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Q&A: Gunn discusses Peoria Area Chamber's accomplishments, top priorities and goals for year ahead

Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Joshua Gunn
Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce
Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Joshua Gunn

Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Joshua Gunn says the organization continues to assist business growth in the region, and the work is never-ending.

Gunn says facilitating workforce development across the region and encouraging improvements in diversity, equity and inclusion remain top priorities for the organization.

WCBU reporter Joe Deacon talks with Gunn about the Chamber's goals for the year ahead, and its accomplishments in 2023.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity and brevity.

Joe Deacon: What's your assessment of the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce efforts to foster economic growth in 2023, and what do you see as the biggest accomplishments of last year?

Joshua Gunn: I'm proud of the work we've done; I'm proud of the year we had in 2023. We focused quite a bit on really continuing to support our existing businesses through our role in the sort of hub-and-spoke model that the state uses to diffuse grants and funds to small businesses. Our team played a major part in helping local area businesses secure the Back To Business grants from the state, and also continuing to navigate any existing funding opportunities from the city. We launched a new program that will really impact businesses in ’24, which is the state's Back To Business grant for businesses that started during the pandemic. So we continue to provide that kind of support.

We also continue to focus on supporting the talent pipeline in our community, helping attract and retain talent – which there's really two sides to that coin. The first is growing our existing workforce. We at the Chamber sit at the intersection of something we call the Regional Workforce Alliance, which helps us strengthen our workforce pipelines for existing talent. Then of course, you and I have talked extensively about our work in trying to recruit talent here to the region. So we’re proud of those things.

Also, we celebrated dozens of new business openings with ribbon cuttings; we did over 50 in-person events last year, which networking is a key component of what we provide. We also launched our first ever young professional summit called the Rise Summit in 23. So there's a lot to be proud of, and I’m really proud of the work that our team did, as well as our members and volunteers.

In what areas is this region lacking in terms of business development, and what more needs to be done?

Gunn: I think we continue to fight an uphill battle with some of the things related to the cost of doing business in a state like Illinois. There are a lot of statewide policies that make it a little bit more expensive, in some cases, to do business in Illinois. So we always at the Chamber, our advocacy is around pushing back against any programs that will unfairly burden the business community to make it easier for people to do business here. So those are sort of statewide things. I wouldn't describe it as lacking; they're just complexities we have in this state.

Locally, though, I think we're in really great position in terms of our resources that are dedicated to growing that talent pipeline. Talent is everything when it comes to attracting and growing business – maybe not a silver bullet in solving our problems, but talent’s everything. Businesses want to be where they know they have a talented and skilled workforce, and we still have a ways to go in increasing our credentialing rate here in the Peoria area, as well as our brand, right? Making sure that we are all singing from the same sheet of music, saying positive things about our region so that that translates into a positive brand that will attract other people to come here.

What can the Chamber do to help businesses develop and thrive in some of the economically disadvantaged areas of Peoria?

Gunn: I think the Chamber needs to continue to be an advocate for equity throughout our community. The recognition that there are pockets of our community that you described as challenged or economically disadvantaged, that aren't seeing the type of investment in growth that we need to truly be an equitable community. So we advocate both at the city and the county level for increased attention on the pockets of our community that have the greatest need.

I also think the work that we do around the Regional Workforce Alliance relates to that as well. We've got a committee in that structure that we call “adults with multiple barriers.” We consider adults with multiple barriers people who might be experiencing poverty, or who may have been justice-involved, and making sure that they have working opportunities as well. Our region is best when all pockets of our community have access to a living wage job. The opportunity to start businesses and grow businesses cannot just be concentrated in certain areas; it really needs to be holistic. So our advocacy and our programming continues to place equity at the center of that conversation.

You kind of touched on what my next question was, and we've talked about the strides that have been made in areas of diversity, equity and inclusion. What are some of those strides and what more can the Chamber do to assist improvement there?

