A Publication of WTVP

Several imposing stories of block and steel are arising on the riverfront—the new home of public television station WTVP.

I had just heard about the sale of a local company to an out-of-state buyer, with the fate of central Illinois operations “undetermined.” The bad news seemed to throw into relief the boldness of WTVP’s vision: not only make an enormous investment in digital broadcasting, but also move to a new, advanced facility on the riverfront. It was a big idea, and there were those who said it couldn’t be done.

Now, through the dedication of WTVP staff and volunteers, the big idea was right here in front of me.

I thought about a conversation I had recently with a friend who, while allowing that Peoria’s Civic Center had worked out pretty well, criticized city leaders for their current “grandiose” plans. Wait a minute, I said, wasn’t that exactly the charge leveled more than 20 years ago? I pointed out the Civic Center just celebrated 20 years of operation—and it’s bigger, better, and more successful than ever.

Going back quite a bit further, the same doubts were expressed when Caterpillar located its world headquarters downtown. Yet with Cat and the Civic Center as anchors, downtown Peoria has experienced a renaissance few Midwestern cities our size can match.

These observations seem pertinent because of a paradox. During times of economic hardship, the biggest ideas seem most impractical, most unlikely. Yet hard times are when we need brave ideas most of all.

For certain, the economic news in central Illinois has been less than joyous. Maytag in Galesburg will close, and lots of local companies have cut back. Here in the heartland, we’re living the reality of what I recently heard an economist call “the dark side of the productivity miracle”—another way of saying we’re in a jobless recovery. Nationally, productivity was up 5.1 percent in the third quarter. Unemployment was up, too.

It strikes me that, in the long run, there are only two paths to economic growth. 1) You can produce a superior work force. 2) You can create (or recruit) new employers. The trick is, you have to do both. But I see no lack of big ideas for accomplishing both of these ends in central Illinois.

With respect to producing a superior work force, the Central Illinois Workforce Development Board is off to a strong start, offering a wealth of resources to job seekers and those interested in establishing a new career.

An extremely significant development, although one not without controversy, is Peoria Public School District 150’s strategic planning process. Derision of District 150’s plan may be due to a misunderstanding of strategic planning. Strategic planning isn’t about uncovering buried secrets that will solve all problems, nor is it about developing catchy slogans. Instead, serious strategic planning brings an organization back to its most essential nature: Who are we? What do we want to accomplish?

As I’ve observed before in this space, no initiative is more critical to the future of our community than the recasting of District 150. There are plenty of big ideas in the new plan, and values we can all identify with. And the public is far from indifferent: A follow-up meeting to recruit volunteers to put the plan into action drew more than 300.

In terms of developing new employers, the latest big idea has to be Peoria NEXT, a consortium of education, research, and business organizations assembled to provide leadership in discovery, innovation, and commercialization in new technologies, with an emphasis on the biosciences.

Caterpillar CEO Glen Barton summed up a lot of what I’m thinking about in an address at this year’s Community Thanksgiving Luncheon. “We have dedicated ourselves as a community to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” he said, “and we have done so by stubbornly insisting that the Peoria area will progress…by following through and taking actions necessary not only to prosper in the present tense, but also to secure a sound future for our children.”

I like Barton’s use of “stubbornly.” As was the case with WTVP’s new studio, big ideas have to be accompanied by dedication if they’re to take flight. When we work together, who’s to say what we can’t accomplish?

As Barton said, “Unity of purpose determines a community’s future.” IBI