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All-America City win 'impressive and incredible'

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It was a tense evening in Denver on Sunday as members of Peoria's All-America City delegation waited to learn if their months of hard work would pay off.

One by one the National Civic League jury that determined the 10 cities that would earn the All-America City designation named the winners and not in any certain order. One by one, as Peoria was not named, the anxiety for the local delegation grew.

After the ninth city was named, said Dr. Tim Cundiff, "I told our group that I guessed they were just saving the best for last. Then when they called out Peoria as the 10th city, it was just 'wow. We did it.'"

"We instantly hit cloud nine and we're still there. Now we can't wait to get home and share it," said Cundiff from Colorado while waiting for the flight home Monday night. “The support we have received from back home every step of the way in this process has been amazing and we are thoroughly grateful to everyone. This is just impressive and incredible.”

Being named one of the All-America City winners, Cundiff added, was like winning a trifecta for the city. Earlier it was named winner of the top online video competition and then Ethan Mosher, a member of the ELITE Drumline that accompanied the local group, was named winner of the All-America Youth Award from among 10 nominees.

Mosher, 17, is a senior at Peoria High School and a member of its orchestra and jazz band.

"We are so very proud of him and the entire ELITE group. It was just amazing, the whole experience," said Cundiff, who led the Young Professionals of Greater Peoria group that took the reins of the All-America City competition and rode it through to completion.

The designation marks the fourth time Peoria has been named an All-America City, but it was the first time since 1989. The Young Professionals group, which is a committee of the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce, wanted to do something for the city and saw that as an opportunity to bring many factions together to promote the area.

Cundiff told the jury the Young Professionals "recognized we must be the bridge" that connects Peoria's past with its future so that the young people will look for opportunities to stay in Peoria.

Added Ryan Spain, the youthful member of the Peoria City Council who also is a member of the Young Professionals of Greater Peoria, "We believe this shows that the opportunities for growth for our young people are great in Peoria."

Spain and his wife Ashley, also a member of the group, brought their 6-week old baby Vivian along. Cundiff said that fit well with the group's theme that "Peoria is Forever Young."

During the presentation, the video of which can be seen on YouTube, the local delegation was marched into the room by the ELITE Drumline and the founder of the ELITE youth program, Carl Cannon, who wore his hat from his days as a senior drill instructor with the U.S. Army.

The jury was impressed.

From there the group told the story of Peoria "block by block," starting with Museum Square and then including what it offers in health care, for veterans and in education, noting that with Bradley University a student can go from pre-school to a Ph.D without ever leaving Peoria.

The jury showed much interest in the ELITE program, which Cannon explained has grown beyond grade schools but is now in local high schools and even into the halfway house program. At all levels, he said, participants are encouraged to learn to respect themselves as well as others and then to strive for personal improvement.

Asked by a juror to explain how it teaches school-age children to improve themselves academically, Cannon said the program "attacks the middle. In schools you have the top 10 and the bottom 10; we attack the middle, where the majority of students are."

He said ELITE works to get the students in the middle to want to improve and crowd the top while getting those on the bottom to aspire to move up.

Members of the ELITE Drumline then were asked by National Civic League jurors to talk about what the ELITE program has meant to them. Several stepped to the microphone and told about how the program has taught them respect, kept them out of trouble and changed their lives.

On Monday, Cannon said he was like a proud papa as he watched his students before the jury on Sunday, and "then to see their jubilation when Peoria won was something else. I was pretty proud of those kids."

After the presentation on Sunday, he added, he and others with ELITE were approached by delegates from other cities to learn more about the program. "That right there shows there is value in what we are doing. Then the kids got to showcase what they can do. But the neatest thing of all was, during the process, watching our students become the teachers, teaching the members of the Young Professionals organization our mantra and what we're about," he said.

What the All-America City designation means for the city goes beyond bragging rights, said two civic leaders who were involved in getting the presentation ready but did not go to Denver.

"This is another feather in our cap for when we try and win over conventions or event planners to come to Peoria," said Don Welch, president and CEO of the Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. "I haven't done any studies personally to see how it has helped other All-America cities but it has to help because a city doesn't win that designation unless it has a lot going for it. And we do."

Renee Charles, director of marketing and media relations for the Greater Peoria Business Alliance, called the designation "another important tool" when the Peoria region tries to recruit companies or workers to Peoria.

It also, she added, was a good display of the type of energy and work ethic the young professionals here possess. "It showed we do work well together in Peoria and what we can accomplish," she said.

About the Author
Paul Gordon is the editor of The Peorian after spending 29 years of indentured servitude at the Peoria Journal Star. He’s an award-winning writer, raconteur and song-and-dance man. He also went to a high school whose team name is the Alices (that’s Vincennes Lincoln High School in Indiana; you can look it up).