While regionalism is becoming a bigger factor in running small-town governments, it could be the key component in determining whether the Sauk Valley’s largest cities grow and thrive or become bedroom communities.
To better assess and plan for future regional development, Whiteside and Lee were among five northwest Illinois counties to seek the help of the Center for Governmental Studies at Northern Illinois University. The other counties were Ogle, Carroll and Stephenson. The result was the April 2013 “Promoting Prosperity in Northwest Illinois,” a comprehensive study of what the regional economy looks like now, and the strengths, weaknesses, and challenges economic development leaders will need to consider in working toward growth.
An advisory committee of local economic development and business leaders was created to work with the CGS on the federally funded project.
The expansive report cited the region’s past successes in manufacturing and agriculture, and despite significant job losses, those sectors still are considered cornerstones for the future.
Norman Walzer, senior research scholar at CGS, and one of four authors of the study, said the region has four major areas of emphasis: high-quality manufacturing, a competitive workforce, entrepreneurship, and infrastructure.
“There are many challenges to future economic growth in this region,” Walzer said, “but there are also a number of opportunities.”
The biggest assets cited in the study were: a relatively low cost of living; a geographically central location; easy interstate access; strong agribusiness potential; and a strong manufacturing background.
A huge challenge comes from the heavy loss of manufacturing jobs, which has created not just chronic unemployment, but underemployment. That situation brings the skills gap into the conversation.
“The skills gap in the workforce is a national issue, not just a regional problem,” said Heather Sotelo, executive director at Greater Sterling Development Corp. “We have been looking at additional ways to address it.”
Local and regional manufacturing groups are gaining strength as businesses are finding they must take a more active role in shaping the available workforce. Community colleges, universities, and vocational centers are taking leadership roles in training and retraining.
“We found that many people not working think they have manufacturing skills, but they may have been displaced for a while and their skill set just doesn’t match up anymore,” Walzer said.
Not only do manufacturers need workers to come in the door with different skills, they need them to continually receive additional training to keep up with technology changes.
The recession has forced community colleges to bolster their efforts to become a business resource center. Two-year schools can build on the role changes they have experienced during the economic downturn, primarily the retraining of displaced workers and improving and adding certification programs.
The CEO program at Whiteside Area Career Center is an example of innovation in jump-starting entrepreneurship and leadership skills while young people are still in high school.
“Manufacturers are interested in certifications, not degrees,” Walzer said. “They also look for soft skills such as showing up on time.”
Officials entrusted with bringing more business and people to their towns are finding that fiscal uncertainties at all levels of government and technology dictate a different type of game plan. Long-term planning has a shorter shelf life.
“The horizons are closer than they’ve ever been,” said John Thompson, president and CEO of Lee County Industrial Development Association. “It’s a function of the pace of change in terms of technology, expectations, communications, and product life cycles.”
For instance, businesses plan many of their moves to coincide with those shorter product life cycles, Thompson says.
“With physical locations, instead of buying a building, more businesses want a 5-year lease to match the life cycle of a certain product,” Thompson said. “It’s harder for us to predict who’s going to be around in 5 to 10 years.”
The mission and function of economic development officials is to be flexible, agile, and able to maximize an area’s assets for the next set of changes, Thompson said.
While manufacturing will continue to be a natural fit for the area, developers can’t develop tunnel vision.
“Sterling’s biggest employers are CGH, Wahl Clipper and Wal-Mart,” Sotelo said. That’s over 3,000 jobs, and they are in health care, manufacturing and retail. Diversity is the key when you are building an economic base.”
Small Midwest towns have suffered greatly from having too many eggs in too few baskets. You need look no farther than Sterling Steel and Wire, which in its heyday employed nearly 4,700 people. The effects of the company’s closing on May 18, 2001, are still felt today.
“We would rather have 10 new businesses that each employ 100, than one larger company with 1,000 jobs,” Sotelo said.
Quality-of-life issues are the anchor because they are the constants amid all the change.
“Those are your human resources – education, health care, parks, housing, shopping – those things are always going to be important.”
Sotelo believes those amenities and services are strong points for the Sauk Valley.
“Parks, easy access to the interstates, health care – we have a lot of quality-of-life things to offer here,” Sotelo said. “Those are important assets to build on for the future.”
Having those assets is not enough; small towns have to sell them. Combating negativity from within and outside communities is an ongoing battle. Sotelo has been involved in many such discussions about the collective mindset while working with the Illinois Development Council and the Illinois Chamber of Commerce.
“If people constantly focus on the negative and what they think we don’t have and can’t do, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Sotelo said. “Marketing the strengths of a community is a very important part of in new businesses and people.”
Another challenge will be the continued reshaping of downtowns, with a constant eye on the development of the riverfront.
“There may not be retail in the future downtowns,” Walzer said. “The riverfronts are a major asset for these three cities and will go a long way in deciding what the downtowns will become. Zoning these areas for mixed use gives them a good head start.”
While local officials agree that regionalism is the wave of the future, they also understand economic development is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Officials must fine-tune even studies such as the one by CGS when applying the results that were painted with such a broad brush.
“The regional reports are helpful and necessary, but the internal studies are what you should focus on,” Sotelo said. “We’re included in Rockford, the Quad Cities, and Dubuque data, but obviously we’re not a larger metropolitan area.”
One of the dangers of regionalism is it can sometimes become a futile attempt by government to be all things to all people, Thompson says. While some endeavors make sense, others just are not a good fit.
“Regionalism and cooperation are fine,” Thompson said, “but for certain things, smaller is still better.”
Broadening geographic reach can also close some development doors, officials say.
Thompson remembers doing a great deal of work to pursue a new manufacturing center. A grant was sought for a feasibility study and exploration of the project.
“We didn’t get the grant because Rockford and the Quad Cities already had one of those, and we were in the region,” Thompson said. “That’s fine, but how convenient is it for people to go 2 hours away to get those resources?”
Economic development project leaders
The following local economic development groups coordinated the "Promoting Prosperity in Northwest Illinois" study with the Northern Illinois University Center for Governmental Studies:
– Whiteside County Economic Development and Enterprise Zone (serving Whiteside and Carroll counties)
– Northwest Illinois Development Alliance
– Rock Falls Community Development Corp.
– Greater Sterling Development Corp.
– Lee County Industrial Development Association
– Black Hawk Hills Regional Council