Gunn: I'm really proud of our emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion from a Chamber perspective. We do that through representation, making sure that diverse businesses are represented in Chamber leadership. Our board is increasingly diverse, representing the community that we live in – which is a very diverse community, racially, gender, ethnicity, nationality, language. These are all areas that we focus on to make sure that our board and our leadership looks like the community that we serve, and that manifests itself into better engagement.

So we have the opportunity to hear from those diverse voices, and be more nimble and innovative. We know, and the data tells us, that diverse communities perform better, diverse communities are more attractive to talent and business. But we also know that it requires those diverse communities to be inclusive, because when people come to Peoria and they hear about how diverse it is, we want to make sure that they can see that and experience it and meet people and business owners from all different backgrounds.

So we continue to focus on that, and that was a big push for the Rise Summit. We had a complete diversity, equity and inclusion track, which meant that all of our breakout sessions, you could be on that track and get complete day of programming around how to be more diverse and inclusive in your business and professional life. So that's just one example of the ways that we do that, in addition to the diverse representation on our board.

You mentioned earlier, and we've talked many times in the past about talent, attraction and workforce development. What new approaches can be taken to build the Peoria area's employment base?

Gunn: Again, I'm proud of the work that we're doing around talent attraction. There's a big region-wide effort called Choose Greater Peoria that we're also proud to be a partner in, and much of our work has really been a catalyst to getting that off the ground. But one of the things that we think is missing from our conversation about talent attraction is something that we call “placemaking.” These are investments in the community to make it more attractive, more exciting, and we have some innovative programming planned this year for downtown Peoria.

We're going to animate – and I'll give you just a sneak preview – we're going to animate an entire street with some interactive lighting and some interactive installations that will draw people not only to downtown to invest in the businesses and experience all the great things that we have, but also generate some attention for our region in a positive way. Placemaking is one of those things that maybe seems like a small improvement, but when a place is beautiful, and innovative and attractive, people want to talk about it.

And when people want to talk about it, they want to visit it. And once you visit Peoria and the surrounding area, I think that people are going to – you're sort of automatically going to fall in love with it. So we want to beautify and enhance the experience in downtown Peoria this year, and we'll be doing some of that. So as we think about talent attraction, it's not just direct recruiting, or marketing. It's also making your community a place that is interesting, and that's some of the things that we're going to invest in this year.

What are the other major strategies or goals that the Chamber has for the year ahead?

Gunn: We are going to bring back the Rise Summit, Sept. 9-11, so we're doing that again. Young professional talent (is) critical for our region's future; I hope that that's self-evident. I hope we understand that the future depends on our ability to attract and retain young professional talent. So that's a big push for us, and we're going to make it even bigger than last year. Last year, we brought in two national keynote speakers; we're going to do it again this year, but we're going to build a three-day experience that's even better than before. So, world-class young professional summit is one.

Talent attraction, placemaking investments is two. We continue to do the work around workforce development, which will never stop. We've actually evolved that in partnership with the GPEDC (Greater Peoria Economic Development Council); they’ve brought on a workforce director, Jeffrey Inman, who's going to help us really full-time staff our workforce efforts, which is going to take the work we've done to the next level.

We continue to think about how we address our advocacy work as well. We've got to continue to be the leading voice for business, which is our motto. But we’ve got to be that at the state level, advocating with our elected officials for greater resources for our businesses, at the local level, and even at the federal level when it makes sense. So we’ll continue to strengthen our advocacy program this year as well.

And also, continue to do what the Chamber does well, and that's programming and networking. We'll do more than 70 events this year. We're doing our 50th annual Thanksgiving luncheon – so 50 years of the largest convening of business professionals anywhere in downstate Illinois. We’re going to celebrate that this year, we're going to celebrate our 49th year of our Community Leadership School, which is our longest running program where we continue to cultivate and develop leaders. I mean, Joe, there's so much to be excited about, I could go on and on. So it's going to be a great ’24.

Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.