Dick Neumiller, director – legislative and public affairs at Central Illinois Light Company (CILCO), is a native Peorian, having grown up in Peoria Heights and graduated from Peoria High School. After graduating from Knox College, followed by service in the U.S. Army, he did graduate work in business at Bradley University. He spent two years at Commercial National Bank before joining his father’s business, Humitube Mfg. Co., a cellophane packaging company which was sold in the late 1960s.
After the sale of his father’s business, Neumiller went to work with CILCO in January 1967. In his 25 years at CILCO, he has been involved in personnel work, labor relations, and contract negotiations. He served as a service sales manager for the Peoria division for a period of time, was involved in the managing of building services, was manager of rates and regulatory affairs, and served as a manager of corporate planning. Neumiller was a Peoria City Council member in the 1970s and 1980s and served for a short time as Peoria’s mayor. He has been director of legislative and public affairs since 1981, representing CILCO in legislative matters both in Springfield and in Washington, D.C. He has served on the boards of a number of local, state and national organizations including: the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce, Central Illinois Industrial Association, National Public Affairs Council, and National League of Cities. He was recently appointed to the Illinois Student Assistance Commission by Governor Jim Edgar.
When did you get involved in Peoria city government and how did you arrive at the position of mayor?
I ran for the Peoria City Council and was elected in April 1973. At that time the city had changed from the ten-ward system to a system with five districts and three at-large council members. I because the first council representative for the Fourth District and served on the City Council for twelve years. In 1984-85, when Mayor Carver took a job with the federal government as assistant secretary of the U.S. Air Force, the City Council appointed me mayor to serve out the unexpired term. I gave some consideration to running for a full term as mayor but was involved in a project for CILCO that prevented me from doing that.
In what were you involved at CILCO that made you reluctant to devote the time that would have been necessary for you to run for a full term as mayor?
I was part of the negotiations whereby the General Assembly in Springfield rewrote the Public Utilities Act, making possible the creation of public utility holding companies. It was because of that act that CILCORP, the holding company for CILCO, was formed in 1985. For me, it was a matter of placing my priorities at the time with my employer.
I was also in the middle of a project directed by CILCORP Ventures Inc., one of our subsidiaries, that created the Biotechnology Research and Development Corporation, which is headquartered at the ag lab in Peoria. This was a project which brought together six independent companies interested in biotech research. The six companies contribute money and, along with state and federal funds, decide for which research programs they will issue grants – with the thought that if these projects come to fruition, these companies have ways of commercializing the research. That has been up and running for about five years now. It’s one of those projects where there isn’t necessarily a lot of visual progress. The research continuum from the discovery of a compound to potential commercialization is in the range of 12 years. It’s still in the beginning stages, but in the state of Illinois the BRDC has awarded in excess of $8 million in research grants.
What exactly was involved in forming the BRDC?
In order to put BRDC together, we had to help pass the Technology Transfer Act of 1986 in which Bob Michel was very instrumental in helping us, along with Senators Alan Dixon and Paul Simon. Before the passage of that act, whatever was developed in federal laboratories was public property – there was no provision for exclusive licensing. With the passed of the act, exclusive licensing became possible, which in turn made BRDC and hundreds of relationships between private businesses and federal laboratories. Frankly, I think Bob Michel helped pass, in the Technology Transfer Act, one of the landmark pieces of legislation in the latter half of the century. It’s one of those things that gets very little exposure. When people raise the questions, “Does our congressmen really work on our behalf?” my response is, “You bet he does!”
Have there been other similar projects in which you have been involved?
I’m involved in another project through CILCORP Ventures Inc. to bring more medical research into the area through the Peoria Medical Research Corporation. One of the dimensions of that program is a federal component that will help the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria initiate a regulatory clinical pharmacology training program – an absolute first for the Food and Drug Administration – a vehicle for bringing a drug compound through the process of becoming a legitimate drug which can be marketed. Parts of this process can be done here in Peoria, something that will strengthen our community as a regional medical referral center. Congressman Bob Michel, Senator Paul Simon and Congressman Dick Durbin were very instrumental in helping us put this project together as well.
