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Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017 12:17 am

Springfield needs action on economy

Politics often gets in the way

 I have some experience with economic development efforts in Springfield. This backstory lends credence to my cynicism about why the new economic development corporation, formed in response to the economic development study commissioned and recently released by Sangamon County government, is destined for failure.

In September 2015 I launched a small nonprofit called the Urban Action Network (UAct) to help spur community and economic development in Springfield’s urban core. Community development is my expertise but economic development was a new venture. Since I believe that community development and economic development are inextricably linked, I was excited to learn more about the economic development side of the equation.

In September 2015, UAct and Illinois Ventures for Community Action (IVCA), motivated by the potential for East Springfield development and more, hosted a 25-member delegation to tour the Midwest Inland Port in Decatur. Delegation members included the mayor of Springfield and other city leaders, community activists, business leaders and more.

Of the Midwest Inland Port, Larry Altenbaumer, interim president of the Economic Development Corporation of Decatur and Macon County, our host for the tour, wrote on their website “I continue to believe that the Midwest Inland Port is the most significant economic development opportunity this region has seen in the past fifty years. This will be a major benefit for all of central Illinois, and we have just scratched the surface of its full potential.”

UAct, IVCA and the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association hosted a second meeting in Springfield for 40 business, government and community leaders to spur creative thinking around how Springfield can take full advantage of its proximity to the port in Decatur.
In 2016, UAct and East Springfield activist Sam Johnson hosted IFF, a mission-driven lender and real estate consultant, and McCormack Baron Salazar (MBS), for a day-long meeting with community leaders focused around East Springfield development. MBS is a recognized innovator in community development and urban revitalization and is the nation’s leading for-profit developer, manager and asset manager of economically integrated urban neighborhoods.

MBS and IFF spent a large part of the day touring Springfield and met with the mayor. However, when they left, MBS said that while Springfield had enormous need they felt it lacked a coordinated vision or action plan for broad development. I heard essentially the same from IFF.

In each case outlined above, my efforts to spur interest faltered. But why?
The recent study for Sangamon County conducted by The Development Consortium (TDC) mostly answers this question.

According to the report, TDC staff interviewed nearly 130 people from a broad cross-section of the community. The report questions why no “transformational” change has occurred despite numerous previous studies and detailed recommendations for action. The study reveals that 80 percent of respondents first answered “I don’t know” or “I guess the city” to a question asking who is the leading economic development entity in the county.

On this last point, the study concludes “… this is concerning, as successful communities across the country have a single point of contact and everyone knows who it is and what capacities and capabilities they bring to the table, including effectively carrying out the role of project ombudsman with all area entities necessary to complete the project.” MBS realized this almost immediately.

The study further highlights the difficulty of doing business in Springfield expressed by many respondents. One interviewee stated: “There are too many silos here. And they don’t play well together. They do plan a lot, but it’s easy to do studies and plan. It’s much harder to take action, and that’s what I don’t see…action.”

There is much to unpack in this report, but it basically concludes that there is no broad, coordinated, economic development vision with long-term goals and objectives – and I would add benchmarks for evaluating success – for Sangamon County.

What’s hinted at (code word silos) in the study is politics. Politics is deeply embedded into the fabric of Springfield and extends well beyond government. Politics in Springfield is transactional – it’s a “what’s in it for me” kind of town. It’s a good-ole-boy system that rewards loyalty and connections and doles out favors.

This type of culture discourages innovation and risk-taking. It sidelines anyone who isn’t in the inner circle, thereby limiting ideas and opportunity. It rewards conformity and mediocrity. It punishes outliers. It creates stagnation.

Maybe this is a wake-up call for Springfield, but I doubt it. Springfield needs bold action, new ideas and diverse perspectives. Unfortunately, the makeup of the new EDC is reminiscent of past efforts and the fact that it’s spearheaded by Sangamon County government shows it’s business as usual. I suspect Sangamon County’s efforts here are just another attempt at their long-sought prize of metro government. And if new businesses are created, the jobs and associated opportunities will continue to largely benefit the connected few. Please prove me wrong.  

Sheila Stocks-Smith of Springfield is president/founder of Urban Action Network.

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