Diverging Approach: The Tragedy of Central Illinois

Last week, I was able to attend this year’s annual American Planning Association – Illinois Chapter conference, which was down in Springfield in honor of Illinois’s Bicentennial this year. Many of you know that I lived in Peoria for three years and graduated from U of I, so central Illinois will always hold a special place in my heart.

But honestly, central Illinois is full of missed opportunities. First things first: Illinois is relatively unique in that – with one significant exception – there are zero municipalities in the state with a population between 150,000 and 2.5 million. (Aurora is the exception: the city recently broke 200,000, but I’m not counting it right now since much of Aurora’s recent growth is a result of a conglomeration of subdivisions sprawling over four counties.) On paper, with a stat like that, it’s easy to assume there’s nothing but corn and soybeans between Joliet and St. Louis – and, to be fair, that’s generally true. But in the middle of the state, there’s a triangle of five small metropolitan areas all generally within a 90-minute drive of each other: Peoria, Bloomington-Normal, Champaign-Urbana, Decatur, and Springfield. These five areas are just far enough apart to be considered distinct, but if at some point in the past they consolidated into a single area it’d have national significance. Here are the 2017 Census estimates for each metropolitan area:

  • Peoria: 372,427
  • Bloomington: 188,232
  • Champaign: 239,124
  • Springfield: 208,697
  • Decatur: 105,801
  • Total: 1,114,281

Obviously, 1.1 million people is a far cry from the Chicago region’s 9.5 million, but if those five areas were a single MSA, it’d be the 51st-largest in the nation, right behind Buffalo-Niagara Falls. (Not a terribly “sexy” metro, but hey, they do have a professional sports team.) Instead, these areas are divvied up into several media markets and different area codes, which compounds the independent isolation of these communities. If they were able to consolidate at least partially – such as choosing a single airport to be “the” commercial airport for the region instead of spreading flights around between Peoria, Bloomington, and Springfield – it could have significant economic benefits (for instance, some large national retail chains won’t even consider entering a sub-500k market).

The paradox of central Illinois is that these five regions have their own anchors that make it difficult to choose a focus point. Springfield’s the capital. Peoria’s the largest. Champaign-Urbana has the state’s flagship university. Bloomington has ISU and State Farm. Decatur has… well, ADM moving up north was a kick in the teeth for Decatur, but they’re still hanging on. Each of these communities is simultaneously too big to fail and too small to succeed.

Unlike most Diverging Approach blog posts, I have no big call to action or any lofty goal here tonight. While there are definitely takeaways from a deeper dive look into this part of the state – namely the dangers and market cannibalization of Balkanized municipalities competing against each other instead of working cooperatively to benefit everyone – tonight I just want to recognize the downstate communities that had – and continue to have – an impact on the formative years of my life.