By Mike Everett
Here in Central Illinois there are about a thousand people engaged working on a new approach and strategy for economic development. This initiative covers Peoria, Tazewell, Mason, Logan, and Woodford Counties and could expand to include others. Typical approaches to economic development are built on what a region needs like; hey we need jobs! Somebody get out there and find us some jobs now! Other economic development councils chase opportunities as they hit their radar screen. These approaches have had some success stories and are clearly better than just waiting around to see what falls out of the sky and lands in your area. I was skeptical at first, but I believe we may have found a better approach to continuous economic development.
The new approach is based on our assets. What are our regional assets? I have been to several meetings where identifying every possible asset in the region has been the entire focus. I have to say I have heard a lot of things that I would have never considered before. Some of the easy or obvious assets are Caterpillar for example. CAT of course is our only fortune 50 Corporation in the area. Another would be our major hospitals and tremendous medical community in this region. The USDA Northern Regional Lab always gets mentioned along with Bradley University, the Peoria School of Medicine, and the Junior Colleges in the area. Workforce and work ethic also gets mentioned as both an asset and a growing challenge. And let’s not forget that we are surrounded by some of the best and most productive farmland in the world.
You have probably heard this before, but Illinois has been called the Saudi Arabia of coal. Have you ever head Central Illinois called the Saudi Arabia of fresh water? I’m not talking about the IL River here; this is about sitting on top of some of the largest aquifers on the planet. Underground fresh water is a valuable asset we have and it is just as important to our area as water transportation or the scenic and entertainment value of our lakes and river. Here’s another less obvious asset at least to the community at large; privately funded apprenticeship and training programs. The Unionized Construction Industry spends millions, yes millions of dollars annually in this region on training. The industry also handles its own recruitment and job placement. We try to get grants now and then, but for the most part we pay our own way and build our costs into our package. If you combined all the individual contractors and building trades in or area it would be clear that the Unionized Construction industry would be in the top 3 employers in the region. We are a little known, yet valuable regional asset too.
The true value of our training programs are completely over looked and taken for granted in this area. Our customers don’t think about the supply of skilled Electricians or Steamfitters or Iron Workers, because 99% of the time they are readily available. Our customers don’t worry about training up the next Journeyman Electrician or Plumber they just worry about needing one right now. The Unionized Building Trades in this region and across the Nation takes it upon themselves to perpetuate their own species. This is of course in our best interest, but having skilled tradesmen available in an area for let’s say…the last 100 years is an asset that needs to be recognized and appreciated. I’ve had the opportunity to explain our system of continuous training and believe me it is news to some people. I emphasis the “privately funded” part and that raises an eyebrow or two. There are a lot of people in business who think it’s always someone else’s job to provide them with workers skilled to meet their specific business needs.
Shifting back to regional assets a lot of you out there worked on some new local assets when you built the Bass Pro Shop, the Riverfront Museum, and the Cat Visitor Center. You have significantly increased the out-of-the-area draw into this region by literally millions of visitors annually. You have also added some very good attractions that will help bring people here to live and work. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the brand new Big Al’s night club in downtown Peoria. To each his own, but admit it, AL’s is a nationally known draw too. An important part of identifying regional assets is recognizing the importance of attracting and retaining the best and the brightest business professionals and the workforce necessary to make any business successful. There is a particular focus on the 25 to 44 years old age demographic. This group has been called the “oxygen” of economic development recognizing that these are typically the most innovative and productive years of a person’s life.
This asset-based approach to economic development focuses on what we have to offer right now and what we need to be offering going forward. The name of the new initiative is Focus Forward CI and the initiative is being guided by a company called Vital Economy. As I mentioned about a thousand people have been part of this so far and the invitation to participate is wide open. No one can say they did not have an opportunity to speak their mind or get in on a work group. This is one of the broadest-based and transparent initiatives I have ever participated in. The people, businesses, and organizations involved here far exceeds the army we joined to help Build the Block in downtown Peoria.
The group has set some regional smart-goals for the next five years. First they want to see the population grow by 3% adding about 11,300 new people. Second, they want to increase the 25 to 44 year olds from 25% to 30% of our total population. Third we want to create 13,190 direct high-wage jobs in the region. Fourth, we want to improve the pay of 19,050 existing jobs by $5,000.00 annually. Fifth, we want to increase area Bachelor and Graduate degrees by 2,300. Sixth, we want to grow business with 500 new start-ups and 600 additional mid-size firms. Finally we want to reduce poverty raising 488 families with children out of poverty. These are noble goals for sure, and a stretch to achieve. The expected results however offer us great incentive. Hit these goals and $1.75Billion gets added to the annual payrolls in the region. The anticipated local and State tax revenue generated would be around $33Million. I think these goals are realistic and achievable. More importantly these goals aren’t selfish or serving a narrow special interest. These goals above will benefit the citizens our entire region.