Illinois Gives Businesses More to Work With
22 Nov, 2013
By David Hodes
With talk of balancing the state budget by reforming the public pension systems, Gov. Pat Quinn conceded that tough economic issues like this are no small issues. “Doing what’s hard isn’t always what’s popular at the moment,” he said in his state-of-the-state speech in February, 2013.
In 2012, the state overhauled their Medicare program, ended a legislative scholarship program and closed 54 state facilities saving $100 million a year.
Quinn mentioned economic advances such as the Illinois Jobs Now program, the largest public works investment in the state’s history that, along with the Illinois Tollway Initiative, combined to provide $43 billion in infrastructure support and development and created half a million jobs.
A small business investment program in 2012, Advantage Illinois, allocated $23 million in federal funding to scores of small businesses, he said in his speech. Advantage Illinois will accelerate investments this year and ease the credit crunch for small businesses, thanks to more than $78 million coming from the federal State Small Business Credit Initiative (SSBCI) of the Small Business Jobs Act of 2010.
In other economic development moves, in 2012, the Illinois General Assembly passed a new law that extends the Illinois Enterprise Zone program — an economic development tool designed to create greater long-term stability for businesses, attract more investment in Illinois and protect the interests of taxpayers.
In addition to extending the 97 enterprise zones around Illinois for the next 25 years, the new law created a board to oversee the process of determining which companies are eligible to participate and ramps up reporting requirements of companies receiving tax benefits from the program.
Industries and Innovation
In the heavily agricultural region of Decatur and Macon County, in the center of the state, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), with global headquarters in Decatur for more than 40 years, will be opening their $500 million inland port, the Midwest Inland Port, a new venture rail yard that they will own and manage, says Craig Coil, former president of the Economic Development Corporation of Decatur and Macon County.
It will allow three Class 1 railroads — Norfolk Southern, Canadian National and CSX — to serve the community, come in and switch cars and move product in and out.
“The motivation behind that project is that ADM exports a significant number of containers of agricultural product,” Coil says. “Now they want to help freight end up in central Illinois, in Decatur, instead of Chicago or St. Louis, and consolidate the container locally and send those empty containers back to ADM more efficiently. So it’s a pretty cool project.”
Vandalia, 69 miles northeast of St. Louis, has seen modest economic success in recent months, including the expansion of OctoChem, a company that manufactures sampling products for drugs and different chemicals. “They have just finished a second expansion in the city,” says Vandalia Mayor Rick Gottman, referring to the $2.8 million expansion the company announced in January. “And not only expanded the business but added employees.”
A new MFA Green Spot fertilizer plant is going up in Vandalia as well, Gottman says. “My goal is to recruit new distribution centers and manufacturing here in the community.”
Talent and Education
Illinois is home to 189 degree-granting institutions, including nine public universities on 12 campuses that offer a full range of educational programs. In the private sector, 96 institutions are not-for-profit colleges and universities, while an additional 33 are proprietary.
Many Illinois institutions have world-class reputations, recognized by publications such as U.S. News and World Report.
Education linked to advanced manufacturing is a key driver of economic development in Illinois. To that end, Gov. Quinn said in his state-of-the-state speech, the state is partnering with the University of Illinois and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications to create an advanced manufacturing hub where companies come to learn and use the world’s most sophisticated tools and software.
St. Louis-based utility company Ameren Corp. serves 1.2 million electricity customers and 900,000 gas customers in Illinois, from the southern border of Chicago down the Ohio River — or basically two-thirds of the state. “It’s a mix of both urban and rural,” says Michael Kearney, manager of economic development for Ameren Corp. “And we feel that it is a strong wires-and-pipes economic engine for Illinois.”
One of the positive things on the horizon, Kearney says, is Ameren’s Modernization Action Plan, a $625 million 10-year commitment to ensure efficient, reliable energy delivery across the system. “And that is 21st century thinking, that is smart grid technology, and they are rolling it out now as we speak,” he says.
He says the overall infrastructure of the state — with assets like railroads and transportation and even information technology such as the super computer at the University of Illinois in Urbana — enables companies to continue to look at Illinois for investment and bringing in new jobs. “It is a world class infrastructure here. There will always be shifts in business climate. But we are working with companies to prepare them to compete and they are pushing forward on infrastructure development,” he says.
Greg Bedalov, president and CEO of Choose DuPage, the economic development organization for DuPage County, says his economic development agenda is simple: “Infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure.”
One example in DuPage is the $3.1 billion project now underway to convert Glendale Avenue into a toll road with the ultimate goal of a western access point into the airfield at the Chicago O’Hare International Airport. “Not a lot of people know this but O’Hare only has one means of ingress and egress and that is from the east,” Bedalov says.
The western border of the airport is in DuPage County. Immediately to the west of the O’Hare airfield is a large and expansive corridor that is focused on transportation and logistics, plus warehousing and manufacturing. In an effort to make those businesses and that corridor better in terms of moving goods and services, the county has been working with the Illinois tolling authority, Illinois Department of Transportation and several state agencies to create a way around the west side of the O’Hare airfield which will connect to the Elgin-O’Hare Expressway, and eventually to the west side of O’Hare airfield.
“Creating that access would just open up that entire corridor and give it billions of dollars in economic development opportunities,” Bedalov says. This is 127 square miles of untapped opportunity. Our belief is that the invisible hand of the economy is going to play a much larger role in determining what the area will look like in the future.”
Downtown Litchfield is undergoing a facelift, says Tonya Flannery, economic development director for the city of Litchfield, with two phases of a streetscape project in the works that was begun in 2009. Litchfield is in south central Illinois on the northern edge of the greater St. Louis metro area.
The city developers are completing the second phase of the project, and recently established a downtown redevelopment plan that includes assisting downtown projects and façade improvements with an $800,000 grant from the Illinois Department of Transportation Beautification and Enhancement Program, plus tax-incremental financing. “We also had a program where we turned a Brown Shoe factory that had been derelict for years into a 47-unit loft affordable housing project,” Flannery says.
Charles Witherington-Perkins, director of planning and community development for the village of Arlington Heights, says officials have been putting a lot of effort into their new $300 million mixed-use development using a former Sheraton Hotel that closed down three years ago. It was a 425-room full service hotel with an adjacent water park. “We felt that there was more potential there,” he says, citing the amount of surface parking at the distressed hotel site.
The Argent Group, a development company in Arlington Heights, got the 25-acre property under contract, acquired some additional property adjacent to the old hotel, and began the process of transforming it into the mixed-use development. “They are in the process of converting the former 13 story hotel into 216 luxury apartments with restaurants and other retail shops,” Perkins says.
Projects like these — in Arlington Heights and in DuPage County particularly — point to a steady economic development that can often fly under the radar of businesses looking to expand or locate to the state because they don’t come with a lot of media noise.
Coil says that public companies in the state just commercialize new innovations out of the major universities as a standard way of doing business. “They just want to do it, and we haven’t made a big deal out of it because it’s so commonplace. So I think that we are going to be promoting that a little more in the future.”
Bedalov says he found that in talking to business people, time and time again, there is a bit of a stigma about locating in Illinois because of what is reported in the media about a difficult tax structure and other impediments to business expansion and development. But there is a bigger picture out there that they are missing.
“Here in DuPage County,” Bedalov says, “we have a triple bond rating, the county has no debt, has a balanced budget year after year and one of the lowest tax bases for business in the state.”
Illustration by sumetho at Free Digital Photos.net