PEORIA — A new chapter may start for a city with an old tagline.

"If it plays in Peoria, it'll play anywhere" is a line that's gotten a lot of mileage over the years, referring to the city's ability to represent middle America.

But it's not vaudeville, politics or consumer products to be tested this time. It's innovation, starting with driverless vehicles, the ultimate in disruptive technology poised to change the face of urban America.

Regional leaders are also angling to host a state-sponsored innovation hub and pushing to establish a county land bank to speed redevelopment in high-vacancy neighborhoods. Meanwhile, national legislation signed last month will likely make it easier for Peoria to move forward on a first-in-the-nation green solution for the decades-old combined sewer overflow problem.

Each effort has the potential to create jobs and change the course of industry in central Illinois in coming years.

Evolving vehicles

Peoria has its sights set on a federal grant being offered by the U.S. Department of Transportation that is making $60 million available for demonstration projects. No more than $10 million will go toward any one recipient and no more than $15 million to any one state.

Nexmobi is the name of a not-for-profit coalition formed in Peoria that looks to use autonomous mobility to drive economic growth in the region.

Eng Seng Loh, the former director of strategic growth projects for Caterpillar Inc.'s earth-moving division and now CEO of Certus Strategies LLC, founded Nexmobi to promote autonomous research with the idea that embracing innovation will do more than redefine how we get around.

"Nexmobi is an important private-public partnership that is collectively pursuing a brighter future for Peoria. We realize a vision that Peoria will be a different place in 10 to 20 years, a more vibrant place with good jobs and rising income," he said.

Hannah Martin, a planner at Tri-County Regional Planning Commission and a member of the Nexmobi board, said a lot of work has gone into preparing Peoria's grant application. Grants are due by March 21, with a decision expected this summer, she said.

There are plenty of good reasons for believing the federal government might see Peoria as an ideal testing ground for robot cars, said Loh. "We're building on the strengths we have. First of all, there are a lot of stakeholders here. We have government agencies like the city of Peoria, Peoria County, the Peoria Economic Development Council and the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission. Morton has shown a lot of interest along with CityLink," he said.

While companies are still being courted, Loh said perhaps the most important private partner is AutonomouStuff, the Morton firm that's tripled in size since being established by Bobby Hambrick in 2010. "They are the ones who will bring the Nexmobi initiative to life because they design and create autonomous mobility systems," said Loh.

Hambrick is busy on another level. Separate from the grant application, AutonomouStuff plans a pilot program in Downtown Peoria this summer, Hambrick said.

"I have my own interest in deploying autonomous vehicles in a pilot program in Peoria. I'm a local guy. It breaks my heart to go downtown and see nothing going on," said the East Peoria Community High School graduate.

"We need something big to put Peoria back on the map. We have customers all over the world. We bring them into town, but then they leave. We need these businesses to come and stay. Infrastructure needs to be put in place," said Hambrick.

"The city of Peoria has been very supportive. Mayor Jim Ardis has been very accommodating. If he wasn't, I wouldn't do it," he said.

Ardis, who has been promoting Peoria as an innovation center long before his State of the City speech earlier this month, believes momentum has already changed. "We're seeing energy around us as innovators, entrepreneurs, researchers and businesses recognize what's happening in Peoria and the surrounding communities," he said.

"Bobby Hambrick could have taken his autonomous platform and grown it anywhere but he's loyal to this area. He wants to keep as much here as he can and continue to grow jobs here," said Ardis.

Seeing Peoria's potential

It's not just local folks who believe in Peoria for testing autonomy. Jerry Quandt, director of Chicago-based Illinois Autonomous Vehicles Association, believes that Peoria has more than a good chance when it comes to a federal grant. "I've yet to see a proposal (like Peoria's) that's about using a variety of technical inputs to enable the safer operation of autonomous vehicles," he said.

Quandt is fully aware of who's out front in the race to test and develop autonomous vehicles. "The states leading the pack are California, Arizona, Colorado, Michigan and Florida," he said.

"California has the support of Silicon Valley as well as adopting low carbon emissions standards while Arizona is sunny and hot 350 days a year. Colorado is working to install smart infrastructure on its highway system while the automotive industry is still the livelihood of Michigan. Florida has a lot of clean, open roads along with retirement communities with low-speed traffic," said Quandt.

But Quandt sees Illinois "leapfrogging" past other states with Peoria established as a test hub, able to move from urban, suburban and rural settings. He points to the importance of a "central corridor" in the state that includes State Farm and Rivian in Bloomington/Normal as well as Caterpillar and Komatsu in Peoria, companies that have sold autonomous mining machines for years.

Caterpillar's involvement with autonomous vehicles dates back to 1996, when the company unveiled the first fully-autonomous mining truck at Minexpo in Las Vegas.

Sam Kherat, an adjunct professor of robotics at Bradley University, who serves as an adviser to Neximobi, worked on the team that won the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge as a Caterpillar employee. That 60-mile road race is seen as a turning point in the development of autonomous vehicles. After the race, companies saw the potential of this technology, he said.

