Economic development makeover


analysis by Mike Kroll


The New Year began in Galesburg with news that Eric Voyles was resigning his position as president and CEO of the Galesburg Regional Economic Development Association to take a staff job with GREDA's Rockford counterpart, the Rockford Area Economic Development Council. After about five years at the helm Voyles last day at GREDA will be January 20th and he begins his new position as vice president of national business development about two weeks later in Rockford.

But Voyles isn't the only economic development leader leaving his post locally. Eric Hanson of the University of Illinois Extension Service will also be taking a new position beginning next week. Hanson has been Extension's Knox County person representing the group's Community and Economic Development group. Based out of the same office complex as GREDA and the Chamber of Commerce in downtown Galesburg's former Sears building Hanson has become intimately involved in local economic development projects, most notably the courting of Chinese investment here, but also is currently serving as interim director of the Downtown Council. Hanson has been promoted to Extension's Unit Leader position in Rock Island County and will move his family in the near future. He has already put his Galesburg home up for sale and has a pending offer.

“This is a great career opportunity for me within the university system and it also offers us the chance to live close to my wife's job as a teacher in Orion,” said Hanson. “We have already purchased a home in Orion that will eliminate my wife's commute and put me within 15 minutes of my office in Rock Island. While I will have the same title as Tony does here the character of the Rock Island office is somewhat different and the staff a bit larger, about 25 people I think. The building also housed Extension's regional office meaning that a complete array of experts will be available right there. This move really is as sudden as it might appear. The job was posted last September and I knew I had it eight weeks ago but chose to delay the move so we could work toward finalizing some of my projects here.”

Tony Franklin, Extension's Knox County Unit Leader, acknowledged Hanson's impact in a wide variety of areas during his time in Knox County. “Eric has been very busy on a variety of fronts. He has well represented not only Extension in this area but helped to draw attention to our commitment to expanding the role of Extension beyond rural and agricultural affairs. Eric takes a lot of pride in what he does and it shows. His shoes will not be easy to fill but we will definitely be looking to replace him in the near future. Eric has asked and been granted the opportunity to devote the equivalent about one day per week to maintaining some of his Galesburg duties while we hunt for someone to replace him. Typically for Eric, this will be on top of his full workload running the Rock Island County office.”

Both men correctly view these as a career opportunities they cannot bypass; but this is also a fabulous opportunity for local officials to conduct a thorough reevaluation of how we run economic development in Galesburg and Knox County. While Voyles may want to simply point out  that Galesburg hasn't dried up and blown away as evidence of success or to take credit for the money sent to Galesburg by state and federal government in the wake of the Maytag closure announcement the fact is local economic development efforts have yielded next to nothing in nearly a quarter century. (I wonder if Eric proudly listed the Pat Summerall Champions of Industry award on his resume? If you don't recall this honor I am sure copies of the award commercial are still available from GREDA's office.)

Following millions in expenditures and lots of blue sky pronouncements and hot air what little economic development that has occurred locally could best be described as being accomplished despite the efforts of GREDA and its predecessors. It could well be that GREDA's stated goal of attracting medium to large manufacturers or warehouse [logistics] operations to the Galesburg area is simply unrealistic in today's world or it could be that our economic development officials have just performed badly or not at all. Given the total cloud of secrecy that has historically shrouded all such efforts it is literally impossible to realistically judge either the accomplishments or level of effort. However, the absence of success is clear to anyone who cares to look and is not blinded by rhetoric. That is why the exit of Voyles presents such opportunity to our community.

The primary funders of GREDA, Galesburg and Knox County, need to grasp this opportunity to conduct an evaluation of economic development efforts and determine if there aren't better ways to invest local dollars toward the longterm success of the area economy. A number of questions beg to be studied and answered:

1.   How much time, effort and funds really should be invested in efforts to attract industry to the area? Given changes in the national economy are attracting existing manufacturing jobs a realistic prospect?

