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Thursday, April 13, 2006 05:02 pm

Low-risk gamble

New authority could jump-start regional economic development

Two billion dollars should buy a lot of jobs. That’s how much the state of Illinois has laid on the table with the passage of a law last week establishing the Central Illinois Economic Development Authority. The authority’s board will have the power to issue $250 million in tax-exempt bonds to pay for projects designed to spur economic development in 11 central Illinois counties, including Sangamon. Patterned after seven existing regional authorities in other parts of the state, the authority can start business as soon as the governor signs the bill and members are appointed. Gov. Rod Blagojevich has praised the authorities as mechanisms to fuel the state’s economy. Each of the boards has the power to issue $250 million in bonds and use the proceeds to supply low-interest loans to private businesses and entrepreneurs. Although it’s possible that taxpayers could end up paying off bonds if a business goes bankrupt or a natural disaster wipes out a borrower, backers say that the payoff can be huge. The Senate unanimously passed the measure last month; the House followed suit last week. “It’s worth the risk to generate growth, to foster a favorable business climate,” says Sen. Larry Bomke, R-Springfield, a co-sponsor of the measure. “That’s part of the obligation of government: How can we stimulate jobs?” Besides having the power to issue bonds, the authority can also buy, sell, and own property. Members of the unpaid board will serve six-year terms. The governor will appoint three members, subject to approval by the state Senate, and county-board chairmen will each appoint a member. Besides Sangamon, the counties within the authority’s district are Menard, Logan, Macon, Macoupin, Calhoun, Greene, Jersey, Christian, DeWitt, and Montgomery. A representative from the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity will complete the 15-member board. Although he says he has no specific projects in mind, Bomke suggests that authority bonds could be used to help develop business in the Springfield Medical District. “The medical field is the second-largest employer in Springfield,” Bomke says. “I’m told we have companies all over the country that could come to Springfield. They would need a good business plan.” The authority could also combine with other state economic-development boards to help reestablish the coal industry, Bomke says. Unemployment in counties under the authority’s purview in February, the most recent month for which statistics are available, ranges from a high of 8.5 percent in Calhoun to a low of 5.1 percent in Sangamon, according to the Illinois Department of Economic Security. Sangamon and Menard are the only counties in the authority’s area with unemployment rates below the state average of 5.5 percent, which is four-tenths of a percent higher than the nationwide average. South of Springfield, a state economic-development authority similar to the one created last week is issuing tax-exempt bonds to help build an ethanol plant in Granite City. The authority, called the Southwestern Illinois Development Authority, made headlines four years ago when the state Supreme Court overturned the authority’s attempt to condemn 148 acres owned by a scrapyard so the land could be turned over to an automobile racetrack for use as a parking lot. Bomke says the Central Illinois Economic Development Authority will have no power of eminent domain that would allow it to condemn land. “I would be adamantly opposed to that,” Bomke says.
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