The old saying, “If it plays in Peoria,” suggests that if something can succeed in Peoria, it can succeed anywhere. Historically, the national media has turned to this region for an indication of how the rest of the country will respond to an event or idea.

Upon hearing that Caterpillar was letting thousands of workers go, the media converged upon the region to take our pulse. Reporters believed that Caterpillar’s 20,000 layoffs were all in this region and that this announcement would cripple us. Fortunately, they were wrong. These layoffs were global, and while we have taken a major blow, we are still standing.

We have seen significant job loss. Like the rest of the country, we are seeing layoffs at large companies like Caterpillar and small employers as well. But, as the country goes, we are doing better than many regions, like the east and west coasts, Michigan, and Florida, to name a few.

The Heartland Partnership met with reporters and producers from the following media outlets over the past few months:

Most were prepared to begin telling a modern-day “Rust Belt” story about Peoria. That’s the story about the collapse of the steel industry and the restructuring of industry in the late 1970s and early 1980s, resulting in the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs. The contraction of manufacturing jobs dislocated many workers in the region, causing many areas to diversify or die. After meeting with several reporters, it was easy to see that many of them had a preconceived notion that the Peoria region is just a small, rural area totally dependent on one employer and one industry.

Reporters expected to find this region dying, residents packing their bags and leaving town, and businesses shutting down and throwing in the towel. But when they took a closer look at our community, they saw something different. They saw survival, diversity, stability and the spirit to succeed.

They found that we learned some valuable lessons in the 1980s, when a recession did send people packing. Those lessons are helping us to survive today. We have diversified our economy so that we are no longer dependent on just one company or industry. We are conservative in our lending practices; therefore, our banks aren’t failing. We are traditional, and most people know to live within their means, which has kept us from experiencing a housing bubble like the east and west coasts. In the 1980s, we had 16 percent unemployment, but today we expect to see eight to nine percent unemployment at most. We have added 50,000 net new jobs since the 1980s. We have changed and we have grown.

We were able to get most of the media outlets with whom we met to realize that while we are certainly affected by the recession, we are weathering this storm relatively well compared to many other parts of the country. We were able to change their minds and the focus of their stories. Here are a few stories (not just on the economy) that spotlighted the positive attributes of our community:

This is a huge accomplishment, not just for The Heartland Partnership, but for the region. And the media wouldn’t be able to tell the story of how we are surviving if it wasn’t true. iBi