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Experience working 2007-08 Obama campaign shapes Peoria economic developer's vision for city

Lenora Fisher is in charge of business attraction for the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council.
Hannah Alani
Lenora Fisher, director of business attraction for the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council, poses for a photos after a WCBU interview.

While she has roots in central Illinois and graduated from Tremont High School, Lenora Fisher has lived all over the world and worked in a variety of industries — from assistant directing a center on religion at politics at Washington University to staffing former President Barack Obama's first presidential campaign.

Fisher moved back to central Illinois in 2014. Since 2019, she's been the director of business attraction for the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council. Last year, she was named one of the Top 50 Economic Developers in North America.

In a conversation with WCBU's Hannah Alani, Fisher reflects on how her experiences, including her stint in national politics, shapes her vision for Greater Peoria.

The following is a transcript of an interview that aired Wednesday, Jan. 26 on All Things Peoria. It has been edited for length and clarity.

For full disclosure, Lenora Fisher is a member of the WCBU Community Advisory Board.

Lenora Fisher: Obama kind of hit the national stage at the 2004 convention. I was the typical average person that's maybe a little disillusioned with politics and politicians and inside the beltway ... 'They're all corrupt.' I grew up hearing this stuff. And I think a lot of us do. I was not really tuned in. But I was living in London. I was in graduate school ... and all of my peers and my friends in London had just flown back from helping out with the 2004 campaign. I was just really convicted that if they would fly across the ocean because of how important it was, but I couldn't even be bothered to be educated ... Like, I was really convicted by that.

So (Obama) had written a book called, "Dreams From My Father." And again, my friends in London had all like, we're reading it, and had read it, and just really loved it. So when I was there, while this is all going on, totally separate ... My mother from Illinois, in central Illinois ... she was not on board with Obama, per se, but she always 'liked what he had to say,' right? She wasn't real plugged in. ... She's like, 'I think you might like him.' And I was like, 'Politicians. No, no, no.' But I read his book. And what I loved about his book was that he, you know, he had Midwestern roots, but grew up in Hawaii — my family had been stationed in Hawaii — And like, the things he talked about, and his takeaways, and his lessons learned ... I was like, 'his man gets it.' I was inspired and impressed and just excited.

Lenora Fisher pictured on Election Night in 2008 after President Barack Obama won the U.S. presidency.
Lenora Fisher / Provided
Lenora Fisher pictured on Election Night in 2008 after President Barack Obama won the U.S. presidency.

So when I moved back from London, I went to the Senate office and was like, 'I really am excited about what you're doing. ... If there's anything I can do to support you, like, please let me know.' I joined in New Hampshire, I was on staff in New Hampshire, and went through to the night we won the election. And then the transition team, before coming back home.

Hannah Alani: Wow.

Lenora Fisher: It was cool. There's just so many good memories.

Hannah Alani: Did that experience influence your decision to come back to the Midwest, to central Illinois, in any way?

Lenora Fisher: Yeah, it did. In my experience on the East Coast ... I just felt like, I felt like I was getting further and further away from this community. And being familiar with it and comfortable with it, and stuff like that. I grew up in a Republican household. And then I worked on a Democratic campaign. And it killed me how much people, they say the same things about each other, from the other side. Like, 'Oh, I can't believe these people.' And, like, these terrible conclusions. And like, 'How could they think that way?' And there was so much like, pointing fingers at the other, and the other was so terrible, but like, that's not true. I know that's not true. Being from the middle, kind of having, knowing people on all sides of the aisle, kind of being in these different situations and tables. How do you engage this? Like, you can't, this is not constructive conversation, or helpful. So, how can we move that needle forward?

I moved back, and worked at my alma mater, in Greenville. And I had this idea for this thing called Main Street Studies. Like I wanted to take what I learned from the campaign and start engaging the community, like how do you engage a community on a non-political issue? Like, does that mean, I go out and canvas, and just introduce myself to my neighbors, so that I know everybody? I loved canvassing because I got to meet so many cool people face to face ... Like, 'How can I do that without an agenda? How can I do that just to be plugged in and know my neighbors?'

