August 24, 2021

Leveraging Connections to Get Greater Peoria Back to Business

Last week, the State of Illinois began accepting applications for the Back to Business grant — a $250 million pot of money available for small businesses who were financially impacted by COVID. Grant sizes range from $5,000 to $150,000, depending on the size of loss between 2019 and 2020. You can actually read all about the grant in the article right below this one. I would encourage you to do so, and share this newsletter with any small businesses you might know.

But the grant itself is only half the story. The other half is a chapter called “Community Navigators.” In June, the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO) announced that it was seeking partnerships with regional entities to create a network of local nonprofit organizations who would help spread the word about the Back to Business Grant and help businesses apply.  DCEO had learned a lot from last summer’s Business Interruption Grant (BIG) and found that businesses with connections had a better chance of winning a grant. Some of the state’s smallest and hardest hit businesses — minority-owned, language barriered, rural — either didn’t know the grant was available or had no idea where to turn for help in answering questions.  From that realization was born the concept of Community Navigators, organizations charged with making sure everyone knew what was happening and how to get help.

Enter the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council. Over the past year and a half, GPEDC has been doing its best to connect businesses with resources. Whether that was through its website, periodic email blasts (92 and counting since March 2020), media appearances or direct facilitation of grants like Downstate Stabilization, GPEDC has found ways to help businesses survive and recover. But that hasn’t been work done alone. Along the way we did what we do best: Leverage the power of our relationships with our partners to be more than the sum of our parts.

So when DCEO was looking for an organization to coordinate a network of Community Navigators in Central Illinois, it was easy for GPEDC to raise its hand. DCEO’s goal was to create a “hub and spoke” model to deliver services to businesses in every county in Illinois. We already had all the spokes on board — they’d been doing this work along with us for the past year and a half. We relied on our strong partnerships with the Chambers of Commerce in Peoria, East Peoria, Pekin, Morton and Washington, each of whom agreed to serve the businesses within their communities. We called up newer relationships with Lincoln Economic Advancement and Development and Spoon River Partnership for Economic Development (Canton) to cover their communities. To handle rural businesses in the spaces between our larger cities, Bradley’s Turner Center for Entrepreneurship agreed to bring on some additional staff to canvas the often hardest-to-serve businesses. And while geography was important, we also knew we needed some partners who would help with particular types of businesses. We partnered with the Peoria Black Business Alliance and the Greater Peoria Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to ensure those businesses had someone to turn to who better understood their issues.

Our Community Navigators have hit the ground running and have already helped dozens of businesses apply for a grant. But even this formal network is not alone. Already, each of our county health departments have used their email list of food license holders to share information about Back to Business. Our banking partners have shared information with their clients. And our local governments have shared our social media posts on their own channels so that their citizens had all of the relevant information.  The most amazing thing about my job is that everyone wants to help. This is what puts the greater in Greater Peoria. Thanks for doing your part.