March 26, 2024

How Greater Peoria Stacks Up

For the past twenty years, Area Development magazine, an industry periodical for the economic development profession, surveys site selectors across the country to figure out which factors are most important in their decision process. “Site selectors” are a group of specialized management consultants who advise corporations – both domestic and international – about the best locations for their expansions or relocations. It’s a relatively small and competitive group of professionals who work in large firms like Newmark and Cushman Wakefield that have hundreds of employees as well as more “boutique” firms that might have just a few or even just one consultant. But they all work with a variety of clients across all sorts of industries to investigate, vet, and select the best possible locations.  How does Greater Peoria stack up against what they say is most important?

The 20th annual survey confirmed what many of us have been saying for a while now: workforce matters. An impressive 100% of all site selectors said that the availability of skilled labor was a key decision factor. It isn’t surprising, actually. If you are expanding your presence in a region or looking for a place to plant your flag, you want to make sure that there will be people around actually to work for you. But it isn’t just about being convinced that you will have the right workforce on Day One of operations; you need to be convinced that the workforce will also be available on Day Ten Thousand and One. The pipeline matters. Does a community have robust and flexible training programs and providers? Are its secondary schools aligned with workforce trends? Are there social service agencies to help people access the services that facilitate getting and keeping a job? Is the community a place that welcomes newcomers?

Luckily, I believe that Greater Peoria can answer YES to all of these questions, with the caveat that we still have a way to go. We are blessed with great partners like Illinois Central College and Spoon River College, who have the flexibility to launch and tailor programs that respond directly to local business needs. Bradley University, Eureka College, UICOMP, Methodist College, and St. Francis College of Nursing similarly offer education and training that leads to jobs. Our high schools – particularly Pekin High and Woodruff Career and Technical Center – provide critical career training as well as life skills. We have a robust safety net of community programs that can help with job preparation, housing, transportation, child care, and budgeting. The Choose Greater Peoria initiative markets us to the world as a place to come and work. And an organization like the Regional Workforce Alliance ensures that all these pieces are working together and in concert with our business community. It’s a powerful story that we all need to be able to tell.

After workforce, the survey revealed a three-way tie for second place, with each factor being identified as important by 98% of the responding site selectors. Available land is sort of a no-brainer: You can’t make a decision on a place if there is no place! Our local communities are working hard to identify, improve, and incentivize land to meet these opportunities. Pekin has a great business park with nearly 150 available acres. Peoria just created a tax increment financing (TIF) district to help with industrial development on their northside. Morton is eyeing opportunities next to the new Precision Planting operations center. These are great examples of publicly driven development, but frankly, we need more “shovel-ready” sites in our pipeline.

State and local incentives were actually a bit of a surprise to me because in-person site selectors always say that incentives are just “the icing on the cake.” But if everyone is offering you an iced cake, your icing better be just as good, if not better, than your competition. Incentives are gaining visibility, too, because federal policy is directing cash to domestic production of things like semiconductors, renewable energy, and electric vehicles. States have followed suit with their own incentives. Illinois’ “Reimagining Energy and Vehicles” (REV) program is one of the most aggressive state incentive programs in the nation. Local incentives are actually never particularly well positioned when it comes to industrial development, but our communities effectively use tools like TIF and Enterprise Zones to help with costs like property and sales taxes.

The final consideration at the top was “responsive state and local government.” I have no concerns about our local governments. In every case where I have asked for partnership on an opportunity, I’ve received it. Companies from outside our region are amazed at our local government professionals’ professionalism, flexibility, and creativity. This might come as a surprise to some “locals” who are reading this, but our governments are, on balance, exceedingly easy to work with. At the state level, I can tell you that things may never have been better. At a recent conference, I spoke with a Chicago-based site selector who nearly never steers her clients to Illinois locations. But she told me that Illinois had gotten its act together, was progressive, proactive, and responsive, and had created programs like REV that were getting attention. Music to my ears.

The truth is that all of the factors (and the full list has 30) are essential. Even the last one was noted by 50% of site selectors as an important factor. We need to excel in every area and help write and tell the story about how Greater Peoria is the place to be.