After that ... they opened a center at Washington University called the Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, which was intended to ... bring academic rigor and insights to the public square, and public dialogue around the topics that typically divide. And so it was kind of, in the way I talked about it, like a think tank. But that was kind of the intention. And so they opened that at Wash U ... and I was hired as the assistant director.

Hannah Alani: So what year did you officially relocate to Peoria then?

Lenora Fisher: I moved back in 2014, to the area. I lived and worked in Pekin for a couple years. And then an opportunity came up in Morton. So I joined the Morton chamber and EDC. Worked there for a couple years. And then the person in my role now was retiring, and so I moved on to serve the region.

...Economic Development, you typically kind of come to it from other things. There is a certification program, but like when I started, it's like, I didn't know about 'location one,' which is a way that we keep track of all the available commercial properties. ... I had to teach myself zoning and GIS and I like, learned to interpret zoning codes ... it was stuff that you learn on the fly, right?

So my first year, my goal and priority was, I wanted to completely understand the game. Like, what is business attraction? What is site selection? What does it take to be a competitive and attractive location for businesses? And what things are they looking for, to make sure that we are putting that information out there? I wanted to get us in the game and make sure we were playing the right game. So from there, COVID happened, and so you know, all the things that kind of went along with that. You know, doing virtual meetings. ... And so 2020 and COVID and all that. So now this year, like we're we're a little bit hybrid, right? But now we get to work. I'm excited. It's gonna be a good year; 2022 is gonna be a really good year.

Hannah Alani: Well, that's a wonderful thing to hear. I hope so!

Lenora Fisher: Yes! We're gonna make it.

Lenora Fisher is in charge of business attraction for the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council.
Hannah Alani
Lenora Fisher is in charge of business attraction for the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council.

Hannah Alani: You're working to pull in large businesses, ones that would fill a 10,000-square-foot warehouse. Can you give us a bit of a temperature check on the Peoria area, the Greater Peoria community. How are we looking in that regard?

Lenora Fisher: Typically, what businesses are looking for, like what we're being evaluated on, as a community from a business attraction perspective ... There are three 'builders' of the business attraction, I say. Like the first one, that kind of thing that gets us to the table, is our sites and our buildings. So, our existing properties get us to the table. And so, really having a complete picture and profile, knowing kind of all the different components that you need to know for an industrial project on those properties in advance, marketing it appropriately, and being able to respond quickly. That is the name of the game.

The deciding factor, though ... is your talent pipeline. And that's being evaluated on like ... population decline or rise, reputation. And then your schools, and businesses, and retention numbers. And how many other businesses are in that space? So you know that you've got the option for other talent, right. And then the third part of it is business climate and culture, and kind of the ease of navigating the processes and things like that. So, in the site selection process, all that research is pretty much done before they're even considering a location. So, then when we get an RFI, which the state of Illinois helps facilitate, get a business referral ... we get to respond and bid. ... And that's when the deal-making happens. So that's the process.

In terms of the climate, I think, you know, we've had a couple really great wins. Amazon in Pekin. That was a huge, exciting announcement and win for the region. ... Veloxity Labs ... I can tell you based on the industrial property availability, like, it's full. Like, I don't have much to market right now. Site selectors call it 'your product' ... anything 10,000 square foot or above right now, our most marketable properties, a lot of them are filled. Not all of them, there are still some out there. But that's a good measure. ... All in all, on the large-scale kind of interstate businesses ... I think we are, we're doing well.

I think where we have challenges is our shovel-ready, pad-ready, existing building stock. We have a lot of office space, vacant office space ... but the lead opportunities that we hear the most about, it's not often that headquarters move. ... I want to fill all these beautiful buildings down here, too. So like, that is one area to work on...

Peoria Public Radio

Hannah Alani: Like the Warehouse District?

Lenora Fisher: We've looked at a lot of those buildings, and I love, I have a heart for old buildings. I love it. Like, I love just the ethos, the vibe. Like, it's so beautiful. I love the Warehouse District. What the challenge with those buildings is, for industrial purposes, is today's building standards from places around the world tend to be ceiling heights, and floor thickness ... like a lot of those ceiling heights were built, right, with industrial standards from when they were built. Right now, it's very rare that I'll get a site search for something under 30 feet. And we don't have a ton of 30-foot ceiling heights. Typically it's like 50 feet. I get a lot in that 45-50 foot ceiling height range. And we don't really have anything in that. ... That's gonna take a variance. And that is time and money. And typically, they can find that someplace else.

