Out Front

DeWayne Bartels

Renee Charles, since she was 5-years-old, wanted a career bringing information to people.

“My mother said at 5 I was standing in front of the TV with a hairbrush repeating the news,” Charles said, smiling. “My mother said there was no mistaking I would do TV news.”

Charles did anchor the news in Peoria, following a career in Peoria radio.

She left Peoria to hold TV anchor jobs in Madison, Wis., and Lexington, Ky.

In 2000 she won the title of Miss Illinois and competed in the Miss USA contest.

Hers was an out front life, always on and always in the spotlight.

Despite following her dreams, Charles said, the Peoria area was always on her mind.

“In Madison and Lexington I was always talking about Peoria,” Charles said. “I was always calling people I knew in Peoria asking what was going on.”

In 2008 she and husband, Trent Weaver, who works at Caterpillar, came back to Peoria.

Charles said she was glad to be back but she recognized the media landscape in Peoria was changing. The media was being consolidated and opportunites were few.

“I remember thinking to myself,  ‘If you ever want to do something different now is the time,’” Charles said. “I was

familiar with the Heartland Partnership. I knew they needed someone with my skills. I knew I could make this my own. I wanted to start doing something to grow this area.”

A new era in her life began as she became director of media affairs and public affairs for the Heartland Partnership — which consists of the Economic Development Council, Heartland foundation, Heartland Capital Network, TansPORT, Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce and PeoriaNEXT.

“The Heartland Partnership is a family of companies devoted to economic development and regional development in the areas of transportation, industry and technology,” Charles said. “We are focused on growing our region — the Tri-County Area, because if Peoria grows Metamora grows.”

It is definitely a challenging job, she said.

“It’s also exciting. I get to see things grow and flourish,” Charles said. “There’s so much we have here, but the story does not get told. I want to get those stories out.”

A story she got out, just last week, came from Inman News.

Andrea Brambila reported Inman News examined housing, economic and demographic data for metropolitan areas nationwide to identify 10 housing markets to watch in 2012.

“These markets are showing signs of strength in several key metrics, including above-average price appreciation, a flourishing job market, a high rate of sales in proportion to population, a high level of home affordability, low foreclosure activity, a below-average share of distressed sales, a low vacancy rate, and other characteristics indicating a healthy housing market,” the story said. Their reporting found the Peoria area ranked No. 6 on the list.

“To compile the list of 10 markets to watch this year, Inman News looked for markets with above-average median sales price growth, a low unemployment rate, a high rate of sales per population, high affordability, low and falling foreclosure activity, a low share of distressed sales, above-average projected job growth, median household income growth, low and falling vacancy rates, growth in the number of building permits issued, above-average population growth, high projected population growth, and a rise in in-migration from other states,” Brambila reported.

Charles said providing this kind of positive news to the media so it can bolster feelings about the area, is exciting to her.

“I feel like I’m accomplishing something, but it is work that will never be done,” Charles said. “Our potential is unlimited. We’re so much bigger a force when we work together. For example, Woodford County’s biggest competitor is not Peoria. Woodford County’s biggest competitor is on the other side of the globe. Part of my job is getting that message across. By working together we can keep jobs here.”

With her background in broadcast journalism, Charles has started a video production department at The Heartland Partnership. With that she has begun doing video interviews with political and business leaders breaking news in those areas down into digestible segments for busy people.

“We analyze events and news from the national level to the local level,” Charles said. “I’m very comfortable with it. People want to be entertained and informed.”

Charles said promoting the Peoria area is challenging but she finds it great work.

“It’s not as doom and gloom here as some people like to believe. We didn’t feel things here in the recession like they did on the coasts. I enjoy getting that message out. I’m a cheerleader and a voice getting information out that may be overlooked,” Charles said.

“I want to spur people who see the information I put out to tell others. For example, if we can give Woodford County a voice about good news and it draws attention people will say, ‘Wow, what a great place.’ The need to think in terms of regionalism is a big message to get across in general. We have the opportunity to work together to bounce back stronger than before. I need to make Metamora, for example, understand it has to work with Peoria. We all win when we work together.”