I enjoy this type of work very much. I think we’ve been successful with such projects both in Springfield and in Washington.
What are some of the unique problems you deal with in your job in government relations at CILCO and CILCORP?
Developing and building coalitions is the main challenge. With 100 senators and 435 representatives in Washington, D.C., and 177 legislators in Springfield, you try to build consensus. We always watch what is happening for what might negatively impact our customers. It’s very important to have a proactive agenda – to be moving forward and using the system to your advantage.
Sometimes it’s more difficult to work and convince your counterparts in other utilities to agree on a common direction than it is to convince legislators.
Lobbying often gets a bad knock, but basically our work is to carry information. I realize that there is some high-powered lobbying that goes on at the federal level that we don’t get involved in. We try to be selective in what we work on in terms of how important it is to us and whether we can affect the process. That’s where we put most of our resources. I would have to say that we have been very successful. We have been able to help our customers and bring about growth in the communities we serve.
CILCO is the lowest cost supplier of electricity in the state of Illinois and the lowest cost supplier of both electricity and natural gas. That’s a goal that our employees achieved and are very proud of. What better contribution can we make to economic development than to have reasonable energy costs?
What has changed the most in Peoria business since you were mayor?
Many of the changes center around Caterpillar. In the early 1980s we began to experiences economic recession in this area primarily because of the impact of Caterpillar. We had been lucky in previous recessions that Caterpillar had not been affected as they were in the 1980s. During the time I was mayor, Caterpillar was going through a dramatic change. A lot of people were wondering what was going to happen. I think they have now demonstrated their ability to continue to be a major competitor in world markets. At this point in time Caterpillar is indicating that they need to have competitive agreements with their organized employees – the kind of labor agreements that will enable them to maintain their competitive position in world markets. This is necessary despite the fact that is has brought a period of labor strife to the Peoria area, which I don’t think anybody relishes.
It appears there have been many improvements in the Caterpillar product line which suggests that they are not only going to be contenders in the world market, but they are looking for those niches they can best serve. That has to be, in the long run, the best news for the Peoria area, because they are the dominant manufacturer.
The medical community as a whole is a very important part of our economic base now. That’s one of the reasons CILCORP Ventures Inc. became interested in medical research. It was a way of more fully utilizing an asset that we already have. We are certainly about to see some major changes in healthcare coming out of Washington. My belief is that communities will figure out the best way to meet the goals that are laid out by the federal government. In Peoria there are much stronger relationships within the medical community today. There now seems to be a much higher level of cooperation, which is very encouraging.
Also encouraging is the growth of a number of smaller businesses that have done very well. Although RLI Corp. is not a new company, it is certainly a demonstration of a man from this area, Gerald Stevens, who had an idea that has grown tremendously. David Ransburg, with L.R. Nelson, is now building a new manufacturing facility. Tom Lund, with Customer Development Corporation, has been very successful.
You mentioned your concern about the labor conflict between the UAW and Caterpillar. How much of a negative is this for the Peoria area?
I think it’s unfortunate that this labor conflict exists in this area. I’m enough of an optimist to hope, however, that out of the present disagreements, something better can develop.
The Caterpillar labor unrest creates the perception that all union and management relationships in the Peoria area are contentious. I don’t think anything could be farther from the truth. I can’t remember the last time there was a real jurisdictional dispute between contractors and the construction trades. A lot of work has been done to improve those relationships. Our relationships at CILCO with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the International Brotherhood of Fireman and Oilers have strengthened over the years.
There are a lot of very satisfactory labor relationships in this area and there will always continue to be, but we tend to be overshadowed by what happens at Caterpillar because of its size and the press that it gets. This is not a bad labor town, as is sometimes perceived on the outside. The people in both management and labor who have worked to bring about better relationships don’t always get the credit they deserve.
When I was involved in labor negotiations, there was nothing more satisfying than reaching an agreement after hard, tough bargaining with the give-and-take necessary on both sides. In negotiations I have been involved with there has been a great deal of respect across the table.
How important are Peoria’s small businesses to the overall area economy?
