A Publication of WTVP

Choose Greater Peoria

by Linda Smith Brown |
Doug Oberhelman, board chairman of the Gilmore Foundation
Doug Oberhelman, board chairman of the Gilmore Foundation

New recruitment push hopes to lure 25 new executives to a central Illinois that organizers believe has a lot to offer

Peoria is putting out the word: Won’t you be my neighbor?

In May, Peoria business leaders launched a $1.6 million effort to recruit employees in other cities throughout the Midwest to consider the Peoria area for home and career.

Named Choose Greater Peoria, the effort is largely a digital marketing campaign, the result of asking local CEOs what their most critical needs are right now. Their resounding answer was attracting new hires and selling them on living in Peoria.

Choose Greater Peoria is powered by money from the Gilmore Foundation, which has made a three-year commitment to the endeavor. Gilmore, a Peoria native and president of Caterpillar from 1977 to 1985, established the foundation in 2009. He died in 2020, at the age of 100.

“Bob wanted to get the business community together and identify one high-priority need for the community,” said Laura Cullinan, president of the Gilmore Foundation. “That’s how this whole thing started.”

The campaign has met its goal of $800,000 in business donations and the foundation has matched it.

Laura Cullinan, president of the Gilmore Foundation
Laura Cullinan, president of the Gilmore Foundation

Doug Oberhelman, chairman of the Gilmore Foundation Board and a former Caterpillar CEO in his own right, said when business leaders were asked about their most pressing challenges, “it came up over and over again: ‘Look, we can sell our company. We’re having trouble selling Peoria,’” said Oberhelman. “We realized maybe we ought to think about helping Peoria and its image a little bit.”

‘The opportunities here are incredible’

The Choose Greater Peoria website ( is the centerpiece of the campaign, with a listing of available job openings and a showcase of the area’s amenities under the headings of “Work. Live. Play.”

The site includes multiple opportunities for visitors to fill out a brief information form. Within 24 hours, a representative of the campaign will call the person to build a profile and discuss next-step options with potential employers.

“We’re almost trying to change the mindset about how people look for jobs,” said Misty Dykema, co-owner of Simantel Group Ltd, the local marketing firm hired to develop and execute the campaign. “You can go to Indeed or whatever website and apply for a job. But hey, if you fill out this form on our website, we’re going to get you in touch with every H.R. manager in the region who may have a job consistent with your needs and skill set.”

“The opportunities that we have here are incredible,” Cullinan said. “We have some incredibly high-paying jobs where you can have a leadership position as a relatively young person. Those positions might not present themselves so early in other, larger communities.”

A desire for work/life balance

Since the pandemic, many people are looking for a better work/life balance, and that is one of the biggest selling points of Choose Greater Peoria, said Cullinan.

Peoria’s average 18-minute commute to most anywhere in the city is a big part of that balance, giving employees more time outside their cars and with their families, where they can take advantage of the largest park district in the state of Illinois, with 50 miles of hiking trails and a riverfront.

Dykema said visitors to the Choose Greater Peoria website are clicking on the “Play” messages more than the “Work” ads. Central Illinois’ affordable housing and a lower cost of living compared to other cities across the country also is a selling point, say local leaders.

Besides attracting new talent to the area, Choose Greater Peoria also endeavors to improve the area’s image with the people already living here. Sometimes, local chatter produces a lot of negativity. The city’s crime rate, for example, can bring out a lot of that.

“The negatives are everywhere for any city,” said Oberhelman. “We just have to work on those things. I know the city, the mayor and many of us in the community are working hard to do that. We can’t give up.”

“We can acknowledge it’s not a perfect place to live, but it’s a pretty darn good place to live,” said Cullinan. “The people are great here. We need to start talking about that and lean into the positives that we have.”

‘You can find your tribe here’

Nikki Romain, a performing artist, had lived in no less than five large cities before moving to Peoria eight years ago, when she married Jonathan Romain, an artist and Peoria resident.

‘There were a lot of things culturally that as a Black woman I figured I would not get here’
— Nikki Romain

She admits to having been apprehensive about moving to Peoria.

“I’d only lived in big cities,” she said, adding that she was nervous about moving to Peoria as a Black woman with a preconceived notion that the city was not diverse. “There were a lot of things culturally that as a Black woman I figured I would not get here.

“I thought it would be very racist, quite honestly,” Romain said.

Romain was pregnant when she moved to Peoria.

“The first six months were really rough for me. My husband traveled a lot for art shows, I had the baby to care for and I didn’t know anyone here,” she recalled.

She started feeling at home in Peoria when she met a new friend of her age and background. “It was just a breath of fresh air to meet someone who was like-minded, who had children, knew other people with children and knew where people with children hung out.”

Romain and her husband were both moved to do something when they read in the media about the 24/7 Wall St. website naming Peoria as one of the worst cities in America for Black residents.

“Jonathon and I, separately from each other, were both saved by the arts,” said Romain. The couple began thinking about how they could use art to make a difference in Peoria.

Together they started the non-profit Artists ReEnvisioning Tomorrow (Art, Inc) in the former Greeley School building, where they lead after-school programming for first through eighth grades.

Romain said that in their free time, her family enjoys Peoria’s Riverfront Museum, the parks, the Peoria Symphony Orchestra and Heartland Festival Orchestra, community theater, the riverfront and its Farmers Market.

“As I’ve lived in big cities, I’ve spent a lot of money on rent and a lot of money on parking and a lot of time in traffic,” she said. “Why would you choose that when you can breathe, have free time and spend your money on other things?

“I’ve lived a very nomadic life and this is the first time I’ve ever felt at home, because of the people who live here,” said Romain, “The people are so welcoming. You can find your tribe here.”

The Goal

The goal of the campaign is 25 executive hires. In the first two months, the campaign has the first two under its belt.

Besides those successes, the foundation expects to leave behind a campaign infrastructure that will continue to attract and deliver high-caliber talent to the Peoria area. “It just needed a big push of money to get it started and the strategy,” said Cullinan.

Linda Smith Brown

Linda Smith Brown

is a 37-year veteran of the newspaper industry, retiring as publisher of Times Newspapers in the Peoria area