2.   Is this area really as well situated geographically for the much touted logistics operations as claimed by Voyles and GREDA? Voyles recently told the Register-Mail: “First and foremost, Rockford has proximity to Chicago. It's in the natural growth ring. One of the things we've talked about here in Galesburg is we are not in the right spot.” That wasn't how Voyles described this area as he has been touting the logistics park but it is probably a more honest appraisal.

3.   Could the local economic development efforts be better directed toward the creation of new jobs locally rather than through attracting existing businesses? By this I don't mean mom and pop retail shops or home-based businesses but rather encouraging local folks with skills and capital to create small to medium firms like Bdi or Galesburg Castings. These are businesses that offer the prospect of growth over time and that will offer an increasing variety of blue and white collar jobs with success. These are also businesses that are more likely to remain rather than relocate.

4.   Might we want to reexamine our approach to building our relationship with the Chinese? It is becoming clear now that the once quietly held hope of Chinese investors buying up the 350-acre Logistics Park and developing it to distribute Chinese manufactured goods is now lost. However, a better approach might be to nurture the Chinese as suppliers of manufactured goods to locally owned and operated businesses that repackage and distribute the merchandise to American retailers or by mail-order or via the Internet. This would require investment by local business people and take advantage of the low-cost of Chinese manufactured products. This approach could well result in more substantial job growth, wider variety of employment opportunities and local business stability.

5.   After a quarter-century of non-success with the public-private partnership has the time come to abandon this model? Even former Galesburg mayor Fred Kimbel has seen the light as he took a public job as economic development director with a Chicago suburb. Perhaps an existing city employee like Community Development Director Roy Parkin might be a good choice to become Galesburg's new city economic development czar. If the city combined the current money given annually to GREDA with a portion of the sales tax revenue that is paying off the bonds of the Logistics Park Parkin should be able to hire an assistant or two and devote his efforts full-time toward assisting business growth.

6.   Historically Galesburg has never really considered non-manufacturing opportunities for economic development, has this limited approach been short-sighted? Should we actively recruit and consider retail, office and any other form of new local businesses part of our regular economic development effort?

7.   Maybe we should reconsider the concept behind the Galesburg 2000 project begun in 1995 and later merged with the former Economic Development Council (EDC) to form GREDA? This privately funded organization was founded by existing area business men and women with an personal stake in successfully growing the area economy. They didn't experience any more success than GREDA or the EDC but at least we knew that this group's self-interest wasn't going to be served by simply going through the motions of economic development. Since private money was all that was involved they could be as secretive as they wished and members could even make speculative investments as part of the program that would be highly suspect under other circumstances. Combining a new private group that pursues attraction efforts with a city/county department responsible for zoning, planning, financial assistance and general assistance navigating through the governmental bureaucracy might be a real formula for success.

8.   Given the relatively recent but committed participation of the University of Illinois Extension Service in economic development perhaps the time has come to aggressively pursue new agricultural crops (other than corn and soybeans) that could be grown and processed locally. For example, during World War II western Illinois was a major producer of industrial hemp-- today hemp is used with great success in Canada and elsewhere as an attractive alternative to wood in the manufacture of paper products. I am sure that researchers at our state universities have many other unique and interesting ag product ideas that would help diversify local crops, provide new or bigger income opportunities to local farmers and create an opportunity for new local production jobs with a little bit of creativity.

9.   Has the time come to finally make economic development truly regional? Should we be talking with officials in Warren, Henry or Mercer counties about a more coordinated approach to attraction and development of new jobs? After all, Galesburg is not an island. Many local folks now commute to work outside Knox County and arguably Warren County was hurt as much or more that we were by the closure of Butler and Maytag. The local officials in Monmouth are already ahead of us in one respect, they reexamined their public-private economic development operation and found it wanting. Now that they are exploring new ways to accomplish the task wouldn't they make natural allies in our local efforts?

Opportunities like this don't come along that often and it would be a real shame if we simply hire a replacement for Voyles and continue economic development efforts as usual. The residents of Galesburg and Knox County deserve so much more that we have yielded thus far from our investments in economic development.