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Q&A: Peoria Area Chamber leader Gunn sees diversity and equity, talent attraction as biggest needs

Joshua Gunn, Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce and CEO Council president and CEO.
Joe Deacon
Joshua Gunn, Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce and CEO Council president and CEO.

Joshua Gunn is into his fourth year as head of the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce and the CEO Council.

While Gunn says the City of Peoria's current strong financial position will help the region's businesses grow and thrive, but talent attraction, workforce development, and diversity and equity remain areas in need of improvement.

WCBU reporter Joe Deacon talks with Gunn about efforts to enhance economic growth in the region and what progress his organizations have made.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

You've been head of the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce in the CEO Council just over three years now. What progress have you seen from these organizations in that time, and where do you see them heading?

Joshua Gunn: I think we've made tremendous progress in a couple of key areas. One of the things that I wanted to happen with the Chamber when I arrived is that the community of Peoria, the entire region, every single person — including individuals from different backgrounds — felt like the Chamber was here to work for them, do the work of growing the region, and that the Chamber was open and welcoming and inclusive. I think we made significant progress around diversifying our membership, diversifying our board of directors, diversifying our staff, so that we actually look like the community that we're here to serve. So I'm really proud of that.

We've launched several other key initiatives that I'm also really proud of, one being the talent attraction initiative that really was birthed in the Chamber as an effort we call “GP (Greater Peoria) 2030," which we started with just about $80,000 of investment from the Chamber, the EDC (Greater Peoria Economic Development Council) and Discover Peoria. That has now grown into what we call “Choose Greater Peoria,” in partnership with organizations like the Gilmore Foundation and the state of Illinois, and grown a budget to about $1.6 million to invest in attracting and retaining the best and brightest talent here in Peoria. So really, really proud of that as well.

We've strengthened and made our Regional Workforce Alliance more robust, so not only are we focused on attracting talent, but we're focused on growing our own and cultivating a talent pipeline here through the Regional Workforce Alliance, which I get to co-chair along with Dr. Sheila Cork Bailey from Illinois Central College. Those are just a few places that I'm really proud of.

We're continuing to do more events than we've ever done before at the Chamber. We're continuing to advocate for positive branding for Peoria. We host about 50 events every single year. Our membership has grown; we've experienced net membership growth for the first time since pre-COVID, so we're really excited about that. More small businesses (are) joining the chamber, seeking the resources that we offer. We get to lead on a grant program from the state; we get to be one of the spokes in that spoke-and-hub model that the state did for their back-to-business grant. We've helped dozens of Peoria businesses get real capital investments for their organizations. We partner with the city on their Rise grants, helping businesses get into that funnel. Man, there's so much to be proud of and so much great momentum here in Peoria.

The Chamber hosted Mayor Rita Ali's State of the City address last week. What were your biggest takeaways from her remarks?

Gunn: It's sort of consistent with what I just said: there's so much to be proud of and excited about. Peoria finds itself as a city — for the first time in a really long time — with a positive fiscal budget; they've got finally some additional reserves to invest and make appropriate investments, but also to stabilize the city's government in the event that we experience a downturn or some significant economic challenges, which many economists predict are ahead. So the government is stable.

Under mayor Ali’s leadership, the budget has grown, the capital investments in things like roads and bridges and all the ways that the city can make those sort of tangible impacts are happening. Really excited about the work that the city is doing around our homeless population, around individuals experiencing mental health crises, the partnerships between the private sector. Carle Health is a big part of that mental health, behavioral health continuum of care that the city is also able to invest in, which ultimately improves quality of life for all of us.

So there's just, again, so much to be excited about and I think for the first time in a while, the city of Peoria — which, as you know, the mayor, of course, is that leading elected official there — the city of Peoria is financially strong and poised for a ton of growth ahead.

What do you see as the areas that still need the most attention or issues that require the greatest focus?

Gunn: I think the mayor also alluded to in her speech the significant challenges we continue to face around equity. So the mayor was a champion of creating the Joint Commission on Racial Justice and Equity with the city and the county. I get a chance to serve on that commission as a part of the steering committee, and one of the key outcomes from that commission was our recent release of the racial disparities report which shows some really alarming numbers around more particularly communities of color. More specifically, black communities in Peoria and black individuals in Peoria continue to experience disparate outcomes or a great disparity of outcomes at every system across our community.

I think for us to really achieve our greatest potential, we have to figure out how to solve for that, because the city's growth can only happen, only reaches maximum potential, if there's to equity and we all are participating in it. So I think that continues to be a looming challenge for Peoria, in addition to our need to make sure that Peoria is seen as a magnet for talent and growth because our business community depends on that as well. I think those are two headwinds ahead of us, but I'm confident in the leadership that we have to address those issues.

You just touched on what leads into my next question. We’ve mentioned already in the past about the need for talent attraction, and what launched as a couple years ago as “Greater Peoria 2030” has now evolved into “Choose Greater Peoria.” What prompted this change, and how is the Chamber still involved in this effort, if at all?

Gunn: What prompted it was just sort of a mutual recognition from many different groups that this was a very important priority. So, Bob Gilmore — such a great community champion — left behind significant financial resources in his foundation, and part of his sort of instructions, as I understand it, is that the foundation would focus on things like economic development and engaging the business community, him being such a great business leader in solving the problems that we have. The Gilmore Foundation pulled together our largest employers and their leaders and said, “Hey, what's the No. 1 challenge that you're having?” And they said the same thing that we heard, which was: attracting talent – specifically, in their case, executive talent — to the region.

