There is an old saying: “Just outside of Chicago, there is a place called Illinois.” It was recently used as a tourism slogan, but it seems to capture both the truth and some of our own feelings about the Second City. Those of us in “the rest of Illinois” sometimes look to Chicago with a degree of disdain and maybe a tinge of jealousy. Chicago gets lots of resources and lots of attention—some think more than their fair share—but there are things we can learn from this world-class city.
That is why it was such a privilege to spend some time with Mayor Richard Daley a few weeks ago when he was the featured speaker at the 110th George Washington Banquet, sponsored by the Creve Coeur Club. Not only did we sit next to each other at dinner, we also visited Caterpillar’s demonstration grounds in Edwards and shared ideas and experiences. Mayor Daley even got to experience the downtown center of Peoria’s history—George’s Shoeshine and Hatters, home of Peoria’s own George Manias.
No matter what you think of Chicago or Mayor Daley, you have to admit that things are going well. Anyone who has visited Chicago in the past few years cannot help but notice the dramatic turn-around they have had since the bad old days of the ‘70s and ‘80s. There are many factors that have played into this—an emphasis on infrastructure and public safety, tremendous attention to the lakefront, aggressive marketing—and we can learn a lot from the example they have set.
One thing that came out in my conversations with Mayor Daley and in his public remarks was the importance of education. The Chicago public school system has undergone a drastic transformation over the past decade, and its success is one reason that young families are returning to once-abandoned urban neighborhoods. Visionary programs like Renaissance 2010—an effort to build 100 new schools in Chicago—have helped rebuild previously struggling areas. Chicago has also partnered with its outstanding institutions of higher learning to revitalize the urban core.
At the Washington Banquet, Mayor Daley focused on the value of leaders working together, whether across political, geographical or jurisdictional boundaries. While the examples he gave—the Peoria-to-Chicago silt exchange and the work behind the bid to host the Olympics—are not directly analogous to education, they do demonstrate the benefits that result from partnership. This got me thinking about the issues that we face here in Peoria—and the steps we have taken to address them. Think about some of the unprecedented ways that our educational infrastructure, the City and our community leaders have partnered to improve Peoria:
- Community leaders, in partnership with Illinois Central College, launched Peoria Promise (www.peoriapromise.com)—a groundbreaking effort that will provide graduates of Peoria’s public schools two-year scholarships to ICC. Not only will Peoria Promise mean great things for its young recipients, but it will help market Peoria as a great place to live.
- The City of Peoria, District 150 and Peoria County joined forces to create a Neighborhood Improvement Zone around the location for the new Glen Oak School. This effort designates the two-block area around the school for targeted services—increased code enforcement, housing rehabilitation, lead abatement and other programs.
- Bradley University and District 150, through the City’s Renaissance Park Commission, developed a plan for a new math, science and technology academy on the West Bluff. This new school should open in 2010 and will be a cornerstone of the development of this important corridor in Peoria.
These are just a few examples of the great partnerships going on in Peoria. Each represents a moment in which people chose to abandon their traditional roles and attitudes and join forces to work towards a common goal. Just like Mayor Daley said, Americans expect their leaders to work together. Too often, I think people compare Peoria to Chicago and only find the differences. In fact, there are lots of similarities. But we can never stop looking to our “big brother” to the north to find examples of how to create a world-class city. iBi