Business leaders lay out plan for how they will entice professionals to 'Choose Greater Peoria'
The new business-backed talent attraction and branding initiative for the Greater Peoria area formally launched Thursday ahead of a broader marketing blitz.
Choose Greater Peoria was introduced in an auditorium at the Peoria Riverfront Museum packed to a standing-room-only crowd, including a who's who of the Peoria area's business and political elite.
The effort is described as an "evolution" of the Greater Peoria 2030 10-year talent attraction initiative launched in fall 2021.
It's spearheaded by the Greater Peoria Leadership Council, a consortium of the CEOs of the region's largest employers; and the Gilmore Foundation that was founded by the late Caterpillar president and CEO Bob Gilmore. Marketing firm Simantel is working on the campaign's execution.
The Greater Peoria Leadership Council says the group exists to "steer key strategic initiatives for the greater good of our region," but unlike the old Heartland Partnership, it isn't a formal body overseeing organizations like the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce or the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council.
Greater Peoria 2030 had about $85,000 behind it, according to Joshua Gunn, president and CEO of the Greater Peoria Chamber of Commerce. Choose Greater Peoria is launching with a minimum $1.6 million in the first year. In following years, the plan is for the Gilmore Foundation to match the funds contributed by businesses.
Choose Greater Peoria includes three main facets: drawing and retaining executive talent, branding the region more cohesively, and promoting a "Positive Peoria" message to the people already living here.
"One thing that we're all going to come away with today, one word, is talent," said John Morris, president and CEO of the Peoria Riverfront Museum. "We already have it, we have to attract it, we have to retain it."
Former Caterpillar CEO and chairman Doug Oberhelman is chairman of the Gilmore Foundation's board. He said there are currently thousands of job openings in the Peoria area currently. That includes the vacant leadership deemed "most critical" for the region's success.
"The numbers are staggering, when we all added that up," he said. "What we also found was, there was this idea of or lack of an idea of Peoria selling itself as a region."
He said one problem is the negative image Peorians have of their own community, using social media comments as one indicator.
"You can't sell yourself if you're down on yourself. You can't sell your company if you're down on your company, obviously. So we were a little bit surprised about that," he said. "We've taken some blows, as you all know, over the last few years, but it's time to move forward and time to move on with all the things we do have."
The Choose Greater Peoria campaign will emphasize positive aspects of living in the River City, like work/life balance, short commutes, affordable housing, a vibrant arts community, the region's wealth of outdoor recreational spaces, and volunteering opportunities for those who want to get involved.
That marketing effort will fall under the branding umbrella of "Live Greater," said Misty Dykema , co-owner and principal at Simantel.
"'Greater' is something we can own, we are greater. And we need our residents to believe that. We believe our candidates need to know that," Dykema said. "And at the end of the day, we only get one life. Let's live it greater, right? And that's the message that we want to send."
Gunn said the residents of his hometown of Durham, N.C. used to have similar negative outlooks to the ones he sees in Peoria today. But he said that community's turnaround into one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation gives him hope for Peoria, too. But he said that requires people to take up a hospitality approach with visitors.
"All of us are responsible. That's the only way that this thing works. It only works if we all believe and buy into the notion that this is the greatest place to live," he said.
He also challenged the assembled leaders to ask themselves a question: who's not in the room?
"If we succeed, we have to succeed together. And there are people who don't feel like their voices included in this effort. We have to acknowledge that it is our job to fix it. Do we agree? Greater Peoria is a diverse region. And that is the thing that makes us most spectacular. But let's build some bridges," he said.
Laura Cullinan, president of the Gilmore Foundation, said there are a number of metrics that will be used to measure the success of Choose Greater Peoria, but the number of job positions filled will be the key factor.
Oberhelman casts Choose Greater Peoria as an existential piece needed for the region's long-term success and growth.
"This place has to prosper, and has to win and has to beat other communities in bringing talent here so they don't take it from us and move somewhere else," Oberhelman said.