PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — Central Illinois leaders cleared the table for community discussion — the big table.

The Big Table: Greater Peoria returned to the Peoria Civic Center on Thursday. The event was free for the public to attend.

More than 500 people signed up to participate in the 8-hour community building event to share their visions and take part in conversations to help make the region thrive.

In addition to having thought-provoking conversations with residents and community decision-makers, there was also the goal of sparking new relationships and understanding the needs of the people and region.

“The Big Table is really about two things,” Joshua Gunn, President and CEO of the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce, said. “Celebrating all that makes our region great and also creating intentional collaborations to solve some key challenges.”

Those in attendance could select different 1.5-hour-long sessions to attend. The points of discussion included Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion along with Innovation & Entrepreneurship, Quality of Life & Place, and finally Workforce Development.

Gunn said Peoria’s Diversity and Opportunities are two of the area’s biggest highlights.

“Peoria has such rich cultural diversity,” Gunn said. “You can get food, culture, music, dance and Midwestern values — the core family and friendliness.”

“The opportunities that exist here in Peoria is one of the things that makes this region great,” Gunn said. “You can be anything you want to be here if we can solve for some of the challenges around access and opportunity, I mean, the sky is really the limit for Peoria.”

He also said making attractive investments (such as improvements to the downtown area) could help with community transformation in regard to “quality of life and place” as well as the declining population.

“Some of our best and brightest are deciding they don’t want to live in Peoria anymore,” Gunn said. “We want to remind them of all the great things there are in Peoria, strengthen our value proposition so that people stay here, make strategic investments here, work here, live here, play here, raise their families here.”

Deric Kimler, Executive Director of Central Illinois Friends, led a panel for Diversity and Inclusion. He said it’s crucial to have events like the Big Table where the community meets with those who are making decisions in the area.

“We can make assumptions all we want, especially the people that are in positions of power, they can make decisions all day every day about what they think Peoria and the Greater Peoria needs and wants,” Kimler said. “But unless they hear from the community, it isn’t going to be successful.”

Kimler said from what he’s gathered from the panel, residents feel there’s a misunderstanding of equity.

“Peoria has a lot of mindset of no matter what box you check, we’re going to treat you the same,” Kimler said. “But until we acknowledge that not everybody’s experience is the same for those who came to this table, we will never truly understand what equitable life is like.”

He said also suggests community investment to tackle economic development issues.

“We have to start hiring local individuals who look and speak the language of people who reside here,” Kimler said. ” We have to start providing local opportunities of growth within organizations and we have to start asking individuals what they need.”

Leaders said if people missed Thursday’s event, they’re hoping more people will sign up next year to experience the Big Table.