Formed in 1982, the Economic Development Council for the Peoria Area is a coalition of local counties whose focus is on the creation of new jobs. Among the organization’s responsibilities, EDC’s marketing and business development team aggressively recruits new businesses, finances area infrastructure improvement projects, and helps local companies expand and modernize their operations. Perhaps the only Tri-County organization under one roof, EDC has built its success on a cooperative regional marketing and business development strategy which packages and sells the Tri-County area as a whole. Catalysts for development are EDC’s directors, who work side by side for their respective counties and share the benefits of this regional approach to business and community development….

Steve Balistreri, Peoria County Economic Development Director, is EDC’s senior staffer, having joined the organization in 1988 after a two-year stop in Chillicothe as the city’s economic development director. He is a member of the board of directors of the Mid-America Economic Development Council.

Randy Belsley, Tazewell County Economic Development Director, is one of only 17 Certified Economic Developers in Illinois. A lifelong resident of Morton, Randy previously worked in community development, prior to joining EDC in 1991. A member of the American Economic Development Council, Randy sits on the strategic planning committee.

Greg Truninger, Woodford County Economic Development Director, is from Savanna, Illinois. Prior to joining EDC, he was vice president of Charleston Chamber of Commerce and executive director of the Savanna Chamber, and has been active in the Illinois Rural Partners program.

As three individuals representing the economic development interests of three different counties, yet working in cooperation to serve the entire area, you represent a unique phenomenon. What kind of competition exists among you?

Steve: There is competition among us to some degree, but it is a healthy competition and that is good for everybody. It keeps us all on our toes and makes us better at our jobs. We take a regional approach to economic development. We know if we work hard to do a project in any one of the three counties, it is going to benefit the entire region. A good example of that is the recently announced U.S. Postal Service facility which will provide hob opportunities for everyone in the Tri-County area, although the physical location of the facility will be in Peoria County. It will mean economic health benefits for the entire area. If you work under the premise of regional economic development, the competition is not cutthroat, but cooperative.

Greg: The competition is to succeed. We are unique in that we are competing for businesses, jobs and resources, but we are still a team. I think the fact that we have had difference experiences and have different backgrounds allows us to complement one another.

Randy: Day-to-day we are working with the businesses in our counties, but we are all part of a regional organization whose prime mission is to strengthen the economic base of the entire Tri-County area. In that sense, the competition is good; but as directors we are sensitive to the site locating decisions of businesses. I think we would all agree that our first desire is to keep businesses in the communities where they are currently located. Secondly, if they choose to relocate elsewhere, we would want to keep them within that county. And finally, if they were considering sites outside our service area, we would work closely together to do our best to find them the most appropriate location within the Tri-County area.

People like to talk about a perceived movement in recent years of business from the Peoria side of the river to the East Peoria side because of an alleged more business-friendly environment. How do you handle such concerns? Randy, what would you do if approached by a business wanting to leave Peoria County for Tazewell County. Or, Greg, for Woodford County?

Randy: My first response would be to make Steve aware of that situation – to alert him that this company might be looking elsewhere. Again, EDC’s first choice would be to keep that company in Peoria County. However, once a company has decided to make a move, we will do everything we can to locate that company to a site in our area. Naturally, I would try my best to help them make that move to Tazewell County.

Greg: Communication is crucial in a situation like that. Informing Steve right away would be my first move. But as Randy mentioned, if the opportunity presents itself, I owe it to my board and the communities in Woodford County to put the best possible package together on their behalf.

Steve: We all communicate well among ourselves when an issue like that arises. We just went through a situation where a company was considering locations for expansion and they requested proposals from all three counties. We sat down as a group and identified the best possible sites for the project in all three counties, along with specific incentives (all different) and came up with a nice package of seven or eight sites throughout the area. Once a company has the menu of siting options, it becomes a business decision on where to expand, with the company weighing the pluses and minuses of all the locations.

There might be a perception that Peoria and East Peoria are competing for industry, and in a way they are. The general public has to understand that many times a company will make their site locating decision based on factors outside of our control – factors such as their customer base, availability of a building or site which fits their parameters, a competitive tax structure and quality schools. A majority of the time a company will make a move to a new location because it is a sound business decision first.

Do you find it difficult sometimes, because you cooperate so much, to defend your actions to the interests in your individual counties which might think you didn’t do enough to keep a business in the county or to attract a business to the county?

Randy: Not really. In fact, the County Board has been very supportive of my efforts over the last four years I’ve been in this position. I’ve always lived in Tazewell County and my loyalties are there also; the county leadership understands that.

