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Peoria is an attractive option for remote workers looking to leave behind the big city bustle, but keep a big city job

Joey Klaus, a field operations manager for electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla, works remotely from his Morton home.
Tim Shelley
Joey Klaus, a field operations manager for electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla, works remotely from his Morton home.

As Peoria leaders seek to reverse the region's population loss over the next several years, they're eyeing a growing demographic to bolster the people count: remote workers.

The area offers some distinct advantages for people who don't want to work in Peoria, but don't necessarily dislike the idea of working from Peoria.

The darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic opened up the possibility of remote work to many office professionals for the first time.

In a tight labor market, some workers decided they'd had enough of the office - permanently.

"I think a lot of employees started to demand that they be able to work from home," said Chris Setti, CEO of the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council. "So I think what was probably a trend to begin with pre-COVID certainly was accelerated by the pandemic, and some of the changes it forced on us."

Setti himself worked a remote job for a national company from a rented office space in West Peoria more than 18 years ago, when his family first moved to the area from Denver.

The EDC is one of the principal organizations in the Greater Peoria 2030 initiative to grow the regional population and economy.

"The remote worker is particularly interesting, and a particularly viable pool of folks to draw from," Setti said.

The real estate website Ownerly recently named Peoria the sixth-best midsized city in the country for remote workers, based on the area's home values, rental costs, high Internet connectivity, and other quality of life factors.

One major selling point to remote workers: more bang for your buck. A big city wage goes a lot further in a town like Peoria.

That's one of the factors which convinced Microsoft creative director and California native Rick Blanco to take seriously a casual invitation from Peoria artist Bob Doucette to check out the area.

"I actually took him up on it. And I came to visit, and I gotta tell you, I fell in love," said Blanco. "And I set up a realtor and I looked at a bunch of different properties. And on the last day, I found this house and I'm like, 'Okay, this is it.'"

He soon found himself moving into a stately home on Moss Avenue on Peoria's West Bluff.

Rick Blanco sits with his cats Bela (near his feet) and Boris (on the stairs) in his historic Moss Ave. home in Peoria. Blanco said it costs a tenth of what he'd pay for a similar house in Los Angeles.
Tim Shelley
Rick Blanco sits with his cats Bela (near his feet) and Boris (on the stairs) in his historic Moss Ave. home in Peoria. Blanco said it costs a tenth of what he'd pay for a similar house in Los Angeles.

"To be able to find a historic home here for 1/10 of the price of California. I mean, it was not a hard argument to fight. I saw what I was able to get here compared to what I would get in Los Angeles, and it was a no brainer," Blanco said.

Housing prices are also a key factor that sold Tesla supply chain and field operations manager Joey Klaus on moving back to Central Illinois. The Washington native and his family lived in Chicago and the San Francisco area. He shifted to full-time remote work as his wife, Kelsey, took a job at Target's headquarters in Minnesota.

But then came the pandemic.

"COVID hit, and we were living in a suburb of Minneapolis. It was small, very much like Morton, Washington, and no family up there, and we really liked it," said Klaus. "But with the kids and closures and school being out and I'm still working, it kind of became a little difficult. You know? Why don't we just move back to Peoria area closer to my family who's still based here?"

The Klaus family purchased a two-story home in Morton, where Joey continues to work remotely for Tesla from his home office, as his nearby family helps take care of the kids.

"If you're single and you want the city life, that may be a little different. But you know, for our situation, and people in our situation, it's definitely been a very positive experience, and we don't question moving back at all. We really love it," he said.

Setti said people with young families like Klaus are a key demographic who may find Peoria the most appealing.

"A lot of people want to go to the big city when you're young. You want to experience the big city," Setti said. "But when you're ready to settle down, buy your first house, maybe have a family, you know, this is the sort of place that makes a lot of sense for people."

But Peoria also has plenty of selling points for remote workers like Microsoft's Rick Blanco and his two cats, Bela and Boris.

"It's an aesthetically nice place to live, you know, off of the riverfront. There's beautiful areas, historic homes, but it's also more so about the community and the people that are coming here," Blanco said. "And the energy, I think we're seeing, an influx of younger people. I don't consider myself younger anymore, but I'm invested in wanting this place to succeed and the more talent, the more diversity we bring here, the better odds are kind of changing things, and changing them for the better."

Klaus and his wife are avid foodies. He said while there's a little less variety than Minneapolis or some of the other major cities they've lived, they also haven't ever lacked for a new restaurant to try out on date nights during the past year-and-a-half back in Central Illinois.

"We grew up here and never expected 10 years ago, even five years ago, that we would be back in Peoria. And it wasn't something we thought we'd ever want, but we've been extremely happy coming back," Klaus said.

For other remote workers considering a shift away from a major metropolitan area, Blanco said when it comes to affordability, climate, and a general sense of "Midwestern nice," Peoria can't be beat.

"The whole notion of doing what you love wherever you can. This is a great place to do it," Blanco said. "So I highly recommend it. Come check out Peoria. I bet it will exceed your expectations."

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.