A county in search of a vision
Last fall, a firm called The Development Consortium (TDC) was engaged to launch the Sangamon County Project to examine economic development in the region. TDC has offices in Petersburg and Geneseo, and is described on its website as “a professional organization specializing in site selection, financing, incentive negotiations, Illinois Enterprise Zones and related economic development consulting.” TDC principals Craig Coil and Janet Mathis began interviewing area business, labor and education leaders a year ago this month, looking for insight into the economic situation throughout Sangamon County. They published their findings earlier this month.
“The reason they engaged us was because they were noticing some trends,” said Mathis, “especially in property tax revenues, which were decreasing substantially. They were used to six- to eight-percent increases and it was getting down to one to two. They wanted to see what was going on. There’s a lot of out-migration and decreased personal wealth in addition to the property tax revenues dropping.”
The perspective Coil and Mathis bring to the table is based on extensive experience in what Coil called “pretty much all phases of economic development.” Previous to forming TDC, they had both worked for the State of Illinois Department of Commerce. Mathis was trade director in Canada for the Department of Agriculture and has done work in the northwestern region of the state while Coil ran the Major Project group under the Department of Commerce.
The methodology for the project began with interviews of major employers in the region and spreading out from there, eventually reaching 130 different people from between 95 to 100 different organizations. “They were confidential interviews so we could get the true story,” Coil said. “We didn’t quote anybody specifically on their responses and people opened up very quickly and were very direct in what they told us.”
In addition to business leaders, they also spoke to labor, educational institutions and certain nonprofits as well as real estate agents and brokers, elected officials at both the state and local level and the heads of Central Management Services and the Department of Commerce.
Mathis described the overall mood among the respondents as one of frustration. “There’s been little to no real growth,” she said. “There hasn’t been a lot of change and adaptation either.” She points to the purposeful loss of blue-collar factory jobs in the area 30 years ago (“they wanted it to be a white-collar town”) as part of a gradual, overall decline that was generally denied or just ignored. “Everyone thought that since the state jobs were here, everything was going to be OK, we’d just had that employment base forever,” she said. “But there was no real evolution to asking what we might need to do looking forward.”
“It came across as complacency more than anything,” said Coil, “by multiple groups and by multiple generations of leadership, whether political or business. Everyone just gets in their hamster wheel and they’re just doing their job and not thinking about long-term planning and vision.”
Mathis was quick to point out that their findings were not all gloom and doom. “There have been a lot of entities doing good things,” she said, “sometimes really great things – but independently for the most part. There are a lot of silos sitting around here with no community vision guiding the whole process.”
Another observation gleaned from the research is the issue of image – how the region sees itself is not aligned with its actual strength and weaknesses. “It’s still hard for a lot of folks to comprehend that we have the University of Illinois here in Springfield,” Coil said, referring to the UIS campus. “Here’s the reality: Springfield is indirectly branded because of state government. In the news, whether it’s out of Chicago or national or regional outlets, all you hear about is ‘the dysfunction in Springfield’ or that ‘Springfield is chaos.’ It doesn’t apply to Springfield as a community – it applies to state government – but that perception still indirectly brands it.”
“We got the sense that people think there are things here that can salvaged,” said Mathis, “but they’re looking for focused direction, something to get behind that’s not just the same old thing happening over and over again.” To that end, TDC has recommended the formation of a public-private partnership (P3) solely focused on economic development, without members distracted by other responsibilities off to the side. This entity would craft the vision for the community throughout Sangamon County.
“In the interviews,” said Coil, “one of the questions we asked was what they want this community to be in 10 or 15 years. The answer was generally crickets – nobody had thought about it. That was the majority.”
“And a lot of the ones who did have ideas don’t necessarily feel like they’re included in the overall dynamic,” added Mathis. “That’s another part of this – being inclusive. How many 20-year-olds do we have sitting on boards in this county? How many people with diverse thoughts of any kind?”
“Everybody talks about the medical district being an area of growth potential here in Springfield,” said Coil. “There are great medical institutions but if you look ahead 10, 15, 20 years, you’re not going to need all the doctors and the beds and the facilities because the demographics will change. Not as many baby boomers are going to be around. And technology will change – you can already do a lot of remote diagnostics. Some places in the country are doing remote surgeries.” The future, he suggested, may lie in factors such as the research coming out of the SIU School of Medicine and Memorial’s Innovation Center. “How do you commercialize those locally originated, patented processes and products? How do you keep it here, how do you grow it here? Think a little bigger than just ‘the medical district.’ There’s a huge tech base here that people don’t think about.”
“We’ve seen Illinois go from the best state in the country to come to for business to how it’s perceived today. But it’s going to cyclically go back – so to prepare now is good timing,” said Mathis.
To read the full report, visit http://co.sangamon.il.us/Portals/0/Departments/County%20Board/Docs/THE_SANGAMON_COUNTY_PROJECT-FINAL_REPORT.pdf
Contact Scott Faingold at firstname.lastname@example.org.