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So many options, obstacles to Whiteside plan

County works on blueprint for future development

Published: Saturday, Jan. 25, 2014 1:15 a.m. CDT • Updated: Monday, Feb. 3, 2014 1:10 p.m. CDT

MORRISON – What’s more valuable, a field of prime farmland, or the 20 or so jobs the company that wants to locate there can bring?

How do you bring more business to an underutilized airport? Persuade a railroad to build a third line?

Should there be more, or fewer, regulations regarding development near streams and rivers?

Should the county commit more tax dollars to attract and retain businesses? What kind of businesses?

How can schools and local employers better collaborate to train, hire and retain the area’s young people? 

How do you get those young people to show up for work on time, or for that matter, to stop showing up at job interviews in their jammies?

For the first time in its history, Whiteside County is creating a comprehensive plan to address these and a boatload of other issues, in an effort to establish a roadmap to steer growth and development for the next 2 decades.

The work began about 7 months ago, thanks to a $252,000 state grant funded by federal money provided in the wake of the 2008 floods caused by Hurricane Ike. The consultant, MSA Professional Services Inc. of Madison, Wis., is guiding the process.

The goal of the plan is an “enforceable, predictable, understandable plan … to make the decision-making process as smooth and predictable as possible” for developers and county officials alike, said Jason Valerius, MSA project planner. It will give developers a clear understanding of what’s required of them, and give the county a defensible position when making decisions, he said. 

In October, 6,000 county residents were sent a survey asking questions about quality of life, transportation, agriculture, housing, economic development, and other issues. A little more than 800 people responded, most 65 or older. 

It was mainly looking for the answer to one question: “What are the things you like, and what are the things you want to be different?” 

Thursday and Friday, MSA held workshops to present the survey’s findings, and to ask what else should be considered as the consultants move from a draft to a final plan.

Thursday’s meeting focused primarily on land development in the unincorporated parts of the county, Friday’s on countywide economic development and job creation. Most of the two dozen or so people at each meeting were county officials, Chamber of Commerce leaders, economic development leaders, city council and county board members, engineers and the like. Many also are members of the county’s comprehensive planning committee, with which MSA is working hand-in-hand. 

Opportunities for – and obstacles to – growth abound, participants said. 

A few highlights from the wide-ranging discussions:

* The updated floodplain maps the Federal Emergency Management Agency issued in February 2011 – maps that dictate where new development can be built – often are inaccurate, and the only way to contest them is to hire a surveyor to prove them wrong, something the city of Morrison has had to do, Mayor Everett Pannier said.

So, what’s the county’s role in working with FEMA to protect area landowners?  

• Whiteside County Airport, with a runway longer than most its size and more than capable of handling large jets, is a “jewel in the rough” that is underdeveloped and underutilized, Rock Falls Mayor Bill Wescott noted. “This is probably one of the biggest missed opportunities that we have,” City Manger Robin Blackert added.

The Illinois Department of Transportation has made it “plenty clear,” however, that it has no interest in further developing or expanding the site, and instead will continue to concentrate its efforts on Chicago Rockford International Airport as a cargo hub, and the Quad City International Airport in Moline, Greater Sterling Development Corp. Executive Director Heather Sotelo said.

How, then, to secure funding for development in and around the Rock Falls field? 

* The Union Pacific Railroad anticipates an 84 percent increase in business nationwide over the next decade, and is “looking to expand their participation in our part of the state,”  Wescott said. 

What can be done to encourage that expansion in the county?

* Manufacturers considering locating in the county want a skilled, trainable work force, and as more and more baby boomers retire, jobs will open up locally. Unfortunately, many high schoolers – and their parents – think the only way to get a good-paying job is to attend a 4-year college, and those who do incur $100,000 in debt, which they won’t be moving back here to pay off. Those young people who don’t attend college lack the skills for the type of jobs the county is trying to attract. 

According to potential employers, many come to job interviews in their pajamas, answer their cellphones in the middle of the interview, or fail their drug tests. If they do get hired, they come to work late or don’t show up at all.

The challenge, participants said, is to get schools to work closer with businesses, to teach students good work ethics, to educate them and their parents – who seem to want their kids to become doctors and lawyers, rather than plumbers or health care workers – on the technological advances that have improved factory work, or the potential for good steady employment as a laborer.

So, how can the county help facilitate such an endeavor?

There will be two more public information meetings in April on the draft plan, then the plan will be presented to the Whiteside County Board and the Planning and Zoning Committee that month.

A final version is expected to be approved in May, and, it is hoped, adopted by the board in June.

Some FAQs on the plan

Q: Why is the county preparing a comprehensive plan?

A: The comprehensive plan will be utilized by the county to define policies and priorities for coordinated growth with fewer land-use conflicts, flood prevention, economic development, and the provision of public services and infrastructure. The planning document will include policy statements, goals, objectives, guidelines, maps and graphics to serve as a guide for future land use and fiscal decision-making.

Q: Why does this matter to me?

A: This is one of the best opportunities available to residents to really influence the future of the county. Residents and property owners are typically most interested in the future land use map and policies, which will establish the land uses that will or will not be approved.

Q: How can I get involved?  

A: There are two primary ways to participate in the planning process: Attend any or all of the public meetings, and review the materials posted on the website and provide comments on any issues of concern. Email updates are available, and draft documents will be posted as they become available.

Source: whitesideplan.com and MSA Professional Services 

To learn more

The Whiteside County Comprehensive Plan has a website – whitesideplan.com – on which are posted a summary of the citizens survey, the community indicators report, maps and graphs, frequently asked questions about the process, and updates on meetings, among other things.

Betty Steinert, Whiteside County Economic Development, bsteinert@whiteside.org or 815-772-5182, is the point person.

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