'Love where you live:' Community leaders examine ways to emphasize, improve quality of life in Greater Peoria
How can the Greater Peoria region emphasize and improve the area's quality of life? That question was one of the big topics at last week’s Big Table gathering at the Peoria Civic Center.
Bob Ross, senior vice president of marketing and communications for the Greater Topeka Partnership, helped the Kansas capital city experience a bit of a resurgence, thanks in part to a “Go Topeka” talent attraction campaign.
Ross gave the Big Table event’s keynote speech, discussing strategies on how Peoria can emphasize and improve the region's quality of life, and possibly follow Topeka’s lead.
“I've learned through this process Peoria and Topeka share so much in common. We have a very similar internal narrative that we've been telling ourselves,” said Ross. “I see that a lot of people in Peoria have kind of stopped believing in what they're capable of being, and they're not seeing just how incredible the city is. That's exactly where Topeka was 10 years ago.
“When Topeka decided to really step up and begin to believe in what that city can become, and started investing in ourselves again, we changed the entire trajectory of our city. I think Peoria is poised for that type of revival. The foundation you have built here is so incredible.”
Ross said Topeka had to go through a step-by-step process to getting to where it wanted to be.
“We really wanted to look at community beautification and quality of place; we had neglected that for a while,” he said. “We’re the state capital so we kind of rode on that, and we were fortunate to have a pretty diverse economy. But we started losing some employers because we had, frankly, just allowed blight to creep into a lot of areas of the city.”
Ross said Topeka worked at revitalizing its downtown area and rebuilding community morale to jump-start the city’s turnaround.
“My message to the people in Peoria is that we were not that farther ahead from where Peoria is in Topeka. It just took our ability to decide to try and to make some big swings,” he said.
Amy McCoy, executive director of the Pekin Area Chamber of Commerce, said the path to capitalizing on the region's quality of life has a fairly simple beginning.
“The first step we all need to take is to really encourage our current residents to love where they live,” said McCoy. “So, whether you're a Pekin resident or Morton or Peoria, love where you are and then also love the Greater Peoria region. So once we embrace our own community, then we can sell it to others as we're inviting them in as guests or tourists or as new residents.”
So how exactly does McCoy suggest people can show that they “love where they live?”
“They can shop local, that's the easy answer,” said McCoy. “But they can also just enjoy the amenities that we have: Go out into the parks, enjoy the parks, play golf on our local courses. Instead of taking that trip to Chicago, enjoy what we have here in the region.
"You can go to a great restaurant in Washington, or you can shop the square, or you can go to Pekin and enjoy the parks and the golf courses and find some specialty retail boutiques that you didn't even know existed. You'll find those things all over the region.”
McCoy joined Ross and JD Dalfonso of Discover Peoria as the panelists for the Big Table's quality-of-life discussion session moderated by Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce president Joshua Gunn, who said Greater Peoria can build from a strong starting position.
“Quality of life in our region, for many folks is amazing. There are a lot of amenities in the Peoria region, whether they’re rural or urban,” said Gunn. “Part of the challenge is we need to tell the story more. People need to start to think of Peoria as a place with a high quality of life. The other side of that coin is accessibility for that quality of life, so thinking with an equity lens on how we ensure that everyone here is experiencing a high quality of life.
“A third piece is doing an assessment on where we can make some improvements. Quality of life and place, or place-making, is often about making investments in the things that would be attractive, thinking of your city as a business. If you were owning any other type of business, you would think what do I need to do to attract my customers? In this case now, the residents are the customers: the people who live here, work here, start businesses here. So what do we need that's going to be attractive to them?”
Amy Davis is the economic development director for the city of Elmwood, in western Peoria County. She said a common theme she heard during the discussion is how unique the Peoria area is, and how that can be an advantage.
“We have all of these many small towns and different communities that when we come together, we offer something for everyone of any age, any generation — all kinds of unique opportunities and activities,” said Davis.
“Peoria has so many different things. We have a strong arts community; the riverfront is a great place to visit. Then, when you go out into our small communities, they all have something to offer (with) lots of festivals and events. So it's just a lot going on.”
Ross said the first “big swing” that Topeka took was a major investment in revitalizing its downtown.
“As late as 2015, we had over 60% of our downtown area completely vacant outside of some offices that were there. The thought was you would work in downtown, and then you could leave and go to the west side,” said Ross. “So we first made the decision to invest in our downtown: We spent $150 million over the last five years really pumping transformative infrastructure (with) public and private investment, whether it's a new city plaza, or new hotels and restaurants. We gave people a reason to come back downtown.”
Gunn agreed with Ross that Peoria's downtown area is an ideal target for investments aimed at quality-of-life improvements.
“Downtowns are your front door. They're the one thing that if you Google ‘Peoria, Illinois,’ you're going to look at that skyline,” said Gunn. “So being honest and intentional, I think, is important. Do we have a downtown that has really good bones? Absolutely. Has there been maybe enough investment and vibrancy and making it a destination? Maybe not. So I think there's some room for improvement there.”
Gunn said Peoria should also emphasize its broad demographic range as a quality-of-life advantage.
“I think the diversity is mind blowing here. We've got large communities of multiple ethnicities, large immigrant communities, multiple languages, religions, races, all kind of working together in this place that people are often overlooking,” he said. “So, I think that quality of life and diversity are related, and Peoria's got a lot to offer there. I just don't know if that's a part of our brand, and I think it should be.”
McCoy said community leaders really need to focus on enhancing the region's quality of life to reverse a trend of outward population migration.
“Once we embrace our region, once our current residents embrace the region, I feel like that's the best base for us to continue to attract new residents to our community and to see our population decline turn around and turn into a population growth,” she said.
Gunn said it's important not only to reduce the number of people moving out of the area, but also to bring more people in — and aim high.
“I think our goal should be to attract someone who has options to live anywhere in the country, maybe even anywhere in the world,” said Gunn. “We want to get on their radar; I want them to think, ‘I could go anywhere I want, but I'm going to go to Peoria because it has these things. That's an audacious goal, but one that I think we should aspire toward.”