Like Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, Peoria strikes me as a city of two faces: a city in the best of times and the worst of times.
This is certainly an exciting time for Peoria, one in which the best of times is reflected in many ways. The riverfront looks better all the time—it not only has new businesses, but condominiums and apartments as well. The area also has more restaurant choices than ever before, and an exciting addition in the Shoppes at Grand Prairie.
Currently, home sales continue at a high level, and new housing construction has proceeded at a record pace. The University of Illinois was able to attract a world-renowned researcher to Peoria, whose staff continues to grow. Then there’s the opening of a new WTVP studio and ICC’s new north campus as well.
The horizon is bright with future projects. Peoria NEXT plans a medical technology park between the hospitals and Bradley University. The Park District is planning a large zoo expansion. Lakeview Museum has the opportunity to build a world-class downtown museum. The Junior League will create a children’s museum. OSF plans a new children’s hospital, which helps to ensure the medical community is flourishing. The Civic Center will have an addition, accommodating larger conventions.
The Convention and Visitors Bureau and Nature Conservancy are embarking on an adventure in ecotourism for the region. The YWCA is expanding, with an added gymnasium and new pool. A port district will be created, bringing new economic opportunity. The Army Corps of Engineers will begin the final design for the first phase of the Peoria Lakes improvement project. Within the year, Citylink and the YWCA will open a new bus transfer station and childcare center.
Cooperation in the region is also moving to new levels. The local counties, municipalities, and townships have formed the Illinois River Valley Council of Governments and developed a strategic plan focusing on regional and cooperative efforts. The Workforce Development Board has developed a strategic plan for meeting the workforce needs of the future, which involves multiple organizations within the regions.
The quality of our arts flourishes. Our symphony improves every year, creating new programming and outreach. The Art Guild, Bradley, ICC, the Contemporary Art Center, and the Civic Center continue to bring new arts to the city. We have a new professional theatre. And even in these tough economic times, successful capital fund raisers continue to flourish.
Yet these are also the worst of times. Some of our dropout rates are more than 50 percent, providing bleak futures for these dropouts and the workforce community. Without drastic change, we won’t be able to develop and retain a qualified workforce for future jobs, and those jobs will go elsewhere. Of those who are still in school, many are testing below their grade level.
Our city and county are in financial difficulty, as are the state and federal government. It’s difficult; none of us wants tax increases, and we only want budget cuts that don’t directly affect us. In tight financial times, money for highways to Chicago, removing the silt from the Illinois River, subsidized daycare, and other community needs is harder to find.
We continue to widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Many of our residents go without health insurance, yet are working and don’t qualify for assistance. For those with health insurance, costs continue to escalate. Businesses find it increasingly difficult to pay for health insurance for employees, creating yet another problem in the workforce.
What does all of this have to do with the Chamber of Commerce? The Chamber has had the opportunity to participate in both the positive projects described above and in task forces dealing with the negative issues facing us. There’s a lot more work to be done.
Now, more than ever, it’s increasingly important the entire business community take an active, participatory role. Businesses need to encourage their employees to run for office, get involved in commissions and non-profit agencies, and participate fully in the process. This is difficult when companies are faced with manpower and budget problems themselves, but the problems of the community greatly affect the prosperity of business and its ability to attract quality manpower.
And that’s what the Chamber is all about—increasing prosperity. IBI