Stop the Presses: If you're not part of the cover-up YOU are the problem


By Mike Kroll


Monday night's Galesburg city council meeting included an agenda item to terminate the GREDA contract that brought supporters of that economic development group out in force. They literally packed city council chambers. The city's agreement with GREDA includes a 90-day opt out clause that can be exercised by either party and Aldermen Wayne Allen and Ken Goad asked at the last meeting that this issue be brought before the city council.

Mayor Gary Smith sits on the GREDA executive board by twin virtue of his role as mayor coupled with his leadership of NAEIR (a leading private supporter of GREDA). He handled this issue somewhat atypically. Instead of seeking discussion from among city council members first and then opening up to audience participation Smith began with audience comment. All but one of the audience members who asked to speak were affiliated with GREDA and a number offered impassioned pleas on how misunderstood the group is and how hard they all work as volunteers to serve this community.

GREDA chair Bob Fulton started the evening off by pointing out that “GREDA's function is not to promote jobs in Galesburg.” Instead GREDA “promotes leadership to encourage economic development in the Galesburg area” and they are very busy juggling some “25 or more domestic prospects right now!” The latter point was in response to the very common public complaint that GREDA has devoted far too much time and resources courting the Chinese to no apparent avail.

Fulton quoted an observation from his boss that “Communities are either growing or they are dying, there is no status quo. Economic development is at the heart of a dynamic community.” Fulton and his colleagues essentially said that GREDA was suffering unfairly from a bad public rap that was the result of unwarranted media skepticism. He did acknowledge that part of the problem is the organization's failure to communicate. Economic development is hard work that demands a great deal of the volunteers' time and only very occasionally results in success. GREDA has however had far more success than most of the general public realize. If only the press would trumpet those successes.

The one audience member who spoke critically of GREDA was neither well spoken nor, apparently, capable of developing a compelling case against the effectiveness of the group but in his own clumsy way he accurately reflected the palpable disappointment and frustration that permeates this community with regard to economic development. Citizens and taxpayers have grown extremely weary of not only the broken record of big promises that never materialize but also the total absence of accountability for the millions of dollars that has been spent over the years in near total secrecy.

While the people from GREDA admit to being poor communicators they also claim that the essential secrecy of economic development precludes any meaningful transparency. When everything is considered secret there is no accountability for how time and resources are expended. If the Galesburg area economy were booming and new businesses were setting up shop while existing businesses expanded it seems likely that we would be more accepting of this secrecy but in light of the actual Galesburg experience many of us have grown extremely suspicious of GREDA and have run out of patience.

Let me tell you what I believe.

Most of the people involved in GREDA do mean well and a subset of them undoubtedly do spend substantial amounts of time volunteering for the group. This is really no different that people who run for elected office or sit on active boards or city commissions or volunteer for their church or school. Lots of concerned citizens volunteer their time to help the community, most in anonymous but nevertheless important ways. But even most of the member and investors of GREDA are no better informed than the general public.

Economic development is indeed very hard and successes are few and far between. It is a task that requires not only the time of volunteers but real resources and it is likely that the Galesburg area has not been devoting sufficient resources to the task. Often times the factors that determine success of failure are beyond the control of a community or its economic development officials. Not infrequently efforts and resources must be expended on long shots because, just like the lottery, you have zero chance of winning if you don't play.

That said, only a fool continues devoting all one's efforts into endeavors that have failed to pay off in decades. Even the dumbest animal eventually learns to cease activities that never succeed and tries differing techniques or tactics searching for more effective behaviors. Psychologists call this process learning and it has been documented in even the simplest animals; yet apparently GREDA is the exception to this principal.

The city began the era of public-private partnerships for economic development in October 1978, thirty years ago. Back then the group was known as EDC but just like today that first group was tied to the Chamber of Commerce and run like a secret society. Back then Galesburg was still a bastion of low-skilled manufacturing jobs plus instead of a prison there was a mental health center. The EDC publicly claimed that it too focused its efforts on attracting new medium to large manufacturing operations to Galesburg and over its lifetime presided over the net loss of thousands of Galesburg area jobs.

Fast forward to 2008 and GREDA. Galesburg has now lost OMC, the mental health center, Maytag, Butler, Briggs and the mental health center along with numerous smaller employers. Galesburg has not been alone. Communities all over this nation have suffered a very similar flight of manufacturing jobs, particularly here in the Midwest. In the process there have been many communities that simply withered to a shadow of their former selves but there have also been counter examples of communities that learned and adapted and show signs of improved health.

The Galesburg area has been in unremitting decline yet somehow has managed to limp along rather than concede defeat, but time is running out. So far GREDA has exhibited little evidence of learning as the group continues to focus on attracting low-skilled manufacturing jobs that simply are not there to be captured or seek to substitute smaller numbers of less attractive warehousing jobs. The reason GREDA must be replaced is because they have steadfastly refused to alter their tactics in the face of overwhelming evidence that those tactics do not work.

GREDA has been poor at communicating but that is just a symptom. When you almost never have anything positive to report communicating clearly is not a pleasant experience. For years GREDA and its predecessors have told us that good things are coming but that confidentiality prevents them from elaborating or even keeping score. At this point the Galesburg community has lost faith in GREDA not only because they haven't produced results but more so because they were never candid about either their lack of success or paucity of new ideas.

Now that public criticism has reached a fever pitch GREDA and its supporters want to blame the media (amazingly I wasn't singled out by name) for having the bad manners  and poor judgment to report that the emperor wears no clothes. Alderwoman and mayoral candidate Karen Lafferty goes one step further and chastises the media for reporting honestly about the wider spectrum of the often sad circumstances in the Galesburg community. The viewpoint seems to be: “join in the cover-up and there is no problem, candidly report or discuss bad news and the messenger becomes the problem.”

The challenges facing Galesburg won't go away just because we stop talking or writing about them and we certainly won't meaningfully address them from a position of ignorance. The citizens, leaders and press of this community need to frankly assess the strengths and weaknesses and begin addressing the latter as we promote the former. The people who run GREDA have aptly demonstrated that they are not about to change so we have little choice but to replace GREDA. If the people who lead Galesburg can't face the challenges we face and and prefer to be blissfully oblivious then they too must be replaced. It's just that simple.