Joshua Gunn has only been in his new role as Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce president and CEO for seven weeks, relocating from North Carolina with the economy mired in a slump brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and businesses required to enforce a state-ordered mask mandate.
“It is not the ideal time to move halfway across the country right in the middle of a global pandemic,” Gunn admitted. “But so far the community’s embraced myself, my family, and made the transition very smooth for us, personally.”
But Gunn, who also serves in the same capacity for the CEO Council, would be hard pressed to describe his professional transition similarly.
“Just like every other business community in the country, our businesses are suffering,” he said. “There are real economic implications of this pandemic and so our members are feeling that and subsequently, our organization is feeling that.”
Gunn equated making plans for chamber and CEO Council programs for the rest of the year to focusing on a moving target, with things changing on a daily basis. But he knows many others are dealing with even larger problems.
“Our challenges as an organization pale in comparison to the very real challenges that Peoria’s people, Peoria’s workforce and our businesses are facing,” said Gunn. “We’re just here to provide support.”
Gunn believes the pandemic’s effects on the economy could linger into the middle of next year and that the renewed growth and prosperity the chamber tries to foster may take some time.
“If we’re being honest, this thing is going to last longer than any of us want it to,” he said. “We’re going to come out of this thing in, I think, the first couple of quarters of 2021. We’re going to slowly get the engines of the economy working back again.”
Gunn said that while businesses are facing numerous hardships, Gov. JB Pritzker’s mask mandate and enforcement rules are not among them. Earlier this month, Pritzker announced businesses that do not enforce the mask order could face a fine of up to $2,500.
“We know that if we’re not able to keep each other safe, this pandemic will go on much longer. So, the quicker we can focus on social distancing masks, taking safe measures, the quicker we can get through this,” he said. “Fortunately, most of our members feel the same way and I’ve seen a high adoption rate of the mask order throughout the Peoria community and throughout our membership.”
Before coming to Peoria, the 35-year-old Gunn served as chamber vice president in his hometown of Durham, N.C. He said his only reference points to Peoria were his childhood best friend who worked at Caterpillar for two years, and comedian Richard Pryor.
“Neither of which had the most favorable things to say about their time in Peoria. So, when I spoke with the recruiter, I wasn’t sure if it would be the right opportunity,” said Gunn, adding he had offers on the table from the East Coast--but a positive meeting with the search committee swayed his decision.
“Once I got here, I was blown away,” he said. “I think the community is, it’s beautiful; the topography, the riverfront downtown cityscape is gorgeous, that neighborhoods, the parks … and most importantly, the people that I met. It just more and more felt like the right opportunity for me.”
One of the personal challenges Gunn faced in his transition was being alone here for the first five weeks until his wife Charity, 3-year-old daughter Harlem-Rose, and 1-year-old son Seven could join him.
“That was hard, being away from my small children and my wife having to double-duty with both kids and no support from me,” he said. “I’m happy to have them here now. Now I really feel like I live in Peoria. We have a place and put some roots down, so we’re excited about that.”
Gunn thinks the Peoria area is primed to bounce back from COVID-19 stronger than it was before.
“I think this moment is an opportunity to think about what the next version or next phase of our normal looks like, so that we don’t just reach for ‘normal,’ we reach for ‘better,’” he said. “So, we’re focusing on things like diversity, equity and inclusion, making our community more inclusive so that more people are benefiting from the growth and prosperity that we advocate for.”
Gunn said another prime area of focus for his organizations is workforce development.
“A large portion of our workforce is going to be unemployed, and some of their positions may even go away,” said Gunn. “So, we’re working other workforce development partners on retraining those individuals so that as we bounce back, those individuals will have a new skill and a new trade that can provide them an opportunity in the workforce that we’re creating through economic development and business attraction, so they can have a job that pays a family-sustaining wage.”
Gunn pointed to last week’s announcement of Natural Fiber Welding’s round of $13 million in additional investments led by the Ralph Lauren Corp. as an indication that Peoria can emerge from the pandemic in a stronger position.
“That is an investment in Peoria. That total investment is a pool of investors taking a bet on the technology, on the company, on the people at Natural Fiber Welding, but also on central Illinois,” Gunn said. “It’s a great example of what we already know: that this is a great place to live, work and run a business – and we’re going to see a lot more of that in the future.”
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