Greg: It hasn’t been a problem. Like Randy, I have a good relationship with the leadership in the count and keep them informed on projects I’m working on. If we were to “lose one” to either Peoria or Tazewell, I don’t think it would reflect negatively at all on EDC or our original concept.

Steve: About eight and a half years ago when Peoria County decided to support the Economic Development Council with a full-time director for Peoria County, we all realized at the time we were going to win some and lose some. The elected officials and administrative staff for Peoria County understand now that we can do much more together than we could alone; it is not about parochialism, pitting one country against another. When we do lose a company because of a locational move, we revisit the project and ask when we could have done better. And we learn more about our needs – perhaps more access to capital or improvement of the infrastructure.

During the years when Jim Thompson was governor of Illinois, there was a big emphasis on offering incentives to attract businesses from outside the state, and there was a greater emphasis at the EDC on attracting companies from outside the area. We have seen that emphasis shift on both the state and local levels toward maintaining and expanding existing businesses, infrastructure improvements, workforce training, and generally trying to create and keep an attractive business climate. How has this shift away from “smokestack chasing” affected what you do?

Randy: At that time, that approach was probably appropriate because of the local economic conditions in the state; we were rapidly losing companies and jobs to areas outside Illinois. But times have changed and over the years most of those financial incentives have dried up; many don’t exist today. Partially because of that, we have focused much of our efforts on the existing business base and finding ways to help local business expand.

The traditional mindset would tell you that in order to create new jobs, you have to recruit new industry. But we’ve learned that up to 90 percent of the jobs created here will come from the business in our own backyard.

The lack of true incentives oat the state and federal levels has also caused us to become more creative in terms of developing our own resources, which are not necessarily conventional, in order to address the needs of the businesses in our area.

Greg: Our continued emphasis will be on retention/expansion, but EDC has not lost sight of the need for balance between a good local business assistance programs and an aggressive outreach effort. As far as bringing new companies, it can be advantageous to attract several smaller companies rather than one big company. If a small community lost a big employer, it can be devastating to their economy.

Steve: Obviously, with the state taking a basic development approach, it has caused use to push the envelope a little – made us more creative. It’s been a great stimulus to develop local assets like the Heartland Community Development Corporation, where all the counties have gotten together and worked – almost on a venture capital basis – to use local capital to help finance projects as opposed to going “hat in hand” back to the state or federal government.

In another sense, the stat’s approach is telling the business community that we are not going to become involved in bidding wars, especially within the state of Illinois. It has, however, made us a little less effective in overall competitiveness with other states like Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa and Kentucky – all of which are beefing up their incentive programs. But even that is changing; some of the governors have met to discuss an embargo on the use of incentives to steal business from one state to the next.

We would like to see the day when we win a project based on our region’s merits, not how much we could scrape together to give away.

How much concern is there about Illinois’ competitive position relating to other states which may have a somewhat better business climate when it comes to issues like workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance?

Steve: We’ve made our legislators aware of those challenges. And Dennis Whetstone, director of the Department of Commerce and Community Affairs, has drafted a new two-year plan that will let the world know that Illinois is in business again (for those who perceived we were out of business), and that we are in business because Illinois is a good place to do business, not because we are giving handouts.

Greg: The workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance issues are concerns for almost all manufacturers in Illinois. And as we have discussed, if Illinois is going to attract new business without the use of incentives, work will need to be done to make it easier to do business here.

Randy: We are very much aware of some of the constraints that exist at the state level, but we have acknowledged that some of those things are out of our power. What we can do is create the best possible environment for our own region and make it a premier location to do business within the state. That means continuing to improve our economic development foundations – things like transportation, infrastructure, access to technology and business resources, workforce development, availability of capital, and quality of life.

Is the Peoria area’s reputation as a seat of labor dispute changing? How is the Caterpillar-UAW strike affecting outsiders’ perception of Peoria today?

Randy: The perception has improved since the early 1980s, but many people outsider the area still assume that the Tri-County area is a tough place for a manufacturer to do business. The fact that Caterpillar is performing so well has taken much of the negative spotlight off of the Peoria area. And our diversity has helped as well. Many of the companies that were once dependant upon one major manufacturer for their success have since found new customers and tapped new markets.

Greg: Oddly, Woodford County is in a position to benefit from any negative perception relating to the Caterpillar-UAW situation, but it is not something we encourage. Companies that are leery of unionization will have a tendency to look to more rural locations for their expansions or relocations, so in that sense our county can be attractive.

