MONEY - Banker: Peoria area economy may be best downstate

DeWayne Bartels
Ed Scharlau, right, vice-chair of First Busey Corp., was in Peoria recently and said the Greater Peoria Area has probably the best economy downstate. He is pictured here with Dan Daly, regional president of Busey Banks.

While most of the nation is bearish on the economy one bank executive says people should be bullish on Peoria’s economy.

Ed Scharlau, vice-chairman of First Busey Corp., was in Peoria Oct. 7 to address the Peoria Area Chamber — Busey Bank Economic Seminar. His assessment of Peoria’s economy is that it is the best in downstate Illinois.

Cat and medicine

Scharlau said the evidence for his assessment is plain for those who seek it out.

He said the Tri-County area has seen the value of agriculture rise $217 million in just the past two years, making it a $660 million business in the region.

Scharlau said even the news he found showing a local economic downturn was too small to be of great concern. He expects retail sales for ‘08 to be flat at just over $4.7 billion in the Tri-County area. But, he said, flat is much better than declining.

When it came to home sales in 2007, he said, Peoria, Tazewell, Woodford and Fulton counties saw the number of homes and condos sold fall 315. Yet, he said, 2007 went down as the second biggest year in terms of dollar volume in the history of the Peoria Area Association of Realtors.

Employment figures, Scharlau said, is where the Greater Peoria Area really shines.

In the past 12 months, he said, Caterpillar Inc. added 1,500 new jobs in Illinois, with 1,000 of those in the Peoria area. That, he said, brings the total of new jobs at Caterpillar Inc. in the Peoria area over the past five years to 5,000.

Scharlau then turned his attention to health care.

“Health care in Peoria is practically bigger than Caterpillar,” Scharlau said. He said health care in the Peoria area employs 29,606 people, a rise of 883 in one year.

“The future economic growth in Peoria is being driven by several major projects at all three Peoria hospitals and the University of Illinois College of Medicine,” he said.

Those projects amount to a minimum $729 million.

“Peoria’s evergrowing health care industry will continue to bolster the area’s economy throughout the 21st century,” he said.

Positive tone

Scharlau said, however, all the good news about the region has only a minimal impact if not marketed.

“It’s important to position Peoria as a place with a positive tone,” Scharlau said.

“You’re probably the strongest economy in downstate Illinois.”

Former Peoria Mayor Jim Maloof agrees. He spearheaded a program promoting Peoria’s positive attributes in 1985 called “Forward Peoria.” Maloof was running for mayor when he unveiled the program, which gathered 400 volunteers.

“I challenged people to rebuild the city. They came back with recommendations to improve the city,” Maloof said.

“We had a city people could be proud of. We got our light out from under a bushel.”

Maloof said Peoria needs to learn from the past and get back to promoting the city’s positives.

“What a time to toot our horns,” he said

“It’s not hard. You just have to believe in yourself and your leaders. The leaders have to set a can-do attitude.”

Maloof said he is not greatly impressed with the city’s efforts to market itself to the outside world.

“It could be better, much better. We’ve got this man from outside saying how good it is here. We should be saying it,” Maloof said.

“We’re in a great position to take advantage of things. We’re not doing enough. We’ve got to light a fire under the community. If it worked in ‘85 when conditions were so bad, why wouldn’t it work today when we have so many good things going on?”