A few weeks ago, the Peoria City Council approved a master plan to transform the downtown riverfront into an active urban park. The plan – estimated at $26 million – will create formal and informal gathering spaces, bolster activities like the Riverfront Market and a host of summertime festivals, and encourage physical and social activity. The planning has been underway for years (in fact, I was involved on the periphery in its earliest days when I worked at the City of Peoria). Bolstered by a $15 million state grant secured by Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth and the input gathered over the years by hundreds of stakeholders, the riverfront master plan is a critical part of Peoria’s strategy to reimagine its downtown. So why would a regional economic development group like Greater Peoria EDC care to herald a local municipal investment?
At Greater Peoria EDC, we are unabashedly regional and recognize that victories anywhere in our region are victories for all of us. But there is also a reason we call our community “Greater Peoria.” As the principal city of our metropolitan area, Peoria itself needs to be strong in order for Greater Peoria to be strong. And the Peoria riverfront is the region’s backyard – investment there benefits us all. Peoria doesn’t check IDs at the gates (and there aren’t actually any gates for the most part, anyway), and I’ve seen friends from Morton, Eureka, Pekin, and elsewhere taking advantage of Peoria’s section of the riverfront. Of our region’s many quality-of-life assets, having access to this wonderful river is at the top of the list. I am happy to see one part of it get even better.
The impact of a dramatically improved Peoria riverfront isn’t limited to those of us who already live here. Local investments of this scale have farther-reaching effects. When we put together the Big Table Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, we deliberately included a goal of increasing investment in our town centers. Having vibrant downtowns, Main Streets, and commercial areas is critical regarding business and talent attraction. Regardless of where people live or their house style, they are drawn to areas because of activity and a sense of community. That is important in Peoria, to be certain, but it has been amazing to see investments in places like Havana, Washington, Peoria Heights, and Pekin. When people visit a community, either as tourists or maybe as potential relocatees, they will often judge a town by what it sees in their downtown. Are there things to do? Is it pedestrian-friendly, safe, and clean? Are there restaurants and entertainment options? Does it feel alive? Choose Greater Peoria, hosting its Bears Tailgate party earlier this month, showcased one of our region’s best assets both to our own citizens and the rest of Bears’ Nation. Imagine that same event in a few years with a completely renovated riverfront.
A vibrant downtown and riverfront might not seem important to business attraction, but it very much is. When Greater Peoria EDC hosted three site selection professionals for a tour of our region last year, one of their biggest points of feedback was that Peoria’s downtown and riverfront needed improvement. This is especially true if we are looking to attract businesses in technology fields like software development and biomedical manufacturing. A great downtown does not supersede the need for a qualified and available workforce, the right building or site, and business-friendly policies, but it can absolutely be a differentiator. The people making decisions about where their companies will be located are also making a decision about where their employees – and maybe themselves – will be located. And maybe more importantly, businesses will choose to invest in communities that are investing in themselves and avoid places that aren’t. A revitalized riverfront and the investments in all of our downtowns and town centers are symbols of growth that help us tell the story of Greater Peoria.