NEWS

'Peoria' has negative connotation, some think

John Sharp

When Brent Lonteen entertains people who have never been to Peoria before, he drives them in on Interstate 74 from East Peoria so they can see the all-of-a-sudden, spectacular view of the city’s skyline.

"You can see their eyes widen and jaws drop," said Lonteen, CEO of the Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. "People don’t realize we have a skyline and how big it is. They have no idea. They think we are some rinky-dink town or some small agricultural town."

On the heels of ESPN’s mapping gaffe Tuesday showing Peoria located in Indiana, some local officials say part of the problem they have in luring trade and convention shows to the River City is an "unfavorable" impression from people who have never visited central Illinois before.

Lonteen, in a report to the Peoria Civic Center Authority this week, said his organization has found the word "Peoria" has a negative connotation nationally and that it can be difficult to lure meeting planners to the region.

"I don’t want to imply people don’t want to come to Peoria; that’s not the case at all," Lonteen said Friday. "It’s the people who never come to Peoria and don’t know anything about Peoria or where Peoria even is … they are the hardest to convince."

Lonteen will ask his board of directors on Dec. 20 to approve $50,000 next year for "familiarization tours" and site inspections of Peoria and the surrounding area. Those purpose of the tours is to attract potential convention and meeting clients to the Civic Center and other venues in and around Peoria who likely have never been to the River City.

In addition, Lonteen said he plans for his organization to attend 17 convention trade shows in 2008 — more than double those attended this past year.

The bureau’s proposed increase comes about two years after Civic Center officials agreed to boost the number of trade shows it attends. That increase, according to general manager Debbie Ritschel, is related to the $55 million expansion of the Civic Center to include new conference and meeting rooms.

"People don’t understand what a thriving and really good community this is," Ritschel said. "Once we get them here … people will walk into (the Civic Center) and say, ‘Wow.’ To get them to say that while sitting in an office in Denver or somewhere else is tougher."

Buoying these increased marketing efforts is an influx of hotel tax revenues that goes to the Civic Center and the bureau.

Shaun Schoonover, director of finance with the Civic Center, said $2.25 million is estimated to come from the city’s hotel tax revenue this year, an increase of 13.6 percent from last year.

Of that money, 44 percent will go to the bureau.

"For the first time in a long time, we will have more money we can truly invest into convention marketing," Lonteen said.

Luring more people to Peoria and changing the city’s negative image also can be a struggle for economic developers.

"Some people, when you are pitching investment from St. Louis to Chicago, they think the middle of the state isn’t doing well economically but they don’t know how well we are doing," said Craig Hullinger, the city’s economic development director. "That’s very typical. There is a big city bias with everything rural …"

John Sharp can be reached at (309) 686-3282 or jsharp@pjstar.com.