I spent some time last week in Peoria, a central Illinois city that deserves a good look from any Midwestern factory town trying to reinvent itself in the age of globalization. Not that Peoria has all the answers or has solved all its problems. But it's asking the right questions and coming up with a few answers.
While I was there, I had the chance to talk with some civic leaders and visit a very impressive community college -- time well spent considering the importance of community colleges to the Midwest's future.
Peoria has a reputation as the epitome of Middle America ("If it plays in Peoria..."), a one-time whiskey capital (Hiram Walker), and the headquarters of the giant Caterpillar heavy equipment manufacturer, which once employed 40,000 people in the Peoria area and absolutely dominated the town.
Like many Midwestern factory towns, Peoria has been through crisis -- in Peoria's case, two devastating strikes against Caterpillar in the late '80s and early '90s. The strikes were a byproduct of globalization, specificially overseas competition from companies like Komatsu. Caterpillar fought this competition with outsourcing and cutbacks. The United Auto Workers struck back. The union lost big, but the strikes split the town. Many people predicted the departure of Caterpillar and the slow death of Peoria.
Instead, Caterpillar stayed, if much reduced. And the town fought back.