A Publication of WTVP

Engaging the next generation is vital to developing a region of prosperity.

“Y” for Focus Forward CI? Its mission: to engage all populations in a regional effort to transform mindset, economic performance, environment and leadership in Peoria, Tazewell, Woodford and Mason Counties. The initiative has welcomed a range of voices, asking for input on what assets and resources are valuable to central Illinois, how we can create more development within the region, and how to retain and draw in more young professionals.

Gen Y—better defined as GENext, the 25-to-44-year-old population—is viewed as integral to our region’s health and prosperity, in addition to bringing expertise, intellect and vigor to our industries. Conversely, the Focus Forward CI initiative is integral to our young professionals.

The 21st-Century Work Environment
During a session geared to collect insight and buy-in from GENext, more than one attendee shared the sentiment that “if this initiative fails, so does my expectation to stay in central Illinois”—but GENexters are ready to engage in the opportunity. Another attendee shared his concern about the lack of 21st-century work values—progressive not only in technology and process, but in global and community responsibility, environmental actions, and respect of diversity and basic human values over ever-expanding profits. There was a desire for innovative cultures and idea-welcoming infrastructures—places where creativity could shine and where they could reap the rewards of their active involvement.

Focus Forward CI has the foundation to create and support the 21st-century work and lifestyle environments in which young professionals thrive. Interestingly, it is not technology that sets these workspaces apart as “21st-century;” rather, it’s culture—whether energy-inducing open offices, the collaborative synergies of coworking, or the cultures of creativity that motivate both the sharing of ideas and the ability to prototype and experiment, along with quality-of-life issues for personal and family interests and needs.

Many of today’s GENexters don’t wait for opportunity to arrive at their door; they create and build it. They have organic intimacy with the tools of their trade and enjoy utilizing their talents and skills, gaining speed, refining technique and growing their personal accomplishments. They are looking for the connections to bring their ideas into the various industries, companies and projects found in the region. With emerging technologies and a change in workforce desires, companies that begin to embrace them will gain loyal employees and increased growth.

Target: Engagement
What we hold within central Illinois is the opportunity of prosperity for this culture of talented workers and the desires of the entire GENext population. Moving to, or staying in, central Illinois offers a lower cost of living and an organic “small-town feel,” while the hassles of life experienced in other regions (traffic, pollution, high crime, etc.) are less present here. We offer great schools and commitment to lifelong learning opportunities alongside a brilliant spectrum of entertainment, from fine art, theater and symphonies, to underground music and an array of culinary options. Outdoor recreation and sports, along with many other leisure activities, are widespread throughout our region as well.

GENext is ready to fuel Focus Forward CI, powered by the following initiatives to achieve the goal of increasing the 25-to-44-year-old population by five percent (from 94,706 to 115,942), by 2017:

  1. Engage the 25-to-44-year-old demographic in the development and implementation of a regional community economic development initiative
  2. Assign the GENext Action Team to define “Quality of Place” for GENext
  3. Strengthen the region’s climate of entrepreneurship and start-up business environment
  4. Define and implement actions to match workforce skillsets to existing companies or gaps.

The GENext action plan is to engage this targeted demographic with communication and connectivity through monthly forum gatherings, continuous web-based interaction and an annual leadership summit to celebrate and interact with local, regional, state and federal representatives. Expanding this network will provide the channels to educate, share and experience the vibrant communities and neighborhoods, venues, recreation, family activities, education, arts and culture across all interest groups that are working and living here.

Building an Innovative Culture
One area with which GENext is very familiar is innovation and entrepreneurship. Already, this generation has seen great success through the accomplishments of Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Ashton Kutcher (venture capital), Jack Dorsey (Square, Twitter), and Aaron Levie (Box). In this day and age, it’s not unusual to find young people already starting businesses while still students, both at the high school and college levels.

GENext’s view of the region as lacking in innovative culture validates the need for Startup Peoria (, a new organization which is all about creating a safe environment for tech startups, coworking space, think tanks and apprenticeship training. It is also about introducing central Illinois to the work and lifestyles of the GENext population. This action plan will continue to build on current resources that have guided entrepreneurs and incubations of high-tech.

Strong partnerships with training and certification programs, Bradley University, and other area colleges builds stronger bridges that address the gap between high school and career. Developing students beyond entry-level positions helps career-minded students move into better paths, building greater earning (and spending) potential. Providing support through alumni programs, initiating mentorships and internships, and establishing apprentice programs in new industries can fuel both current and future companies. Collaborations with local mission-driven organizations teaching workforce readiness will also help us meet our goal of matching skillsets with available and potential jobs.

The current and future fuel of our economy, GENext will give us the ability to leverage our current assets and resources to build an ecosystem to retain, support and grow the 25-to-44-year-old population that will drive our economy and create a region of prosperity. iBi

Leigh Ann Matthews, economic development director for the City of Pekin, and Jake Hamann, of OneFire Media, are leaders of the Focus Forward CI GENext Action Team.