By Steve Tarter
Economic development took over the central Illinois spotlight last year.
Changes at the Heartland Partnership, the umbrella group that had been overseeing regional development in the past, and the emergence of a new effort spearheaded by community leaders were part of a reorganization effort for a new economic development vision that has involved more than 1,000 people since research efforts started.
Leading that effort is Jim Baumgartner, director of corporate public affairs at Caterpillar Inc. Baumgartner heads the steering committee that launched Focus Forward CI, the group driving change in the five-county region (Logan, Mason, Peoria, Tazewell and Woodford counties).
Baumgartner joined Caterpillar as a marketing trainee in 1977. He served as a machine sales representative and district manager for the company, working and living in Peru and Venezuela.
After a stint with General Electric Healthcare where he held senior sales management positions, he started his own consulting business in 1998, assisting companies with global marketing and distribution projects.
In 2003, Baumgartner returned to Caterpillar as director of strategic consulting before assuming his current position in 2010. He serves as the director of the Caterpillar Foundation as well as being on the board of the Peoria Riverfront Museum and the advisory board of the Salvation Army.
Baumgartner discussed current efforts in forging a new direction for the region and the progress already made in reshaping the area’s economic strategies.
How was all this change brought about?
It started — from the public standpoint — with a milestone meeting last June when hundreds of people came together at the Peoria Civic Center. But the research had started before that. We then formed action teams. The pace was very fast.
The first step is having a strategy and then developing the structure. You need to know where you’re going and what your goals are. In the past, there were no goals like that in the region.
What was one of the first goals?
At our first policy steering committee meeting last August, I asked around the table how many employers had open positions. Just among our committee members, there were at least 400 unfilled jobs in this region, unfilled because the job skills of applicants didn’t match the employer’s requirements. Caterpillar, for example, has trouble filling jobs for qualified machinists and welders.
The regional work force will be a key component of the strategy being developed. Peoria City Councilman Chuck Weaver, a member of our steering committee, has said we need to develop a work force that allows employers to hire locally.
Collaboration has been cited as a key in this effort. How do you achieve that in a region known for its turf battles?
We’ve got people from five counties — on committees and action teams — who are talking to each other. They discuss initiatives that they may not have been aware of before.
In coming together in this effort, we’re sharing experiences, discussing ideas that weren’t there before. Take Morton, for example. It’s a community with its own economic development group with Jennifer Daly as CEO. But we’re all working together for the good of the region.
I met with a group of bankers recently who were worried about the parochialism issues, but our goal is to have a new Economic Development Council operate like the Morton group — with specific goals. If every community did this, it would make the whole region more effective.
What lies ahead for Focus Forward CI?
There will be a major event in July when we roll out our strategy. The structure of the new organization will be presented. We’ll answer the questions: Who will own it and where it will reside?
The economic development team will be selected over the summer. Leading that team will be an economic development professional who may or may not come from this area.
What are the goals that Focus Forward has established?
We have five-year goals to increase the region’s population to 386,000 from 375,000; increase the number of young people (25 to 44) from 25 percent to 30 percent; create 13,000 high-wage jobs across the region; increase the pay rate of 19,000 existing jobs by $5,000 a year; and increase the number of bachelor and graduate degrees attained by 2,300 (from an estimated 68,700 to 71,000).
With the goals that we’ve set — this time we mean it. Those goals weren’t there before. There were lots of activities but no vision and no mission.
One of the things FFCI has done is a comprehensive mapping of area assets. Why?
We must have an asset-based culture where we focus on the assets of the community and capitalize on them. In November, we attracted more than 300 people from four counties (Logan County joined later) to uncover regional assets and learn how they can create economic value that stays in the region.
We’re not just talking about historical buildings and structures like the Riverfront Museum or Caterpillar Visitors Center but intangibles such as knowledge and innovation.
How long will it take for all this work to bear economic fruit?
It’s going to take years. We’re all in it for the long term. As we gain momentum, we’ll get more people involved.
That’s one of the things I focus on — to keep the momentum going. It’s pretty easy right now but we need to keep moving.