I was in small business for a number of years, having been very close to a company that employed less than a hundred people. The economic backbone of this country is the fact that there is the opportunity to go into small business. Most jobs are created by small business.
We should listen to the people who run small businesses. We need to develop the kinds of ideas that allow them to create and develop businesses.
Peoria has always been blessed by a wide variety of small businesses. Peoria has a lot of diversification.
How well is our city government facilitating business growth and development? What needs to be done to foster a health business climate?
Certainly we need the kind of climate that helps retain the businesses we have and that helps grow new businesses. Sometimes there are problems – like red tape at City Hall. But I think that major improvements have been made there.
The city, like all government bodies, is getting more and more demands with less and less resources available. I have a lot of confidence in the city manager. I think the City Council as a whole has tried to be very responsive to the needs of the city.
It’s important to keep lines of communication open between the city and other governmental bodies like Peoria County, the Park District, the school district, etc. Many people get their tax bill and think that it is mainly city taxes when in fact they are supporting a variety of taxing bodies. Since the same citizens support so many units of government, it is important that local governments find ways to cooperate and communicate. I think Peoria has tried to do that. Sometimes w don’t recognize and appreciate that our leaders are trying to find efficiencies and better ways of doing things on behalf of the citizens.
What is your opinion on the current debate over whether Peoria’s water service should be municipally or privately owned and managed?
The subject of the City of Peoria purchasing the water company is very interesting. In this country there are far more municipal water systems than private. However, many people will argue that private enterprise can operate more effectively and efficiently than public ownership. City ownership of the water works could be a factor in the growth of the city.
I come down on the side of leaving the water system in the private sector. Since the time I was on the City Council, the water system has grown and improved.
The Peoria area has lost a sizable portion of its manufacturing base over the past two decades. How is that affecting the area at present and what should we expect in the future? How do you view the shift of emphasis to services and communication/information technology?
I believe the Economic Development Council for the Peoria Area should have as an ongoing goal to maintain a strong base of manufacturing in this community. This may not be manufacturing as we have known it in years gone by. Many manufacturing functions today are performed by computer-based tools which require different operating skills than in the past. It is important that we have upscale manufacturing facilities in this area, and that we continue to have an underlying manufacturing base. Our area educational systems should adequately prepare young men and women to be able to handle such job responsibilities. Local firms should be able to draw primarily from the local employment market.
The Peoria area has certainly seen significant development in services, telecommunications, etc. I am very impressed with the number of small businesses that abound in this area, and we must do everything possible to maintain the kind of climate that encourages these types of businesses.
Peoria has been criticized by some for having a “leadership vacuum” – not having the strong leadership that is perhaps had in the past. Is this valid? Does Peoria have an effective business coalition that can “get things done?”
Community and business leadership has been historically strong in Peoria. Community leadership brought us the city management form of government. Business and community leadership was a major factor in bringing us the Civic Center. The Civic Center has become a tremendous catalyst in the downtown. If the business community hadn’t put that together, I’m not so sure that the public sector would have been able to respond. Through the years, our business community has been very responsive.
Community leaders today find the need to develop a broad range of consensus on projects that sometimes tend to give the appearance that nothing is being done when in fact changes are occurring. Business leadership has been responsible both collectively and individually for many of the changes that have taken place in the downtown area. The Chamber of Commerce spearheaded the effort to establish the Business Academy and other academies with District 150 to give students the opportunity to focus more directly on specific occupations. The effort to reestablish railroad service between Peoria and Chicago is an initiative that has grown out of business leadership.
Our leaders today are faced with a much more challenging situation than in the past, much of it due to national trends. We talk about gridlock in the Congress. It’s not gridlock in the Congress; it’s gridlock in the country. In many respects we try to be all things to all people. We want our citizens to be more participatory and to exercise more free expression. These are positive initiatives which move us in the right direction, but at the same time it requires leadership that can cope with more and more interest groups. It’s a much more challenging situation today.
I do think we are at a point in Peoria where we have to develop a vision of what we thing this community ought to be and what is best for this community over the long run.
What are your thoughts about the Heartland River Project and future development of Peoria’s riverfront?
