By STEVE TARTER
Posted Aug 05, 2012 @ 01:00 AM
PEORIA —Economic development, often a hot topic, came to a boil in Peoria last week.
In rapid order, here was the sequence of events: After months of preparation, the Regional Economic Development Steering Committee announced its 30-member panel with Jim Baumgartner, director of public affairs for Caterpillar Inc., as chairman.
Next, Jim McConoughey abruptly resigned as president/CEO of the Heartland Partnership, the umbrella group that includes the Economic Development Council for Central Illinois.
Then, more than 200 community leaders attended a session at the Peoria Civic Center to create “a more successful regional economic strategy.”
In a lightning strike, a determined faction of the community had staged a coup, upsetting the established economic development apple cart. You don’t see that very often in Peoria.
McConoughey’s 10-year tenure as Heartland head was not without accomplishment, but the cry for regional collaboration and administrative transparency called for change.
Consultant Frank Knott, brought in last year to research the issue by the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission, shared his findings at the July 26 program at the Civic Center.
He started with the fact that central Illinois has plenty of assets but wasn’t making the best use of those advantages.
Those that stormed the EDC palace promoted democracy. “Of the 300 community leaders we interviewed, many said they were being asked for their input for the first time,” said Knott.
Many made note of the size of the crowd that attended that Civic Center meeting. Heartland board chairman Mark Spenny said it was a sign of general concern over the economy. Morton mayor Norm Durflinger, a member of the new steering committee, called both the turnout and interest level “impressive.”
Rep. Dave Leitch, R-Peoria, on the other hand, took a wait-and-see approach. A veteran of economic development projects ranging from the construction of the Peoria Civic Center to the rehabilitation of the Hotel Pere Marquette, Leitch pointed out it takes more than enthusiasm to complete a project. “You need bipartisan support to make progress,” he said.
Peoria County Board member Mike Phelan, another member of the steering committee, said the Heartland Partnership had told County Board members for years that economic development was complicated. “But here was Frank Knott saying that it’s not that complicated,” he said.
By the way, Knott – who’s consulted on 40 projects across North America – isn’t new to Illinois. Six years ago, Knott was brought on board to help a 20-county region in southern Illinois that sought to boost broadband service for the rural communities there.
Glenn Poshard, president of Southern Illinois University, the institution that took the lead in that effort, said Knott delivered on his promise that counties that worked together would benefit.
Rex Duncan, SIU’s outreach head, said Knott’s preaching paid off. “Southern Illinois is a much more collaborative region because we see that it helps us. We don’t see city limits and county lines as barriers to economic development,” he said.
As for the broadband issue, “we’re a much more connected region,” he said.
Asked what the biggest obstacles to collaboration were, Duncan didn’t hesitate. “Number one is politics. You have people who believe that things have to happen in their area or they’re losers. Number two is overcoming high school rivalries. You have to get past ‘Friday Night Lights,'” he said.
The new steering committee holds its first official meeting this week with interest – and expectations – running high.
Steve Tarter is Journal Star business editor. Tarter’s phone number is 686-3260, and his email address is email@example.com. Follow his blog, Minding Business, on pjstar.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveTarter