new narrative that would also help inform our next steps as we make the case for a new industry cluster – BioManufacturing. Secondly, other smaller third-tier communities like Greater Peoria highly recommended Advisory Forum trips as a way to both align community efforts and lay the groundwork for future investment opportunities. Such takeaways seemed relevant to the region’s ongoing economic development efforts. Thirdly, site selection consultants help advocate for communities with their business clients. Large companies looking for new locations often prioritize places they know and like when they start a location search. When a part of that process, Site Selection consultants help steer those conversations, but their reputations and business success are on the line with their recommendations. Visiting a community and getting first-hand insights into the assets that make a community great helps them advocate for us and helps amplify our efforts to bring interest and investment to the region. Any one of the reasons above were compelling to me as the Director of Business Attraction, and all three made the effort a priority.
The tour started at the new OSF Ministry Headquarters where we enjoyed a private tour of their redevelopment of the historic Shipper and Block building in Peoria. Chris Setti, CEO of the GPEDC, Lenora Fisher, Director of Business Attraction for the GPEDC and Eric Whitfield, Director of Economic Development from Ameren Illinois, provided an overview of the community, its industry strengths, and key stakeholders in our Healthcare and Life Sciences ecosystem.
Day two of the tour was a full day of visits delving into different facets of GP’s business attraction value proposition. The group started with a tour of the Peoria Next Innovation Center, where the successes of Midwest BioProcessing and Veloxity Labs – biotech startups housed in the Next Innovation Center – were highlighted. Jake Becraft and Vivian Standifird from the Peoria BioMade Board shared their business attraction pitch.
The second stop was the Illinois Central College Health Careers Center, where Dr. Quirk-Bailey and Joshua Gunn presented on the Regional Workforce Alliance’s workforce pipeline efforts.
Stop three on tour was Artists Reenvisioning Tomorrow, where Nikki and Jonathan Romain offered comments about their impact on the Greater Peoria community, and Mayor Rita Ali led a discussion about the region’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Next, the group toured pad-ready industrial sites in Morton and Peoria before heading to a community reception and private dinner with local elected officials at the Peoria Country Club. All in all, it was a full day of learning and exploring.
The tour concluded on day three with a report and discussion where our guests shared insights on the themes they noticed, the gaps in our ecosystem, and the action steps they recommend taking to improve GP’s business case and attractiveness for investment.
The four most significant takeaways from the event, from my perspective, were:
- The vibrancy of downtown Peoria is vitally important for the entire region. From our guest’s perspective, the downtown is a donut hole and is the lasting impression visitors take with them. When asked how they would evaluate the progress of the community in the next five years? They said the vibrancy of downtown Peoria would tell them everything they needed to know. Peoria’s downtown is the anchor of the region, and it needs to be vibrant and lively.
- We need to control the narrative about the community through branding, storytelling, local data collection/management/architecture, and more. The community has many strong assets on which to build, but their stories could be aligned better to tell one story about the community that is validated with data and helps them understand (to borrow Joshua Gunn’s phrase) the “vibe” of the place.
- We need to situate ourselves in the larger context in which we operate, meaning that we need to call out the assets in central Illinois, the state (including Chicago), and even the broader midwest to help build our case, argument and value proposition.
- It is a long-term play to be competitive in the BioManufacturing space. RTP took 40+ years to build, and we really only started in 2019. When access to talent is the number one priority for business location decisions, and we show up low in the Life Science location quotient (a formula used to measure the talent supply and demand in a region), we are not on the radar and won’t be without a long term commitment and concerted effort to build out our talent, real estate and ecosystem pipeline in this industry. We do have strengths on which to build, but there is a lot more work to do.
All in all, it was a great trip. We learned valuable insights into what we can do to be more competitive in the Pharma, Medical and Life Science industries as well as to businesses in the other industries the consultants represented. We enjoyed three valuable days of our guests’ time where we got to show off the community and its amazing assets. And our guests had the opportunity to meet the fantastic people and stakeholders in this community actively working to build the region’s future. It’s our people and our collaboration that make this community great and that was on full display. Plus, the consultants will offer a report back to the professional association they are a part of, so their insights will be shared with 300+ other consultants who haven’t had the chance to do a project here yet.
A special thanks to all who participated in the tour’s events and who helped celebrate the region’s assets with us. I look forward to working together to incorporate their feedback into our economic development strategies and reporting our progress to our guests in the weeks, months, and years ahead.