Steve: Questions relating to Caterpillar are probably among the top three we are asked when a prospect is looking at the Peoria area. Our area’s economic base has diversified remarkably since 1982 when EDC was formed, and that has helped us update the national perception about the attractiveness of Peoria as a place to live and do business. There are other misperceptions. Some people in Chicago think Peoria is located at the intersection of two dirt roads in the middle of a cornfield. But if we can get them here and let them see for themselves the appeal of this area, then it is east to turn around those outdated stereotypes. We work hard to let prospects know that a Fortune 45 company does very well from here and that we have the physical infrastructure, workforce and other business amenities that would allow any company to do business successfully in Central Illinois.

How important is the proposed Peoria-to-Chicago highway to economic development in the Peoria area?

Greg: It’s very important. Interstate 39, which runs through Woodford County, illustrates the business development potential a new highway would bring. Minonk and El Paso have basically become boom towns in a small sense. You can’ underestimate the benefit that a connector to Chicago would have on the entire Tri-County area.

Randy: Outside of workforce development, transportation is the top factor considered by companies today involved in a siting decision. From that standpoint, our area does have some limitations by not having a direct route to Chicago. At the same time, I feel we do have some advantages over other regions; if you look at all four modes of transportation collectively (waterway, rail, air and highway), we stand head and shoulders above many others. If you pull just the highway component out, then we have some work to do. There is no doubt that it is important for the Tri-County area to make a concerted effort to get this highway built.

Steve: It’s no secret that highway transportation is a significant factor in the location of businesses. The collective efforts of our three counties and neighbors to the north are telling the business community that we take this seriously and are working together to generate a better transportation system for the Tri-County area. Obviously, it will take some time to get a road constructed, but if we work together like we have in the last couple of years during this highway study, it will eventually be easier for businesses to get products in and out of the Tri-County area. Peoria is geographically positioned as a prime warehouse and distribution center. Now we have to improve our accessibility, not just to the north, but in all directions.

Where do we stand on air transportation?

Randy: I think Bruce Carter and the Greater Peoria Regional Airport Authority have done a tremendous job in the last couple of years in taking advantage of the capabilities of that facility. You see that in terms of the increases in cargo and freight handled out there. It’s a little-recognized fact that the Peoria airport is a U.S. Customs Port of Entry, so we have some capabilities that other regional airports don’t have.

Greg: We hear about some difficulties from the passenger standpoint, but it’s not as much of an issue for the companies in Woodford County. Bruce Carter recently talked to our board about the challenges airports in mid-sized communities are facing. One concept is for the private sector to cover the costs associated with offering more direct flights. I don’t think there are any easy answers.
Steve: Passenger traffic, of course, has been an issue for the last five years. But, as Randy said, I think Bruce Carter of the Authority has a real handle on the situation. Just as the people at the Airport Authority have turned the Airport into a regional cargo and freight hub, I have a feeling that Bruce and his people eat the Airport Authority will do the same thing to address the challenge of strengthening passenger service.

We are not unique in our situation; communities throughout the central states similar to Peoria have this problem as well. We have a blueprint, we have the aggressive work of the Airport Authority, and I think in a matter of time that challenge will be overcome.

Everything you do as economic development directors is not necessarily glamorous, and doesn’t always involved a major headline as was the case in the U.S. Post Office Remote Encoding Center project. How important are the smaller development projects, such as helping a rural community obtain funding to extend a sewer line, for example?

Greg: They’re very important. We have made an organizational commitment to help communities secure funding to upgrade their public facilities. Sally Hanley is our grant writer and one of the best in the state, if not the best. Her expertise in doing the necessary paperwork and fiscal reporting makes it easy on local communities to seek alternative funding sources for their infrastructure improvements. Once these projects are identified and surface through each of the directors, Sally is brought in to lend her technical expertise in packaging the various program applications.

Randy: There is a common saying that “community development precedes economic development.” We find ourselves involved in projects at the community level in terms of infrastructure support – helping communities get their “house in order,” to create an environment for existing businesses to stay there and grow, and put the community in a more attractive position to draw new investment. In a sense these are less glamorous projects that you don’t read or hear about as much, but they are essential for good community development…. It’s extending a sewer line to open up new development sites, or making improvements to the water treatment system to bring better quality water to residents and businesses. We have found ourselves more and more involved in helping secure funding for these types of projects in the last two years.

Steve: There’s nothing more fulfilling than working with a community to develop its infrastructure – getting its house in order to be able to accept economic development. As Randy said, without community development, you aren’t going to get economic development. We have helped communities to recognize that they have to make the investment in their foundations and be well organized in planning, so when economic development opportunities surface, they are ready for them. I’m not sure this type of work is less glamorous or mundane; it’s fulfilling because it lets you know you have your act together.