So, I think there was just a mutual recognition of the priorities, and we had already launched GP 2030. So it made sense to come alongside that effort and support and work together and collaborate and share what we learned in our two years of running GP2030 with their group. They bring a lot more resources from a financial standpoint, as well as the business expertise of the CEOs. I think it's just affirming for us that we were on the right track with GP2030, and now we've been able to create a more robust talent attraction strategy.

The Chamber is still very much at the center of that effort. I get a chance to work closely with the Gilmore Foundation leadership, the Greater Peoria Leadership Council, as do all of our other partner (organizations) like the GPEDC and Discover Peoria. We get to be there as thought leaders and offer our expertise on how we do this on how we attract talent to the region. As well as, what I like to contribute is best practices that I've learned through my years in the Chamber world, because many other communities have faced this challenge, including the place that I came from, and there’s sort of a list of best practices that we know work, and that we think can work here in Peoria.

The City of Peoria is commissioning a study on the viability of purchasing the water utility. You weren't here the last time this buyout option came up five years ago, but at that time the CEO Council strongly supported the purchase. Where does the council stand on this at this time around, and what are your thoughts on the buyout?

Gunn: We haven't had an opportunity to have that discussion this go round. As you mentioned, I got here after the most recent run at this, and I stand in a very simple place: I'm waiting to see what the study says, the viability of that (buyout). I think the CEO Council board and leadership feels the same way. We'd be interested in seeing what the study says (but) we haven't taken an official position nor, quite frankly, have we even had a chance to discuss it this go round.

The Chamber’s Young Professionals Organization of Greater Peoria is hosting a Rise Summit in August. What is the purpose or goal of this summit?

Gunn: It’s really aligned with our overall strategy to attract and retain talent here in the region. We think young professionals are key to the future of this region. All of us, even me, are getting older — and 40 is just around the corner for me, so in a few years I won't even qualify for that young professionals group anymore. But young professionals are critical for the future of this region, not only because sort of in the natural sense, they're going to live a little bit longer, ideally, and have a chance to contribute to the economy for a longer period of time.

We know that the places that are attractive to young professionals present the highest quality of life in the country. They present the greatest growth in GDP (gross domestic product) because the excitement and vibrancy that young professionals bring to a community attracts business, attracts housing, attracts tax revenue. It really is core to any sort of talent attraction strategy.

The Rise Summit is our first, world class young professionals summit here. We were able to build this program as a part of our partnership with the State of Illinois and the talent attraction grant that we received (to) do some real professional development. We've been able to attract national speakers for this, and I say “world class” because I want to clarify: this isn't just another meeting. This isn't just another group of folks getting together to talk. This is world class programming that we've put together that includes: best-selling author Rebecca Ryan; Carlos Whittaker, who is a globally recognized speaker on professional development, specifically for young professionals; (vice president of intercollegiate athletics) Chris Reynolds from Bradley University, who — if you've ever seen Chris speak … if you can't get going after hearing Chris speak, something's wrong. He is a very passionate motivator.

In addition to that professional development though, we want to expose people to our region. So we're looking to attract over 400 young professionals from throughout the United States to show them that Peoria has so much to offer. So there's social events: We're going to take them to a Chiefs (baseball) game — we're actually taking over the Chiefs stadium that day. We're going to host the event at the Par-A-Dice Hotel Casino, with live music. So people get that experience that I had when I first moved here in driving over the bridge from East Peoria and seeing this sort of dynamic downtown, and then getting a chance to experience it at a Chiefs game. So there's multiple goals here: help our young professional community develop, help them get more connected, and really show people that Peoria is one of the best places for young professional talent in the country.

When is the summit, and how can people get involved with it?

Gunn: Oh, I'm so glad you asked. Aug. 21-23 at the Par-A-Dice Hotel Casino (and) you can go to RiseSummitPeoria.com to get signed up. We have sponsorship opportunities as well, for businesses that would like to sponsor.

But we are most excited about people coming to the conference, and so I want to leave with two messages: Go to RiseSummitPeoria.com (and) sign up if you are a young professional looking for this opportunity. Also, if you have any questions, or maybe you think you can't afford it or you can't make it, we also want to make this fully inclusive. So we want to encourage you, if you go there and you think you can't afford to pay the registration fee, I want you to contact our office at info@peoriachamber.org, and we want to be helpful. Our primary goal here is to pack out the Par-A-Dice Hotel Casino and expose people in the country to the fact that Greater Peoria is one of the best places for young professional talent.

What other issues or programs with the Chamber or the CEO Council have we not discussed yet that you'd like to share with the audience?

One of the other areas of our talent attraction is this need to continue to push positive messages about Peoria. So one of the things that I said at the Choose Greater Peoria kickoff is: we're all our ambassadors. We all have a role to play, because when people are looking up Peoria, if they see the Chamber talking positively about Peoria, they expect that from us. They expect me as the Chamber CEO to say, “Peoria is a great place to be,” because that's my job. But what we know is most effective is for everyday Peorians who don't work at a Chamber EDC, or (aren’t) an elected official talking about all the great experiences they have in Peoria.

So one of the things that we're working on is a campaign to encourage Peorians to brag. Brag about the food you ate today, brag about the coffee you had, brag about the show you saw, and tag Peoria, tag Choose Greater Peoria in that. And when you're out in the community, make an Instagram, make a TikTok, share it on Facebook. Tell people about your experiences because those go way farther than the Chamber exec saying how great the town is. So what you'll start to hear me talk about more is this push for us to brag about how great we are, because Peoria has got so much to offer. But the world needs to know it, and the only way they're going to find out is if everyday Peorians are willing to brag about it.

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Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.