Stop the Presses: Fiction vs. non-fiction
by Mike Kroll
Let's begin this column by acknowledging that economic development is HARD. Most efforts in this regard do not pay off, do not result in the attraction of new business or create jobs. Successes are are infrequent, unpredictable and often defy explanation but if your economic development people are doing their job failures occur all the time and afford ample opportunities to learn how to be more successful. Unfortunately, the only way to learn from failure is to both experience it and acknowledge it publicly. This is called accountability, something seemingly anathema to most economic development organizations.
Two weeks ago the Monmouth city council did something amazing, it fired it's economic development group. By a 6-2 vote they discontinued that city's $40,000 annual funding for the Western Illinois Economic Development Partnership (WIEDP). The council members' concerns mirror those leveled against Galesburg's equivalent, the Galesburg Regional Economic Development Association. Monmouth aldermen questioned WIEDP's rabid need for secrecy and lack of accountability despite significant investment by the city of Monmouth. They lamented how insular WIEDP is from the local business community that is supposed to be its partner and how little information they share with either the city leaders or citizens in general.
But the feeling was not unanimous. Two Monmouth aldermen and the mayor defended WIEDP and chastised their brethren for wanting to bring economic development in-house. Monmouth mayor Rod Davies said the move was a step backward but, like the supporters of GREDA, all he can do is insist that the economic development group is doing great but mysterious things, trust him. There appears to be but one play book shared by the supporters of WIEDP and GREDA.
Interestingly, neither side pointed out the significant behind the scenes role WIEDP played in dissuading a previous Monmouth city council from seriously considering purchase of Galesburg water. Asserting that the the Galesburg option would be too costly. Today the selected Ion-exchange alternative is rapidly proving to exceed the cost of Galesburg water and yet Monmouth water remains unpalatable and the supply unreliable. In an ironic twist this WIEDP recommendation has become a major problem for Farmland Foods, Monmouth's biggest employer.
Given a cloud of secrecy and no accountability just how much taxpayer money must be flushed before we cut our losses and invest in another approach?
That's what the objecting Monmouth aldermen want to do. They want to reclaim responsibility for economic development and open it up to greater community participation. If a city employee head the effort they can be expected to keep officials and the public alike better informed without unnecessarily compromising sensitive negotiations. They might even see the virtue in nurturing already existing businesses toward growth and expansion rather than merely waiting for the increasingly rare big out-of-town fish to come calling. And the new partnership should involve the entire community in an effort to make Monmouth a better place to live and work. This approach would not only make the town more attractive to outside businesses but simultaneously benefit current residents.
Just in case this radical but common-sense plan might take hold in Monmouth the intrepid publisher of the Register-Mail is johnny on the spot to discourage change in the Maple city. Don Cooper has historically been among the loudest cheerleaders for GREDA season after season despite an appalling winless record. If only hot air were a valuable commodity...
“The Monmouth-area business development program was dealt a severe blow when the City Council decided it would no longer provide $40,000 a year in WIEDP funding,” wrote Cooper. “...The Monmouth council voted to hire its own economic development director, which will be more expensive and, we believe, less effective than the WIEDP public-private partnership. ...[T]he unfortunate turn of events is a result of personality conflicts and small-town politics, which are getting in the way of progress.”
People like Cooper are convinced everything can be done better outside the realm of public bodies but that taxpayer money is the best way to fund the enterprise. Decades of this fiction have cost the residents of Galesburg literally millions of dollars and yielded little. If private individuals want to fork over their personal wealth to fund con artists like Eric Voyles and company they are more than welcome to do so but the taxpayers deserve at least accountability if not success.
The Galesburg city council could stand to learn something from the actions of their Monmouth counterpart as should the Knox and Warren county boards. These publicly funded/privately operated economic development operations do remove elected officials from direct accountability to their voter/taxpayers (“we paid GREDA to do that and everybody knows economic development can only be done in total secrecy”). Secrecy is a wonderful shield. If few have any idea what you do or don't do or what did or didn't happen responsibility for failure can be conveniently sidestepped or redirected.
This is the type of extortion that lead the Galesburg Sanitary District to join GREDA as a contributing member. The $5,000 “investment” can be seen as hush money to get GREDA functionaries and their puppets from blaming the lack of success at the logistics park on the hapless Sanitary District. I must confess how angry and disappointed I was to see the GSD board take this action. Eric and GREDA have this protection racket down cold and I guess I should be surprised they haven't yet sent an enforcer to shut me up.
Whenever this status quo is challenged groups like GREDA simply whisper in the ears of elected officials how close they are to landing a really big fish, but they dare not talk about it. This is the tactic GREDA used to destroy State's Attorney Paul Mangieri's lawsuit against Maytag for exceeding the $1 million cap on property tax savings in the Enterprise Zone. Elected officials whose bodies were early supporters of Mangieri's lawsuit including School District 205, the GSD and Knox County were all quietly visited by Eric and his henchmen. These officials were told of how close GREDA was to landing the big fish, something was definitely going to happen before New Years 2005, but not if this community sent “the wrong signal.” The elected officials dutifully withdrew their support for Mangieri's lawsuit and our State's Attorney ended up settling for a fraction of the original amount.
And guess what, that big fish never was landed by GREDA. We are simply supposed to assume that there was a shred of truth to the fish stories spread by the GREDA folks. Don Cooper and other GREDA supporters want to make economic development a religious experience. We are supposed to accept on faith alone that only GREDA knows how to do economic development despite all the evidence to the contrary. That is why Don's recommendation to the Monmouth city council is as entirely predictable as it is ludicrous. In his Sunday editorial Cooper wrote, “One scenario for WIEDP would be to merge with GREDA to form an even larger regional economic development organization.”
My suggestion to the Monmouth aldermen, stand by you decision to reclaim direct responsibility for economic development and invite Galesburg and the two counties to join with you in an open and public partnership. The new effort may not be any more successful than GREDA or WIEDP but at least the taxpayers could rest better knowing that someone can be held accountable for at least putting forth a credible effort.