Kherat is another believer that Peoria makes the perfect hub for autonomous technology. "You've got Caterpillar, Komatsu, OSF HealthCare and the Jump Trading Center. The technology that goes into robotic surgery and a mining truck are very close. The technology is similar, but the applications are different," he said.

"To have an independent lab with all these companies participating blessed by the federal government not only offers an opportunity to deploy autonomous vehicles properly but it's also a way for this region to prosper," said Kherat.

But the partners must be willing to "play together," he said. "Manufacturers need not worry about disclosing the intellectual property associated with their algorithms as they would only be sharing and exchanging autonomous vehicle protocol messages," he said.

Loh noted that Caterpillar continues to show interest in the Nexmobi project. "Hopefully, they will see the benefit of joining the exercise," he said.

Kevin Evans, another member of the Nexmobi board who serves as director of Bradley University's Small Business Development Center at the Peoria NEXT Innovation Center, 801 W. Main St., thinks the autonomous driving project could benefit economic development in a number of ways.

"A successful platform will provide employment opportunities across a variety of technology industries such as digital mapping, coding and annotation of data. Business attraction from companies with autonomous projects that require testing and validation. This could include companies like Walgreens, Uber, Target, CVS, Caterpillar and others," he said.

"A workforce development shift would attract highly trained individuals with technical skills seeking to work in a growing industry," added Evans.

The road ahead for autonomous vehicles in Peoria involves Nexmobi, a 501(c)(3) organization, attracting partners to provide financial support while working out how to share data and create a "digital twin" of the road infrastructure in greater Peoria allowing for greater road safety, said Loh.

The future won't feature a dramatic change when every car on the road is driverless, he said. "The conversion will take decades."

"Over the next 20 to 25 years, you'll have the old and new technologies on the road together. We'll need autonomy to create space on city streets, while in the country people will retain their own personal vehicles. There's always going to be a duality," he said.

Creating a hub

But autonomous vehicle research isn't the city's only aspect of innovation.

An initiative through the University of Illinois system to engage in more economic development throughout the state could have a brick-and-mortar location in Downtown Peoria if a grant request moves forward.

A slice of the $500 million in available statewide funds would allow for the creation of the Peoria Innovation Hub as part of the Illinois Innovation Network, locating it in 53,000 square feet of the former Illinois Central College building at 201 SW Adams St. It would have an emphasis on developing programs to improve the wellness of poor, rural and elderly populations with advances in systems related to food, farming and transportation. There would also be a focus on autonomous mobility.

"This is not a quick fix, this is a long-term, multi-year commitment to having this talent," said state Rep. Ryan Spain, R-Peoria, who has been among those working on moving the grant request along.

Peoria institutions involved in establishing it include OSF HealthCare, the University of Illinois through the College of Medicine in Peoria, Illinois Central College and the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council.

"If you just look at the data for Peoria, we have a small lag for small business density. I think that probably comes from having been a big company town for 100 years or so," Spain said. "So we have a need to reinvent ourselves, and we have a need to have an expansion of small businesses and entrepreneurs in our community."

Particularly important there, especially with the facility's location within one of the new federal opportunity zones offering tax credits for business development and infrastructure improvement, is to "have a concentrated impact" in "developing small businesses and opportunities for entrepreneurship for people of color," Spain said.

The grant application has been filed, but it's not yet clear when decisions on awarding the grants will be made. If the grant is approved, the hub could open by mid- or late 2020.

Improving distressed neighborhoods

Some of those same neighborhoods the innovation hub could help might also get aid if legislation in Springfield sponsored by state Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth is passed.

The Peoria Democrat and deputy majority leader is sponsoring legislation to create a pilot program for a land bank in Peoria County. It would, under county oversight, work to get vacant, abandoned and tax-delinquent properties back onto the tax rolls under productive use.

Such properties are a particular problem in parts of the city's south side and East Bluff.

It's an idea Gordon-Booth has been refining for several years, and she's observed how similar programs in Cook County and the south suburbs have been effective.

The fact that most of Peoria's distressed neighborhoods are included within federal opportunity zones could help make a land bank here more appealing, Gordon-Booth said.

"Part of what has to happen with any community that you're trying to invest in and redevelop is answering the question of whether the investment makes sense," she said. "Can you get private money to come into the investment?"

She said that coupling the existing opportunity zone credits together with a streamlined system through the land bank for helping redevelop existing properties for sale could make the notion more appealing for developers to direct attention to communities they might not otherwise look at.

"If we want to see the comeback of Peoria, we've got to have extra tools in the toolbox," Gordon-Booth said.

Her measure, which could have a committee hearing as soon as Thursday, is House Bill 842.

Steve Tarter covers city and county government for the Journal Star. He can be reached at 686-3260 or starter@pjstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @SteveTarter and facebook.com/tartersource. Chris Kaergard is Journal Star associate editor. He can be reached at 686-3255 or ckaergard@pjstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisKaergard.