Getting a new job is exciting. Getting a new job that you enjoy—in a new city you really like? That is second to none. I am extremely honored and excited to serve as the new president and CEO of the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce and CEO Council. But in sharing this news with others, let’s just say some folks didn’t quite understand that excitement.
Frames of Reference
I’m from Durham, North Carolina, and had been serving as vice president at the Durham Chamber of Commerce for the past four years. In addition to being my hometown, Durham is an amazing city that attracts thousands of new people every year to experience the great quality of life and booming economy in North Carolina’s Triangle region. While there was a time when Durham didn’t have the best reputation, the past two decades have seen exponential growth; it’s now a place where people are very proud to live. So, it’s no surprise that people were shocked to hear that I’d chosen to leave. And that shock was magnified when I shared the city I’d be leaving them for. “Peoria?!” “Where is that?” “What are you thinking?” Surely, I must be running away from something, right? No way someone would leave Durham for Peoria, right?
I forgave their responses because I knew most of them had never been here. Like me, they’ve likely had only a few frames of reference for Peoria, if any. Most know Peoria as the home of Caterpillar, or as the “quintessential American city”—a place that advertisers, artists and politicians once used as the “standard” for which products or messages would resonate with the “average American.” Perhaps in 2020, they can’t think of any reason someone would move to Peoria. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. But there was something else even more striking for me: people who live right here in Peoria who asked me, “Why in the world would you come to Peoria?”
I wrestled with my reply when asked that question. Could it be the region’s breathtaking topography? The way the broad Illinois River flows by the city, or the breeze on the waterfront as you’re enjoying the panoramic views? The skyline that immediately catches your attention driving into the city? Or is it the history—the culture of innovation that took penicillin from a great idea to a lifesaving cure, and turned a tractor company into an iconic, global manufacturing leader? Is it the world-class healthcare systems, the top-tier community college and university, or the dynamic business community? Is it the festival scene? The arts scene? The great food and drinks?
I could go on and on about all the reasons my family and I have chosen to make Peoria home. But the one reason that really stands out to me is simple: the people of Peoria, who have proven warm, welcoming and generous since the first day we set foot in the city. Their hardworking culture stands out to me right away; people are dedicated to their businesses, their jobs and their community. Peoria has a remarkable philanthropic culture, one that outperforms cities of a much larger population, which speaks to a genuine commitment to the place we call home. That may sound like something any community would say—but few could honestly claim to have a culture of giving that rivals Peoria.
A Special Community
Perhaps it’s the fact that I am an “outsider”—it can be easy to take these assets for granted when you’ve been here a while. But I believe Peoria is truly special, and I’m dedicated to helping everyone see just how special it is. These characteristics ultimately helped me make the decision to leave a city that I love so much, and find a new love for a new city here in central Illinois. I believe those characteristics will also prove attractive to many others, as people look for a better quality of life, away from the overcrowded megacities. I also believe the resilience and talent of our workforce positions us perfectly to bounce back from this pandemic—and better than ever before.
I am honored to serve in this role, and to call Peoria home. I look forward to helping our community recognize and leverage our assets to tell our story to the world. I also look forward to leaning into the very real challenges we face. Peoria is special, but it isn’t perfect. That’s okay. I believe we have what it takes to be honest about our challenges, to lean into uncomfortable conversations, and to rebuild a more equitable economy that truly works for everyone. I believe the business community has an important role to play in this process, and I am committed to working with our members and the broader community to ensure that we not only survive the pandemic, but that we thrive.
As remarkable as Peoria’s history is, I truly believe our best days are yet to come. So the next time someone asks, “Why in the world would you come to Peoria?,” we can all say in unison: “because there’s no other place I’d rather be.” PM