I’ve lived in Peoria now for just over four months, a transition from that big city upstate that couldn’t have gone better. Every day I learn something new about the area’s rich history or discover a new bluff overlook that highlights its natural beauty—the river, the bridges, the cityscape. I find the people of Peoria to be incredibly warm, welcoming and always willing to help. Its amenities rival cities twice this size. And I still show up early to meetings across town because I overestimated traffic. What an easy city to live in—truly an undiscovered gem.
But the thing that gets me up and excited every morning isn’t what I’m discovering Peoria to be today—it’s what I see we’re on the cusp of becoming. I believe it’s a future rooted in our many reinventions throughout history and built upon the entrepreneurial grit and problem-solving attitude developed as a result. It’s this community bond, diversity of thought and people, resilient strength and innovative passion that have set the foundation for incredible growth in the future.
Building On a Rich Heritage
There are many economic development tools and initiatives that help drive growth for cities and regions. But one set of tools in particular—encompassing new business creation, entrepreneurship and innovation—aligns closely with what I see running deep in our veins.
We built dozens of distilleries and became the whiskey capital of the world. We created numerous bike manufacturing companies that spawned the leading edge of the automobile revolution. We nurtured a small manufacturing company into a Fortune 100 juggernaut. A breakthrough at our Ag Lab helped mass-produce penicillin during World War II. And we continue to build world-class healthcare systems through innovation and cutting-edge technologies. With such a rich history, what’s next for Peoria?
Enter Distillery Labs. Perhaps you have heard about this new organization, soon to be located in downtown Peoria, and are wondering what it is. A whiskey research center? Well, no, although that would be a fun project. At its core, Distillery Labs is a nonprofit organization with the mission to bring together the diverse Peoria community to design, build and launch new companies. Our name reflects Peoria’s entrepreneurial heritage and looks forward to the principles of business building: the distilling of ideas into thriving new companies.
Some might call us an innovation hub, a startup incubator or an entrepreneurial ecosystem builder—lots of fancier ways to simply say that we are here to help you create a successful business out of that idea in your head. We exist to catalyze a thriving culture in central Illinois where business builders can easily connect with business supporters and other necessary resources in order to create a successful small business—or the next Fortune 100 company.
There are already lots of great local resources and organizations that support small businesses, entrepreneurs and innovators. But at times it can be confusing to locate the right resource for the right stage of your business development process. Distillery Labs seeks to be a hub—a concierge service of sorts—that builds a network and connects resources, whether local, regional or national, with business builders who need these resources. Distillery Labs will offer our own sets of tools and services—from makerspaces and co-working areas, to educational workshops, mentorship and specialized programs designed to accelerate and ultimately fund your business. And if our resources aren’t exactly what your startup business needs, we’ll assist in connecting you with the right organization that can help.
A Role for Everyone
What if you’re not an entrepreneur or interested in starting your own business? How do you fit into Distillery Labs and this next chapter for Peoria? If our vision is to become a nationally recognized city for new ideas and innovations, a place where an incredibly livable community meets a hotbed of new startups, it will take participation from the entire region. You might not be the entrepreneur, but maybe you’re a creative-idea person, a problem solver, a business mentor, a professional services provider or potential investor. The support network, diversity of participants and access to resources are critical factors to an entrepreneur’s success, and ultimately our community’s success.
This won’t be an overnight transformation, but we have the right ingredients and are already beginning to create some nationally recognized success stories. In the world of startups, timing is absolutely critical. Sometimes the best ideas fail simply because the market isn’t ready for the new innovation. Peoria, the timing is right for us now. Let’s build our region’s future together.PM
Paul Leamon is the first executive director of Distillery Labs. Learn more at distillerylabs.org.