Reflections on Peoria

Downtown Peoria.  Source:
Up to this point, I’ve said very little about general impressions and what I’ve learned about Peoria, my new home.  Today I’ll offer some thoughts.

Being in Peoria has given me reason to revisit a theme I addressed in the early days of this blog, midsized Midwest cities.  Midwestern cities with populations between 50,000 and 300,000 were a focus here for perhaps the first six months of the blog, before Detroit’s bankruptcy got me writing more about my hometown.  But my interest in understanding midsized Midwest cities has never wavered, and I’m excited that being in Peoria gives me a platform for revisiting this.

Before I go in any depth, I’d like to state up front that things brought up here are my own opinions and reflections, and shouldn’t be taken at all as the opinions — or even worse, policy positions — of my employer.  I fully recognize I’m still learning here, and reserve my professional opinions for my professional capacity.

To recount, nearly three years ago I identified the 74 cities in the broader Midwest that had city populations between 50,000 and 300,000 in the 2010 U.S. Census.  I could post the table here, but it’s just as easy to click the link in the paragraph above to view it.  To give you a sense of the cities I’m talking about without clicking the link, here are the ten largest, using that definition:

Toledo, OH           287,208
Lincoln, NE          258,379
Ft. Wayne, IN       253,691
Madison, WI         233,209
Des Moines, IA     203,433
Akron, OH            199,110
Aurora, IL             197,899
Grand Rapids, MI 188,040
Sioux Fall, SD      153,888
Rockford, IL         152,871

And here are the ten smallest:

Elkhart, IN             50,949
Saginaw, MI          51,508
Battle Creek, MI    52,247
Manhattan, KS       52,281
Lacrosse, WI          52,485
Normal, IL             52,497
Grand Forks, ND   52,838
Anderson, IN         56,129
Owensboro, KY    57,265
Dubuque, IA          57,637

In terms of actual city size, Peoria, with 115,007 residents in 2010, ranked 19th in this group.

However, as I started to look at this list, I saw quite a bit of variability.  I explained it here:

I listed them all in a spreadsheet that included their 2010 city population and their 2010 metro area population, and started to make some early observations. For example, metro area population is likely a better indicator of the relative “imprint” of a city, rather than primary city population. Saginaw, MI, with a population of 51,000 but a metro area of 200,000, seems bigger than Muncie, IN, with a city population of 70,000 but a metro area population of just 118,000. And of course, cities that were relatively close to large metro areas (having a population greater than one million) seem to share more characteristics with their bigger neighbors than their smaller ones, economically and socially.

That led me to ask a few questions that could shed some light on other city characteristics: 

  • Is the city a county seat or a county’s largest city, yet not the primary city of a metro area? 
  • Is the city a part of or adjacent to a large metro area (with a population of more than one million)? 
  • Is the city less than 60 miles from a large metro area? 
  • Is the city a state capital? 
  • Is the city a college town?

And that exercise led to some interesting conclusions. Using those questions I was able to identify seven different categories of midsize Midwest cities, and the categories provide a glimpse into each city’s economic history and strengths:

1. Captured Satellite City: A once independent midsize city that has been pulled into the “orbit” of a larger metro area. There are eleven in this category.

2. Emerging Satellite City: An independent midsize city that is in the process of or on the verge of being pulled into the orbit of a larger metro area. There are six in this group.

3. State Capital and College Town: A city fortunate enough to be a government center and the home of a major university. There are just three in this category.

4. Emerging Satellite City and College Town: A combination of points 2 and 3, they retain some measure of independence from larger metros, and benefit from having large schools. There are only two in this group.

5. State Capital: Self-explanatory. There are four here.

6. College Town: Again self-explanatory. There are ten in this group.

7. Independent Midsize City: Ah yes, the largest group, with 35 in this category. Too far from major metros to bask in their glory, and no state capital or university to build from.