Hannah Alani: Without naming names, or giving away anyone's privacy, can you tell us an example of a type of business that you kind of were in the process of negotiating to come here ... but they ended up opting for a similarly sized Midwestern city?

Lenora Fisher: One of my colleagues met a business at a conference. He's Italian, and they were an Italian business. Hit it off, right, like talking about Italy, and home and relationships and stuff like that. And so, great time, right? And extended the invitation, 'If you're in Peoria ... you know, if you're ever looking to expand, please think about Peoria.' And from there, they kept in touch. And the company visited several times and built lots of good relationships and really liked the community. But in their due diligence process and research, they ended up going to a place that had an existing building in a neighboring state. ... It is consistently something like that.

So I think Rivian is a good story, because the Rivian plant, like, they were not in the process of looking for a plant at that point. They were coming to leverage parts from the Mitsubishi auction. And they came, and they visited, and they went to downtown Normal, and had a great experience. Met a lot of great people who loved the community and talked positively about it. And out of that, you know, it's like, 'Oh, well, maybe we could just buy the plant.' And like, kind of the rest is history, right?

So, I think it's a really great story, and like lesson learned, for like, 'Okay, these are the things that lead to landing businesses here.' And how do we leverage and cultivate and all be a part of this process. Because it takes all of us. Like those people at that bar that they hung out with that night didn't know that they were recruiting Rivian, right? Like they were just like talking about how much they loved where they lived.

But all that to say, it started with the building. Yeah. Buildings and those sites matter.

Eric Stock

Hannah Alani: I love Peoria. But I notice some tension between transplants like myself and those who are 'lifers' ... That chit chat at the bar, what we say on social media, does that matter?

Lenora Fisher: Yes. It does. What we say about ourselves, people listen. When you're looking at a new community, what do you do? You go look for things. Businesses do the same thing. ... What we say matters. We are representatives. Our experience matters.

Veloxity Labs was recently featured. Shane Needham. He has had a great experience. He's sharing it. And he's so excited about it. ... And a lot of the business leaders actually do speak highly of this community.

Why this biotech startup chose to call Peoria home

Hannah Alani: What can the general public do to help you bring more companies and jobs to this area?

Lenora Fisher: Often times, what I hear, like, from around the world, is that like, 'If the local stakeholders aren't investing in the community, why would we?' Let's take ownership and work on some of that stuff. Can we develop properties that are going to be up to, like, current standards, and be attractive in the business attraction game? ... There are challenges, I know. It's expensive, it's risky. I've heard it and I get it. But like, let's be creative, and like, figure it out. ... and move forward. So that's one thing, let's develop some properties.

The other angle is, our existing businesses, our kind of large-scale businesses ... Their business relationships matter so much. So if they have customers, or suppliers that they are working with, from other parts of the country ... they're the best business attraction-lead generators. Like, what is this supply chain, the local supply chain, missing, that it needs? And who do you know in that space that would fit the need, or meet the need? And like, how do we, business leaders and the EDC, go after them, and make the case?

One of my favorite stories, and this is from (EDC CEO) Chris Setti ... he went up to Rochester, Minn. and visited the EDC. And they talked about how like, Mayo sat down with them and listed all the people they bought in, and like, all the suppliers that they bought in. And then together, with the EDC, they went and reached out to each and every one of them and said, 'Have you ever thought about opening a location in Rochester, Minn.?' A percentage of them did. If you have those business relationships, contact me. Let's figure out how to like leverage that.

...A good success story in the state of Illinois that speaks to that: Decatur recently had a win with, it's calledInnovaFeed. It's the largest (insect) protein producer in the world. They opened a location there because ADM was an investor, and had a relationship with InnovaFeed. So ADM, and the economic development agency, like, cultivated that relationship. But it was a lead generated by ADM. And that's a win.

Hannah Alani is a reporter at WCBU. She joined the newsroom in 2021. She can be reached at hmalani@ilstu.edu.