Economic development for the rest of us
By Norm Winick
Could our economic development efforts be upside down? Maybe the economy isnÕt developed by bribing companies to hire our people. Just as trickle-down economics has proven to be a miserable and painful failure, maybe the local community can best be strengthened by redirecting our money and efforts towards improving life for the people and businesses that are already here.
The more I have thought about economic development and GREDA, the more I think itÕs time to disband it and try something else.
I donÕt mean replace it with another group. WeÕve tried EDCs and Galesburg 2000s and now GREDA. Every community has something similar. In Freeport, itÕs NIDA (Northwest Illinois Development Alliance) and they have an empty industrial park, too, that the taxpayers bought and the good olÕ boys control and essentially own. Some communities try economic development privately, some publicly and some jointly (like we have, for decades) but they all have only sporadic successes.
The first major economic development effort was redevelopment of the shuttered Galesburg Mental Health Center — now Hawthorne Centre. The State of Illinois gave the property and a couple of million dollars to the City of Galesburg. Assistant City Manager Chris Lear, a city employee, parceled it out, designed and implemented the infrastructure improvements, sold the parcels, and gave the money to the private Knox Development Corporation. That was the endowment that future economic development groups would rely on. Most were public-private partnerships getting tax dollars from the City and County and some private funds. Others, like Galesburg 2000, were totally private but eventually merged into the EDC and renamed GREDA.
Over the years, there have been successes and there have been failures (not all as spectacular as Wittek) but there has been nothing for a long time. The process is and always has been rife with opportunities for profiteering. Consultants have been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by the various economic development groups and the City of Galesburg to sell us boilerplate studies that sit on shelves. The information we could actually use, such as why companies that rejected Galesburg did so, was carefully guarded and never shared. They operated in secret and always had three businesses just about to make a decision every time their tax funding was being questioned.
The EDC developed two industrial parks on South Henderson Street that eventually were mostly developed. They tried building a spec building which was eventually sold to a local investor. Then GREDA decided that we needed a ŌLogistics Park.Ķ Taxpayers in the City of Galesburg paid $4 million, well-above market price, for farmland along the interstate highway. A realtor connected with GREDA was even paid $30,000 commission for negotiating the purchase. Millions more tax dollars have been spent running sewer and water lines and roads to the empty acreage. The company they hired to market it bailed on us. The sign promoting it sits lonely along I-74.
GREDA officials also spent untold hours and lots of money courting Chinese business. There were press conferences here with our Chinese guests and multiple trips to China. We kept hearing that the Chinese work very slowly and methodically. That may be true but there was never any public sign of progress. Other local individuals who went to China have told us that the Chinese were stringing Galesburg and dozens of other U.S. cities along. ItÕs a great game for them. They love the attention; we want their money. Game over.
Tourism is not economic development. ItÕs nice but it doesnÕt revive a community. Branson, Orlando and Las Vegas survive on tourism alone, but they are the exceptions. Tourism, unless itÕs on a massive scale, cannot save a community. It provides low-wage service jobs and not much else.
I donÕt in any way think itÕs the people at GREDA who are the problem. ItÕs not because they arenÕt trying. ItÕs because itÕs an impossible job — and thankless, too. They are probably the best incarnation of economic development folks weÕve had in a long time — or ever. They are not nearly as secretive or arrogant as most weÕve seen. They are not dominated by existing industries whose real motivation is to keep away employers paying higher wages. I donÕt think they are in it for their own personal enrichment — as were some in the past. They donÕt play games by claiming they always have something big on the cusp. They seem generally honest and hard working — but clueless. They are clueless because they face an impossible task with unattainable expectations.
ThatÕs why I am proposing we give them a rest.
We need to understand why individuals or companies might locate in one place over another. They do not go somewhere because they want to help out a community thatÕs hurting. They go where they think they can make more money or provide the best service to their customers.
If a company needs special incentives to be profitable, they donÕt have a good business plan and we shouldnÕt want them. If they are looking for lower wages, theyÕll probably end up in Mexico or China eventually.
They donÕt go somewhere to hire the unemployed. They want to be able to hire workers with the specific skills they need or the ability to be trained. Old work habits learned at a now-shuttered factory are a disincentive, not an advantage.
We also need to understand what Galesburg can offer a business. We have all the basics that every mid-sized community has — access to roads, rails, water and sewer, health care facilities, schools and churches. We offer one thing that many, especially the suburbs do not offer — low real estate prices. We have bargain-basement prices for empty industrial buildings and very affordable homes for their employees.
GREDA has tried marketing Galesburg for years with no success. I say itÕs time to play hard-to-get.
Redirect our efforts into making Galesburg a better place to live. Spend money on a new library, better roads, an information superhighway infrastructure, recreational facilities and sprucing up our neighborhoods and parks. Tax-funded improvements may very well lead to private improvements as well. Encourage more innovative programs in our schools. Work to get the cultural offerings at Knox and Carl Sandburg colleges more accessible to the community. Improve our quality of life and make us more inviting to individuals and families.
Retirees or young couples who work over the Internet can locate anywhere. Make them want to move here for a safe, attractive community with all the services of a big city plus good schools, affordable housing and a low cost of living.
We also need to make Galesburg more desirable for the commuter. There are thousands of them, now, who drive to Peoria or the Quad Cities every day for work. We should look at public transportation, organized car pooling or buses or even commuter rail, to make that more affordable.
Our future might be primarily as a retirement community, a bedroom community, or some of both. We cannot force it as much as let it develop. If we can quell the population decline and start to grow, we will get noticed. Retailers and restaurants will want to locate here. As the economy recovers, other businesses might take an interest as well. If they need some information or services to make their choice, let the cityÕs Community Development department assist them.
It will take time. It could take a lot of time — but the big benefit to this plan is that it makes Galesburg a better place to live for those of us who are here. We deserve it. We have witnessed and participated in the economic decline of our city yet we have stayed. We wait patiently for trains and bounce along bumpy streets without complaining. We have contributed generously to fruitless economic development efforts for a generation. Galesburg is home to 30,000 of us and we should try spending our tax dollars to help make it a better place for us.