Workforce development is one of the primary concerns of businesses. How do you feel we stack up in this regard as a Tri-County area?

Steve: It’s probably the second most critical factor corporate decision-makers look at when making relocation decisions. What major company is going to make an investment in brick and mortar in building a plant if they don’t have a qualified workforce to fill the workstation that will be in that plant? It’s one area where we’ve encouraged our local legislators to find additional state training dollars to help local businesses compete. As far as the local workforce is concerned, District 150, ICC, the Private Industry Council and others have initiated programs to update worker skills. It can make a real difference when we present the Tri-County area as a potential site for a business location, because we are able to demonstrate a workforce that is productive, and works harder and smarter than most other regions.

Greg: Our training programs are solid, but for Woodford County it is a numbers game. Because we have one of the lowest unemployment rates in the state, the availability of labor isn’t’ always there for expanding companies needing to increase employment. When the unemployment rate gets under 3.0 percent, it can really squeeze us. It causes us to place more emphasis on our training programs. We have lots of smaller machine shops; not just factories, but companies with computerized equipment. Their employees require on-going training that these companies could not otherwise afford on their own.

Randy: Historically, many of the stat’s workforce training programs have been focused on new hires, whereas the majority of our efforts the last few years have been retraining existing work forces, due to the changes in technology, new equipment, and the high-tech industries that are out there today. As a result, we communicate with companies about the resources that are available for funding. Training costs are becoming big capital expenditures for companies today. Last year we were very fortunate to obtain several workforce training grants to help companies with this very issue. We anticipate being even more involved with those matters in the future.

What have been the results of your efforts in business retention over the past few years?

Steve: Four years ago, when our board directed us to intensify the business retention program, we identified almost immediately that the task wasn’t so much working with companies to help the solve their problems as it was working with companies to take advantage of opportunities. In visiting with firms and discussing their needs, we tapped a new industry that we hadn’t really given much thought to before – tourism. With the advent of riverboat gamin, Peoria’s recent success in landing the IHSA basketball tournament, the development of Three Sisters Park, and the Bass Masters Tournament, an exciting new sector has taken root which brings brand new money into this community – money which will turn over seven times. Beyond individual, daily work with area businesses, the retention program has also served us as a market assessment.

Greg: It’s been successful. If we don’t take care of our industries first then who will? Our marketing efforts would be futile if we didn’t ensure that our local firms were able to grow. We are helping businesses compete and we’re finding out where our opportunities are. We’re learning about which industries we might need to recruit to support our existing industrial base. Besides the work we do one-on-one with a company, there are many benefits that come from having a strong retention and expansion program.

Randy: For me, the time spent on business retention is some of the most rewarding. As a resident of this area, it never ceases to amaze me how many businesses are our there that are very successful, but don’t often seek a lot of attention. They provide products and services that are used worldwide. It’s fascinating to learn about all of this, but even more importantly it makes us more knowledgeable about the needs and challenges these businesses face. This puts us in a position to be able to respond with resources to help them address their unique situations.

Time and again we have seen cases where an initial meeting has resulted in business expansion, a building addition, the purchase of new equipment, a training grant, a government contractor finding a new site within the region for expansion or relocation. Without making those face-to-face calls with business owners and plant managers, many of these opportunities would have been missed.

What is the greatest obstacle you face in your work? What is the greatest obstacle this area has to overcome?

Steve: One of the greatest obstacles in Peoria County is future funding for the things we want to do. I think there is a misperception out there that the EDC is an organization that generates its funds from taxes. That is not so. One of the little-known facts is that we get support financially from the business community. Many local companies are financial contributors to EDC, but we need more investment from the private sector to be able to do the things which will take us to the next level. If that obstacle can be cleared, only bigger and better things will happen.

Greg: One of the greatest obstacles I face in Woodford County is the perception that because our organization is headquartered in Peoria, then most of our resources are focused on Peoria. That’s not how the EDC is set up, and we continually let people know that. I work for EDC and cover Woodford County, as Randy does for Tazewell and Steve for Peoria. It really is a true Tri-County effort. My county has access to the same companies and least that the other two counties have.

Randy: The greatest challenge is in getting our arms around all of the opportunities out there. At any given time, EDC may have a heavy volume of active projects that all require varying levels of attention. But that’s what makes the job challenging, exciting, overwhelming and frustrating at the same time.

We’re not in the type of business where we can turn down projects, so we take on as much work as possible. We live by time constraints such as city council meetings, program deadlines, public hearings, or the company’s own time frame for their particular projects. But that’s our job, to get over these hurdles so the businesses don’t’ have to.

What are you most excited about within the scope of your work in your respective counties?