Using this methodology Peoria is definitely an independent midsize city.  The Peoria metro area ranked 25th in size out of the 74 metros studied, with 379,000 people.  However, if one factors out the midsize cities that are near major metros, and the state capitals and college towns, Peoria ranks eighth in size out of 35.  Roughly 2 1/2 hours driving distance from both Chicago and St. Louis, it’s too far from either to be pulled into their metropolitan orbits.  Illinois’ state capital of Springfield is about 75 minutes to the south.  And while Bradley University in Peoria is an excellent four-year university, its enrollment of about 6,000 undergraduate and graduate students missed my “major university” cutoff of 15,000.

During my short stint here so far I’ve found that Peoria is a very proud and independent city and region, and embraces the independence identified through my earlier research.  Since then, I’ve gathered some other thoughts about Peoria:

It is a manufacturing city.  The Peoria region is the international headquarters of Caterpillar, a Fortune 50 (that’s no typo, it’s in the top 50) corporation that is the “world’s leading manufacturer of construction and mining equipment, diesel and natural gas engines, industrial gas turbines and diesel-electrict locomotives,” according to Wikipedia.  Caterpillar’s influence can be seen everywhere, from the number of supplier businesses in the region that have close links to the company, to the number of engineers and “tinkerers” that can be found all over. It’s reminiscent of my growing up in Detroit in many ways.  It’s estimated that Caterpillar employs somewhere north of 10,000 people in Peoria, contributing heavily to the 15.3% of the region’s jobs in the manufacturing sector, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

But really, it’s a medical center.  Peoria has a wealth of health care assets.  Major hospitals here include OSF St. Francis and its affiliated Children’s Hospital of Illinois; UnityPoint Methodist Hospital, and Proctor Hospital.  Also located here is the University of Illinois College of Medicine.  Taken together, and including the associated clinics and offices in the region, the health care sector is the largest employment sector in the region, with 17.8% of all jobs in the region.

It’s partially recovered from the Great Recession.  The CEO Council and the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce put together an economic scorecard in 2012 that charts the region’s progress and compares it to peer cities like Ft. Wayne, IN and the Quad Cities, and aspirational ones like Des Moines and Omaha.  Among its many findings is that regional GDP has grown substantially since the bottom of the Great Recession, but increases in regional employment has been lagging.

Downtown revitalization is beginning to flourish.  Downtown Peoria has a heft that belies the region’s medium size.  Peoria is a old river town whose original business travelled up and down the Illinois River, perhaps giving its downtown preeminence over other areas.  In recent years it experienced decline but it’s beginning to make a comeback.  The city has invested heavily in the Warehouse District along the riverfront, and is striving to make the river a pedestrian-oriented business and entertainment destination.  The Peoria Riverfront Museum and Caterpillar Museum opened up in recent years along the river as well, and will likely act as catalysts for additional development.  But Caterpillar is also exploring plans to develop a new headquarters in the city, replacing its current downtown site, and that has the potential to be a significant infusion into downtown.

But sprawl is still the predominant development pattern in the region.  Downtown may be beginning to see a turnaround, but it’s not clear that conventional suburban development patterns in the region have peaked.  The city of Peoria has grown very slowly over the past few decades, but where new development has taken place has generally been in the northern reaches of the city.  There’s not much evidence now of residents seeking to move to in-town locations, but we just may be on the cusp of that transition.  Other suburban communities across the river have seen stronger signs of growth, either in retail development (East Peoria) or residential development (Washington), and in both cases they’ve adopted the conventional suburban development template.

There are fissures that may be keeping the region from reaching its full potential.  Despite its assets, there are matters that may be slowing its growth.  There are fissures between the older and more urban west side of the Illinois River, where Peoria resides, and the more suburban east side of the river, which includes East Peoria, Washington, Morton and Pekin in Tazewell County, among others, and Germantown Hills and Metamora in Woodford County, to name a couple.  It could be said that there are residents east of the river who feel little connection to the west side, and vice versa, making cooperation sometimes difficult.  There also appears to be a divide between whites and the minority community in the region, particularly with African Americans.  Within a city whose black population is nearly 26% of the city’s total, I’ve found that group to be fairly inconspicuous at nearly all levels of business and government that I’ve encountered so far.  But I also recognize I might be in a bubble.

Those are initial observations.  You’ll hear more about Peoria from me soon.

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