There is a positive effort to further develop the riverfront between the new Bob Michel bridge and the Murray Baker Bridge. Back in the 1970s some concepts were developed for that area, but it was felt that the immediate need was to do something with the central business district. Perhaps now we are better positioned to turn our attention to the river through a cooperative effort between the public and private sectors.
It is important to keep in mind, in planning for this area, that the river has two sides. We always need to remember that.
How much of a problem is parochialism as our communities try to work together?
I think parochialism is okay up to a point. When parochialism begins to deny people possibilities that in the long run would enhance their quality of life and help to improve or stabilize services, then parochialism is not good. We have a lot of longstanding parochialism in this area. Some of the barriers have been broken down, but many of them are still in place. The concept of The Heartland Partnership recognizes that perhaps three counties should pool resources and work together to create a stronger and more coordinated economic base.
The proposal by West Peorians to form their own municipality at a time when resources are extremely difficult to come by certainly needs a lot of careful thought.
I lived in Peoria Heights for a good part of my life and it is a wonderful community. I know that some people in Peoria Heights will forever want it to be an independent community. But I think you have to stand back and consider whether present structures really are best for the future.
What other ways exist for Peoria and surrounding communities to work together?
I was asked by CILCO president Wayne Slone to be his representative on the high-speed rail committee that meets in Bloomington. I think there are opportunities to look at ourselves as part of an even larger community. We have a superb airport facility. It looks like Bloomington-Normal will have a high-speed rail system. Eventually perhaps the two should be linked. The drive from Peoria to Bloomington is comparable to a drive some one side of the city to another. We have to continue to look for ways to cooperate.
In Peoria we have the largest manufacturer of earth-moving equipment in the world. In Bloomington, in State Farm, they have one of the world’s largest property and casualty insurance companies. These organizations are reaching out across the world. How can our communities benefit from these assets? These are assets that many other communities our size just don’t have.
We do need a better highway transportation connection to Chicago, and there is a study underway to do that. We should continue to look in the direction of Kansas City because such a connection through Missouri will be very important to us.
We have a lot of great opportunities to develop Peoria, taking advantage of our assets. I would hope that at some point our leadership would develop some kind of a comprehensive vision for this area, with an economic component, and educational component, a social component, etc. Visions are nothing more than possibilities for the future. You can’t predict the future but you can invent it.
How do you view Illinois’ business climate?
I think Illinois’ business climate is generally okay. Our workman’s compensation program could be improved. The agreed bill process which started a number of years ago has been a step in the right direction.
We tend to forget the variety and number of skills necessary to operate the businesses in our area. Some of our people who moved out of this area and went to other parts of the country were very much surprised at how much of a higher skill level central Illinois workers have compared with some parts of the country. We enjoy a level of skills in this part of the country that we have a tendency to take for granted. In Illinois we have a good variety of skilled workers. Illinois as a state is strategically positioned geographically. We have good soil and water resources.
What do you see as the key issues for U.S. business through the end of the decade?
U.S businesses have to establish strong communication links throughout the world. Certainly the location of foreign-owned companies in our country and vice versa is important. We need to take advantage of shared technologies. We have to try to better understand the cultures of other companies. Bilingual efforts are essential, not only out of necessity for doing business, but as a matter of mutual respect. American business has to work with the federal government to reduce trade barriers.
American business has to convey to all Americans that our livelihoods depend upon being able to sell our products and services around the world. There are a number of initiatives under way here in the Peoria area to help small businesses access global markets.
Business needs to work closely with governments around the world. Many areas of the world where there is armed conflict will have peace only by building an economy. The only people who know how to build an economy are people who have experience in business. If you could stop all of the fighting around the world, what would you do then? You would conduct business and commerce. You would build an economy.
Business in this country, with the help of the federal government, needs to develop a series of plans and programs to help countries of the world build their economies. The best example in my lifetime is what we did with the Marshall Plan in Europe and its counterpart in Japan after World War II. We literally helped these countries rebuild themselves. I think we need to have available that kind of planning and vision where business leadership can play a greater role in affecting political decisions that might help stop the senseless fighting throughout the world and help focus on building an economic base. To me that would be the single greatest gift that American business could give to the world. IBI