GREDA: The Mangieri era begins

 

by Mike Kroll

 

The Galesburg Regional Economic Development Association (GREDA), is funded by a combination of tax dollars and private business contributions and most recently spent millions to create the still-empty “Logistics Park Galesburg.” The move away from the so-far fruitless quest for manufacturers toward this new direction was the brainchild of former GREDA president Eric Voyles who resigned this past January to take the number three position in Rockford's equivalent organization. Voyles' exit was timely; he had expended his local credibility with much of the public and even amongst numerous GREDA insiders who only admit so privately.

In January the GREDA board quickly formed a search committee and named Greg Mangieri Interim Executive Director February 1st. In June, they announced that Mangieri's status was no longer “interim.” Mangieri inherits an organization badly in need of introspective reflection, adjustment and a restoration of some semblance of public confidence. No information has been made public about the 20 candidates who applied to replace Voyles but Mangieri is candid about his almost total lack of economic development experience. He acknowledges that what he brings to the GREDA table is a first-hand knowledge and understanding of railroading, specifically as relates to intermodal logistics. “Logistics is the focus of GREDA's efforts today as Galesburg works to leverage the huge BNSF presence here. I not only have an intimate understanding of intermodal railroading but I believe it is the key to economic development success for our area,” explained Mangieri.

Born and raised in Galesburg, Mangieri has spent his entire life working for or with railroads — notably including the former Burlington Northern (BN) and the Canadian National Railway (which frequently runs trains on BNSF track). He rose through the ranks at the BN from clerk to yardmaster to a series of corporate positions and ultimately becoming BN's system-wide director of inland logistics. Like many former BN managers, Mangieri's career there came to an abrupt end with the merger of the BN and Santa Fe railroads in 1995. He moved to the Illinois Central Gulf to manage their intermodal operations and the IC was acquired by a privatized Canadian National railroad in 1999. That same year the CN attempted to merge with the BNSF but the federal government's Surface Transportation Board killed that deal amidst fears that a Canadian company would subsequently control the largest rail system in North America. Meanwhile Mangieri was in the catbird seat as the CN-IC combination became the major north-south NAFTA rail route connecting the busy port of New Orleans as well as Mexico with Chicago and the breadth of Canada. The national intermodal business was taking off even as Galesburg's two small intermodal operations had shut down only a few years before.

Mangieri “retired” in 2001 to return to Galesburg where he and his family bought the Ralston Garden Center on Grand Avenue from Dick Ralston. While his wife and other family members handled the day-to-day garden center business, Mangieri kept his hand in railroading and intermodal as a consultant and even donated some of his experience and knowledge to Voyles during the conception of the new logistics park.

Historically, Galesburg had been a blue collar town. Most of the best local jobs have been manufacturing jobs at companies like Butler Manufacturing, Gates Rubber, Admiral/Maytag and Outdoor Marine Corporation. Today just about all of those jobs are now gone; only a token Gates presence remains from this list and the 1985 closure of the Galesburg Mental Health Center meant the loss of yet another huge local employer. A once vibrant blue collar workforce has seen it membership shrink dramatically. The best, most ambitious of those who lost these jobs have successfully sought employment with Deere & Company, Caterpillar, the BNSF Railway, Mitsubishi, Komatsu  and others — most an hour or more commute away. Many young working class families have simply left town in search of pay and benefits necessary to support a family today.

Local officials had already begun economic development efforts even before OMC began what has become a mass exodus of manufacturing employers from Galesburg but in nearly 30 years have had little success. The single large new employer to arrive in Galesburg since the late 1970s was when the state opened the Henry Hill Correctional Center in what was our originally designated industrial park. These officials have consistently told us they were soliciting new manufacturers to come to town but the absence of results has come at the cost of the community's confidence in itself. Almost no one today entertains a reasonable expectation of any new mid-size to large manufacturer relocating to Galesburg. Even local economic development officials have altered their objectives in recent years but sadly continue to experience no luck.

 “When Eric announced he was leaving, I approached Jon Polillo and Guy [Vitale] about assuming the interim operation of GREDA during their search. At the time I didn't have any specific interest in the permanent position and recognized my total lack of economic development experience. But after just a few weeks I found that I really liked this job and thought I could make the logistics park idea work so I threw my own résumé into contention for the permanent position.”

Since assuming the interim position, Mangieri has had to get himself up to speed on the full range of GREDA activities. He has already made quarterly reports to both the Galesburg City Council and the Knox County Board describing much the same activity as Voyles did for years. One GREDA initiative many of us had already written off, the “China Project,” remains alive according to Mangieri. “We are simply altering our approach to working with the Chinese. Instead of sending a huge group of people to meet with as many Chinese as possible we are trying to be more targeted in our contacts. We have hired a consultant named Andy Sze who will help setup these Chinese connections and we will then send one or two of us to those meetings in China.”