Greg: The most exciting thing to me is to watch our communities grow through planned development – to watch the growth of small, Main Street, USA, communities that have been working for economic development opportunities for a long time.

The location of Woodford County, between Peoria and Bloomington, will continue to be an advantage for Woodford County. We have the best of both worlds with big city assets and smaller town qualities, and with EDC’s assistance, Woodford County has a great future.

Randy: Anytime we are able to accomplish an intended goal, whether with a community of with a business, there is a lot or personal satisfaction. It may be helping a community find financing to make improvements to their wastewater treatment plant. It may be helping a company obtain a piece of equipment for which they otherwise would not be able to find available capital. Or, it may be meeting with a company that needs to expand but isn’t sure just where to turn for the right information. I’m most excited that our organization continues to evolve. We’re changing with the times and adapting to local, state, national and world business conditions. It’s a formula that’s working.

Steve: We are standing at the threshold of the next level of economic development. There are two things I am excited about which will take us to that next level. One is the maturing of the Heartland Community Development Corporation started a little more than two years ago. The 13 investors are starting to see the ability to do projects that would have otherwise not been funded. We’re becoming self-sufficient and soon we won’t have to go to the state or federal government; we can do it on our own.

Another project I am excited about is Peoria County’s confidence in the EDC as a facilitator of the new Peoria County Business Park. This is certainly something we have never embarked upon before. It’s exciting because we will have some control over how the park is developed. It is an asset which can be utilized by existing businesses or as a tool to attract new businesses. It will make us a lot more competitive.

If a Peoria-to-Chicago highway is built, it will cost hundreds of millions of dollars. We have the Illinois River running through our area, demanding our attention – something else which will call for huge amounts of money. However, the outlook for getting the money we need from state and federal governments is looking as dim as it has in recent memory. How are we going to fund the major projects that need to be accomplished in our area, and how are we going to tap the private sector to accomplish them?

Steve: It seems to be working in other communities. The term I have heard used is “public-private partnership.” Obviously the private sector understands that the river is an asset; how you encourage the private sector to finance that asset is a difficult question. On the other side of the coin, the public sector has to do its share. The river is a crucial part of the infrastructure of our area.

Greg: Companies that are dependent on that channel of water for the operation of their plants and transportation of their products certainly know its importance. I think it goes back to what Steve said earlier about generating your own resources; it may fall on the shoulder of the local community to ensure that the river is properly maintained. As far as tapping the private sector for support, ultimately the companies that depend on the river most may be responsible for its future.

Randy: If you look at the arrival of the Par-A-Dice gaming boat, the one think it did was to channel local attention on what an important asset the Illinois River really is. Now you’re seeing aggressive riverfront development on both sides of the river, with each community looking to capitalize on this magnet for development.

As for the future of the river, groups like the Heartland Water Resources Council are actively lobbying the federal government to ensure that the Peoria area gets a fair piece of the funding pie when block grants are doled out.

What misperceptions do you fight concerning the work of the EDC?

Randy: For me personally, one of the biggest misperceptions is that my office is located in Pekin – the Tazewell County seat. I often have to clarify how the organization is structured. It can be somewhat awkward for amusing when I explain that I represent the businesses of Tazewell County but my office is in Peoria. Once I am able to explain the EDC concept, however, it makes sense. Another misperception is that the EDC only focuses on large projects in the larger communities. Although rural and urban communities face many different challenges, they need the same foundation for long-term economic success. Both need a vital commercial base to maintain a sense of community. And on a day to day basis, we do work with both small and large communities.

Greg: Many people think we are a government agency, but we’re a private-public organization. And, of course, a lot of people think my office is located in Eureka. I let them know the reason why my office is located in Peoria; that we have the resources and staff here to help Woodford County businesses and communities. Some people also think we are a bank and come to us with high expectations that their request for financing will be accepted without question. We’re gap financiers and work with the banks, but we have to go through the same due diligence in order to approve a county loan.

Steve: The most frustrating misperception is that what we do at the EDC just happens. There are people who don’t have the slightest idea about the amount of time, effort and money expended by this organization to put us in a position to generate economic development projects both from within and outside the state.

People may pick up the paper and see 900 jobs coming to the Airport and thing the Postal Service and Federal Reserve just up and decided it would be a nice place to relocate. They don’t know about all the site visits, proposals, strategy sessions, and dollars spent cultivating that lead to bring it to fruition.

People need to understand the importance of having a regional economic development organization and what it can mean at all levels, from purchases of new homes to the sale of new cars. We also want them to understand it has to be properly funded for us to be able to continue at this level, and take it to the next level. IBI