A Publication of WTVP

March 5-9 is National Manufacturing Week. A number of local organizations, including the Employers' Association, the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce, the Economic Development Council and the Illinois Manufacturing Extension Center, are joining forces to highlight the importance of manufacturing to the local economy. With an economic slowdown looming, perhaps it's time to ask how ready the community is to weather a downturn, to look at our local economic landscape, and review the important role manufacturing plays in sustaining a strong quality of life for area citizens.

The bad economic news of course has been most chilling, for the so-called dot-com companies. The meteoric late 90's rise of Internet companies came crashing back to earth in 2000. The NASDAQ, made up almost exclusively of high technology corporations, is down 50 percent since March. Business to Business e-commerce companies have lost nearly $800 billion in market value, more than the currency currently in circulation in the United States.

During the love affair, it had become trendy sport to refer to ours as the digital economy, the service economy. To be sure, growing industries in services such as data retrieval and storage, computers and micro processors and wireless telecommunications technology have contributed to the emergence of the "New Economy."

Meanwhile, here at home, business and political leaders have ambitiously jumped on the technology bandwagon and are trying to position Peoria as a technology center. A focus on technology and computer training, providing access to high speed Internet connections to businesses and citizens, and improving Peoria's quality of life amenities are among the steps Peoria is taking to become an attractive place for technology investment and talent.

The pain being felt in the tech sector is, however tempered by a comforting reality. The Peoria area, while clearly diversified, cannot dispute that manufacturing is the important engine that drives this local economy. The news nationally for manufacturing is also not so promising. With some high profile layoffs and shutdowns, Chrysler and Motorola most notable among them-and with economic indicators pointing to a downturn in manufacturing productivity and output, it would appear that manufacturing is declining in importance as an important cog in the nation's economy.

We don't want to see that ripple effect reach Central Illinois. Built on a heritage of heavy industry, the region has made impressive strides to broaden its economic mix since the crippling economic downturn of the early 1980's. Growth in economic sectors such as medical, insurance, professional services and tourism have contributed to Peoria being less dependent on Caterpillar and heavy manufacturing for jobs and wealth creation. Even long-time suppliers to Caterpillar and other larger manufacturers have gotten the message that they need to look for new markets for their products. Yet for all of our talk of diversification we are, in many ways, still very dependent on Caterpillar and manufacturing. Proudly dependent. Many head-of-household income jobs in the Peoria area continue to be linked to Big Yellow, a fact for which we should neither ignore nor apologize.

Interestingly, ask many of the community's business leaders where our technology talent resides, and the answers might be surprising. Real technology innovation is taking place in the region's manufacturing facilities, on the factory floor. Robotics and computer aided manufacturing, lasers and "clean room" production of electronic components are just a few examples of where real high tech activity is thriving. Today, a young person going to work in a manufacturing company is likely to find the plant a cleaner, quieter, safer and more sophisticated place than they may have imagined. The days of the traditional assembly line jobs are fewer in number and those still around show much change to embrace technology. Workers are much more likely to operate state-of-the-art machinery that has amazing capabilities.

For all of our aspirations to go computer high tech, we need to remember that we're still a community that once made its name-and still does-by making things. Earth moving and mining equipment, steel and sprinklers are probably our highest profile outputs. But many are unaware of some other unique and equally impressive products made in the region-satellite towers, specialty chemicals, pumpkin processing, prescription shoe inserts, ethanol, plastic Easter eggs, yard ornaments, and fire equipment among them. We haven't even touched on the numerous supplier companies that support these manufacturing giants.

Nurturing e-commerce is still an important part of the region's future, especially for manufacturers. Larger firms are tapping into the power of Internet purchasing portals to buy parts and raw materials on-line at lower costs. Where competition was once another family-owned business down the street, it may now be a similar company in another state. This trend will require the Peoria area's long-established manufacturers to reinvent the way they do business, not only with their major customer, but to attract future customers as well. Just click on, then ask management how dealers are reacting to the technology and on-line purchasing. It's been a revolutionary success story of the merging of manufacturing and technology.

Join us in celebrating the important contributions manufacturers make to the Peoria area. We need to make sure that we dedicate resources to ensure that the sector stays strong for many more years to come. IBI