Community leaders examine ways to emphasize and improve the quality of life in Greater Peoria

How can the Greater Peoria Region accentuate and enhance the region’s quality of life? That question was one of the big topics at last week’s Big Table meeting at the Peoria Civic Center.

Bob Ross, senior vice president of marketing and communications for the Greater Topeka Partnership, gave the Kansas capital a small boost, thanks in part to a “Go Topeka” talent attraction campaign.

Ross delivered the keynote address at the Big Table event and discussed strategies for how Peoria can emphasize and improve the quality of life in the area and potentially follow Topeka’s example.

“I learned through this process that Peoria and Topeka have so much in common. We have a very similar internal narrative that we’ve told ourselves,” Ross said. “I see a lot of people in Peoria have stopped believing in what they can be and they don’t see how incredible the city is. That’s exactly where Topeka was 10 years ago.

“When Topeka decided to really stand up and believe in what this city can become and start investing in ourselves again, we changed the entire evolution of our city. I think Peoria is ready for that kind of revival. The foundation you have laid here is so incredible.”

Ross said Topeka has to go through a step-by-step process to get back to where it wanted to be.

“We really wanted to look at the beautification of the community and the quality of the place; We neglected that for a while,” he said. “We’re the state capital, so we kind of drove that, and we’ve been fortunate to have a pretty diverse economy. But we were starting to lose some jobs because, to be honest, we had just allowed the plague to creep into many areas of the city.”

Ross said Topeka has been working to revitalize downtown and rebuild community morale to jumpstart the city’s turnaround.

“My message to the people of Peoria is that we were no further from Peoria in Topeka. It just took our ability to decide to try and do some big swings,” he said.

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Bob Ross, senior vice president of marketing and communications for the Greater Topeka Partnership, delivered the keynote address at the Big Table event, discussing strategies for how Peoria can emphasize and improve the quality of life in the region and potentially follow Topeka’s leadership.

Amy McCoy, executive director of the Pekin Area Chamber of Commerce, says the road to capitalizing on the quality of life in the area 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,” McCoy said. “Whether you’re a resident of Beijing, Morton or Peoria, love where you are and then you’ll love the Greater Peoria region too. So once we have embraced our own community, we can sell it to others by inviting them as guests or tourists or as new residents.”

Feature: Peoria Big Table – Quality of Life

So how exactly does McCoy suggest that people can show they “love where they live”?

“You can shop locally, that’s the simple answer,” McCoy said. “But they can also just enjoy the amenities that we have: going to the parks, enjoying the parks, playing golf at our local golf 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, shop on the square, or go to Pekin and enjoy the parks and golf courses and find some specialty shops you didn’t even know existed. You can find these things all over the region.”

McCoy joined Ross and JD Dalfonso of Discover Peoria as panelists for the Big Table Quality of Life roundtable, moderated by Joshua Gunn, President of the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce, who says Greater Peoria can build on a strong foundation.

“The quality of life in our region is amazing for many people. There are many amenities in the Peoria area, whether they are rural or urban,” Gunn said. “Part of that part of the challenge is that we need to tell the story more. People need to start seeing Peoria as a place with a high quality of life. The other side of this coin is accessibility to that quality of life, so think with a justice lens about how we ensure everyone here experiences a high quality of life.

“A third part is an evaluation where we can make some improvements. Quality of life and location or place creation is often about making investments in things that would be attractive if you viewed your city as a business. If you owned any other type of business you would think what do I need to do to attract my customers? In this case, the residents are now the customers: the people who live here, work here, start businesses here. So what do we need to be attractive to them?”

Amy Davis is the director of economic development for the city of Elmwood in western Peoria County. She says a common theme she heard during the discussion was how unique the Peoria area is and how that can be an advantage.

“We have all these many small towns and diverse communities that when we come together, offer something for everyone of all ages and generations — all kinds of unique opportunities and activities,” Davis said.

“Peoria has so many different things. We have a strong arts community; The riverfront is a great place to visit. Then when you go to our small communities, they all have something to offer (with) many festivals and events. So there’s just a lot going on.”

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How can the Greater Peoria Region accentuate and enhance the region’s quality of life? This question was one of the big topics at the 2023 Big Table meeting at the Peoria Civic Center.

Ross said the first “big swing” Topeka made was a big investment in revitalizing its downtown area.

“As recently as 2015, we had over 60% of our downtown area completely empty, apart from a few offices there. The thought was that you could work downtown and then go and go to the West Side,” Ross said. “So first we made the decision to invest in our downtown area: we’ve spent $150 million over the past five years pumping transformative infrastructure (with) public and private investment, be it a new town square or new ones hotels and restaurants. We gave people a reason to come back downtown.”

Gunn agreed with Ross that downtown Peoria is an ideal destination for quality of life investments.

“Inner cities are your front door. They’re the only thing you’ll see if you google “Peoria, Illinois,” Gunn said. “So I think it’s important to be honest and intentional. Do we have a downtown that has really good bones? Absolutely. Was there maybe enough investment and vibrancy to make it a goal? Maybe not. So I think there is some room for improvement there.”

Gunn says Peoria should also highlight its broad demographic range as a quality of life benefit.

“I think the diversity here is overwhelming. We have big communities of different ethnicities, big immigrant communities, multiple languages, religions, races, all kinds of collaborations in this place that people often overlook,” he said. “So I think quality of life and diversity are related, and Peoria has a lot to offer there. I just don’t know if that’s part of our brand and I think it should be.”

According to McCoy, community leaders really need to focus on improving the region’s quality of life in order to reverse the trend of depopulation.

“Once we embrace our region, once our current residents embrace the region, I think that’s the best basis for us to continue to attract new residents to our community and see our population decline reverse and turn into population growth.” ‘ he told McCoy.

Gunn says it’s important not only to reduce the number of people moving out of the area, but also to bring more people into the country — and to aim high.

“I think our goal should be to attract someone who has the opportunity to live anywhere in the country, maybe even anywhere in the world,” Gunn said. “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 there are these things. It’s a bold goal, but I think we should aim for it.”

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