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Leaders offer a progress update on Greater Peoria 2030 effort to boost the region’s population

Greater Peoria Economic Development Council CEO Chris Setti, left, and Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce President Joshua Gunn say the Greater Peoria 2030 campaign to reverse the region's population decline is gaining momentum.
Joe Deacon
Greater Peoria Economic Development Council CEO Chris Setti, left, and Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce President Joshua Gunn say the Greater Peoria 2030 campaign to reverse the region's population decline is gaining momentum.

A coalition of Peoria-area organizations is working to reverse the region’s recent population decline by the end of the decade.

The “Greater Peoria 2030” campaign was launched in September 2021 as a collaboration between several regional chambers of commerce and economic development groups to attract new residents and retain existing community members.

“We have, I think, made significant progress,” said Joshua Gunn, president and CEO of the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce. “As you recall, the GP2030 initiative is centered around attracting talent to our region, and we see that as a solution to multiple problems — not just workforce shortages and sort of talent shortages. But overall, population decline impacts your economy (and) your city functions.”

Gunn said forming the coalition of groups — including the Peoria chamber as well as the Pekin, Morton, East Peoria chambers, the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council, the CEO Council, Discover Peoria, and the Peoria Area Association of Realtors (PAAR) — is a critical initial success.

“We've got the right players at the table, representing a wide geography and a wide range of interests or functions, all collaborating to grow talent in our region,” he said.

“I don't want to underplay the value of that coalition and that group approach,” added Chris Setti, CEO of the Greater Peoria EDC. “I think it's fashionable to think sometimes that there's too many organizations that are dealing with economic development issues, or this particular issue.

“Sometimes to the outside looks like there's too many cooks in the kitchen. Well, there's a big meal to cook, and actually we're all working really well together in that kitchen. I think that’s important. I think that’s what’s really helped this whole effort.”

In November, the Peoria chamber was awarded a $500,000 grant from the State of Illinois to bolster the GP2030 strategy. Gunn said that funding boost validates the approach toward talent attraction.

“We're also speaking with private philanthropy now, thinking about other foundations that we might be able to partner with to expand our pool of resources to attract people to the region. So, quite a bit has happened since we last talked about this effort, and really excited about where we're headed,” said Gunn.

“I think we're coming into an era where over the last two years, we've learned a lot about how to structure this campaign on really a shoestring budget, and I think that the state grant to the chamber will really help us kind of take that to the next level,” added Setti. “I think we've had really good buy-in from our corporate leaders and our public leaders that ... understand the value of this.

“While the message might feel like an external message — that the Peoria area is a great place to live and you should choose to live here — there's also some internal branding that happens along with that: (For) all the people that live here, this is a valuable place and this is a place you should be proud to be living in.

“Because oftentimes, not just the Peoria area, lots of different communities have this kind of negative self-image, and that actually impacts recruitment. You never know who you're talking to when you're telling that story about where you live, and we want to be able to give the people that live here the proper information about what's great about living here.”

Gunn said they’ve established some key performance indicators for measuring the success of the GP2030 campaign, but whether they meet the bottom line goal will be easy to determine.

“It's been a long time since this region has seen actual net population growth," he said. "What we know is that businesses want to be in growing markets. We know that talent wants to also be in growing markets. So, we think it would be a major win if we could gain more people than we're losing. I know that sounds sort of basic, but it's fundamental to anything else that we do.”

“If we can't get over the hump of the leaks in our bucket — which we have leaks in two directions: we don't have as many people moving to the region as we need to, and then we have more people leaving the region — that creates a problem on both sides. So our simple goal is growing population by 2030, net population growth. Even if it's 1%, that's significant, because we've seen what a 1% decline in population feels like. So a 1% growth in population is tremendous.”

Gunn said a portion of the state grant money will go toward continued marketing efforts for the GP2030 campaign, with funding also aimed at retention efforts.

“We're going to continue to host events designed to help connect the talent in our region and the existing population with one another,” he said. “What we did with our shoestring budget was we hosted events at a Rivermen game for people who are newcomers to the region, or people who wanted to meet newcomers; we had several 100 people attend those. We did something at a Chiefs game; we did one at the Morton Pumpkin Festival as well to showcase the region. Because that connectivity and community is the most important thing.”

Gunn said the group also is exploring ways to develop incentives for people to move to the Peoria area — and stay here.

“The way that I think will likely make the most sense is to partner with our employer community. Every employer has got some sort of relocation package — can we sweeten the deal, either through cash payments or through things like welcome kits, with those tickets to Rivermen and Chiefs games? Because we want people to experience the region because Peoria and the (surrounding) area has a lot to offer. But so often, people are down on the region just because they haven't had the access to or the knowledge about all the great things that are happening,” he said.

Setti emphasized the important of newcomer mixers to the campaign’s success.

“There's nothing quite like welcoming these people to our community and showcasing them, connecting them to each other, because they're your best ambassadors,” he said. “We have found people who, not only did they move here, but then they got other people to move here because they said, ‘Hey, this place is a great place to live, super affordable. There's a house down the street for me, that's, that's on the market, you should move here too.’ So that's why that newcomer part and that retention part are just so important.”

Setti said the strides made so far with the GP2030 campaign suggest the effort is building momentum.

“By this time, next year, I think people will even recognize it a lot more,” he said. “I think with the resources that we have and are working towards, I think people are going to see a lot because again, it isn't just that external marketing. It's not that just the external audience; it's also, how do we turn our internal audience into ambassadors? So I think people will see that a lot more, whether that's in person or in other forms of advertising. I think it'll feel more real and it'll feel like a bigger initiative.”

“A year from now, if we're successful, there will be sort of this palpable positive energy (and) you'll be able to feel it in the community,” added Gunn. “It's difficult to describe, but you start to see shops opening, businesses opening, more people moving around in your downtown core.

“That sort of cultural shift is really the first step. So if we're successful in a year, this narrative we won't have to keep saying: we've got an internal marketing problem. You'll start to say, ‘Man, it feels like people are really positive about Peoria now,’ and we're celebrating our community more so than critiquing our community.”

Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.