Sze is Chinese but American-educated. He studied at Northwestern and has relatives in Singapore who are high level in the Chinese business community. Mangieri explains that GREDA will be placing a lot more responsibility in his hands and altering their targets. “Our China effort will be much more focused now and less concerned about finding Chinese companies to make substantial investments here. Instead we will focus on establishing partnerships with Chinese manufacturers who want to ship their goods to America for direct resale or collections of components to be assembled and sold. We will work on this end to find American partners to put together a deal that is a win for everyone including the Galesburg community.”

Here in Galesburg, Mangieri is devoting much of his time trying to create a situation that would entice a large intermodal facility locating in Galesburg. Chicago is already a huge intermodal area with additional facilities already in operation west and south of the city. Mangieri acknowledges that Galesburg is too far removed to be a contender for an intermodal facility directly serving the Chicago metropolitan area. He sees two different opportunities for Galesburg.

“For the short term my goal would be to create an intermodal operation to service central Illinois manufacturers like John Deere and Caterpillar We need to meet a minimum threshold of at least a couple hundred containers per day to get the BNSF to service such a facility. This could be done if a we could match area manufacturers with an intermodal logistics company as a means of avoiding the need to go through the Chicago bottleneck.”

A success like this wouldn't create a huge number of local jobs directly but it could be the impetus to spark additional activity at the logistics park. Two-hundred containers per day would create at least 250-300 truck driving jobs plus maintenance and management jobs at the logistics operation. Mangieri emphasizes that this is more than just a pipe dream. He says his plan is modeled after a similar project in Marion, Ind. This is a community similar to the Galesburg area in many respects, according to Mangieri. Until recent years home to manufacturers of heavy equipment for the strip mining of coal local officials found their town's economy take a nosedive when those companies closed. They attracted Snyder Trucking in conjunction with the CSX Railroad that had its mainline going through Marion and created a dedicated intermodal operation just like that described above.

“The reason Galesburg has had the success it has is due to the presence of the railroad. It is as simple as that. If you look at economically viable American cities most sit on rivers and just about all are astride a main rail line. Because we don't have a river the railroads that are here are so much more important to our future. Whatever economic success we experience in the future will depend heavily on the role of the railroad. I understand railroads and appreciate their importance and I believe that is why the GREDA board of directors hired me for this position. Both they and I know I have a lot to learn about economic development but I am a true believer in the value of the logistics park.”

The longer term intermodal goal of Mangieri is to sell shippers on the value of avoiding the Chicago intermodal hub for shipments to and from the west coast and targeted to downstate Illinois and areas of the Midwest along the western bank of the Mississippi. “Anything over 500 miles is a good fit for intermodal shipment and thanks to the BNSF lines to the international ports in Seattle and Los Angeles that join right here in Galesburg I think we can make a good case. We need to concentrate on time-sensitive cargoes that can save a day or two of shipping by being processed here in Galesburg rather than the Chicago area. An operation of that size would create lots of area jobs but it will be some time before it is possible to assure sufficient volume to justify such an investment. However, the potential of such business should make it a little easier to attract a smaller intermodal operation run by a logistics company with an eye toward future growth here in Galesburg.”

Mangieri's personal commitment to this project is evident. He is all too well aware of the uphill climb before him and is becoming more and more aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the existing GREDA operation. Perhaps the best reason for optimism is that Mangieri acknowledges the need for change in the GREDA operation and welcomes greater community involvement. “I relish the opportunity to get input from the community beyond just the GREDA board and local officials. I really do want citizens to bring their ideas to me and promise that I will not ignore any reasonable proposal. One area where we have not performed well is public openness. Obviously, many things must be done in confidence but I do believe we can learn from our less successful efforts.”

Mangieri comes off as genuine and he is refreshingly modest about his own capabilities. When I reiterated a range of the historic criticism we at The Zephyr have leveled at GREDA and it predecessor agencies, he even concurred with many of them. Whether he is immediately successful or not is less important than whether he has truly learned some lessons from the past. Only a fool would mandate economic development success from a person in Mangieri's shoes but it would be equally foolish to continue allowing GREDA to escape all forms of public accountability. Just as Mayor Gary Smith promised when he was elected, Mangieri pledges GREDA to be more accountable and that would be a public-private marriage everyone in Galesburg should welcome.

 

06/29/06