William O. Browning, president and CEO of The Heartland Partnership, is responsible for coordinating 12 organizations under an umbrella group, including the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development Council. Prior to joining the Heartland, Browning was the first chief of the FCC’s Emergency Broadcast System, appointed by President Bush. During the Reagan Administration, he was appointed to the Small Business Administration Midwest Regional Advisory Board. Browning has held chamber of commerce presidencies in Wilkes-Barre, Penn., and Springfield, Kankakee, and Charleston, Ill. He has also served as vice president of Community/Industrial Relations for Trailmobile, and vice president and general manager of Consolidated Communications of Springfield. He has served and continues to serve on numerous state and national boards.

Briefly explain The Heartland Partnership and its various subsidiaries.

In simple terms, The Heartland Partnership is an umbrella corporation which was created to synthesize the services of several related area business organizations. We’re just like Caterpillar, RLI, or any other company that has subsidiaries. Our most notable subsidiaries are the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development Council.

Through the Partnership, the Chamber and EDC share some common functions such as office space, financial management and information services. Besides coordinating these “in-house” functions, The Heartland Partnership has an external role as well – to bring the various Chambers and small business service providers together to work on broad issues such as transportation, education and training, and intergovernmental relations. Simply put, the Partnership can be a forum to bring various Tri-County interests together in order to make things happen.

There are obviously some potential problems with a large umbrella organization like The Heartland Partnership that tires to bring some diverse groups together. How difficult is it, and how difficult has it been over the last four years, to manage this larger, umbrella organization which was formerly several autonomous groups?

As with any attempt to bring people and organizations with diverse interests together, you can more one step forward, but you often get pushed a few steps back. This has been the case in many of the communities I have had the pleasure of serving during the past 31 years.

One thing it is important to remember is that the formation of The Heartland Partnership did not involved merging any organizations; so the EDC, the Chamber, and the others are still separate entities with their own missions, goals and boards. That is a common misconception of The Heartland Partnership. Again, it is an umbrella company that has helped eliminate some duplication, and provide the forum for speaking as one voice on important issues.

In the Peoria area, this can be a little more challenging because so many of the communities here have their own governments and they are located in such close proximity to one another. They all want to grow, so it can be difficult to get everyone to agree on any one direction or given approach on a certain issue.

The Medina Township issue is a great example. Rather than splintering the region even more and adding another layer of government, we ought to be looking at ways to consolidate some governments here. This is not an easy task and does not happen without controversy, but the regions that have “unit” government find it much easier to come to a consensus on issues, at far less cost to the taxpayers.

It is very challenging when you try to bring organizations with different missions under one holding company, regardless of whether they maintain their own identity.

Whether its justified or not, there is a perception that Peoria, East Peoria, Pekin, etc. are all pulling their own directions, not too willing to cooperate. Yet, you are trying to coalesce these groups under an umbrella organization. How do you overcome this parochialism to cooperate on various projects? Do you see this parochialism lessening in the future?

First, we are not trying to bring these communities under the Partnership. We’re simply providing a vehicle for those communities to join forces on certain issues or projects that can have wide-ranging effects on the future growth of the entire area. And in my opinion we are beginning to see it strengthen.

For example, a year ago was the first time I am aware of that all the Tri-County chambers of commerce came together through The Heartland Partnership to push for a five-year road improvement plan, and were successful in receiving the endorsement of the Illinois Department of Transportation. This means that every community and chamber collectively said that roads here deserve prioritized attention in Springfield. Springfield listened and everyone was a winner.

Over the past three years, we have been successful in holding together the Tri-County coalition work into get a freeway built from Chicago through our region and beyond. The same thing goes for saving the Illinois River…this Is not just a problem for Peoria or East Peoria; it is everyone’s problem. That’s why The Heartland Partnership serves such an important purpose. We can get much more bang for our buck if we’re all on the same page.

Your built-in problem here seems to be that you have The Heartland Partnership made up of numerous organizations, but among them is only one chamber of commerce – the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce. So while you are trying to get cooperation from the entire Tri-County for EDC and other groups, they all have their own chambers which are outside of the umbrella of The Heartland Partnership. How do you get around this sticky situation?

You don’t get around it. Each organization serves a very distinct purpose in the day-to-day services they provide to their customers. The Peoria Area Chamber provides services to its members. EDC works with all area businesses and communities to help them grow and create jobs. Small and Minority Business and Illinois Business Financial Services help entrepreneurs live the dream of starting and growing a business. The Illinois Riverfront Development Corporation is focused on finding private support for the development projects underway along the Riverfront. The various other area chambers serve a valuable role in their respective communities. And the Convention and Visitors Bureau is helping make the area a premier destination in which to visit and play.

It has never been the intent of The Heartland Partnership to merge all these together…that would be unrealistic and probably unproductive. However, we can communicate and work together on the issues that are of benefit to all of us – regardless of the community. Communication is very important, and we get these various groups together once a quarter to hit the common issues head-on and let everyone know what everyone else is doing. Over the past two years of having each chamber and related organization do this, we have started to build trust. However, trust is only good as long as we keep our word and we deliver on what we say we will do, meaning everyone together.

Furthermore, all of the Tri-County chambers along with Canton, Galesburg, and Lincoln, meet every two months to discuss joint legislative opportunities. These partners make up a true “one stop shop” which is constantly being used as a model for other communities in Illinois and throughout the United States.

Some critics of The Heartland Partnership remain unconvinced that this large umbrella group is the way to go. How do you respond? Were the Peoria Chamber and the EDC any stronger four years ago when they were separate entities, or are they stronger today?

In my opinion both are stronger today. However, each does have its own identity which will always remain intact. Although I wasn’t here when the original concept was developed four years ago, I believe the intent probably was to merge EDC and the Chamber, but the leaders here quickly realized that it wasn’t the best route to go. EDC has been successful because area communities support the theory that we can do so much more in economic development and marketing as a broader region, not just focusing on one community or larger city.

And EDC and the Chamber really are very different organizations, with very different day-to-day activities. EDC is financially supported not only by the private sector, but also by three county governments and nine city governments. But its customers are really all area businesses and anyone else who needs help deciding whether the region is a good place to do business. The Chamber exists to serve its membership, the 1,100-plus companies that take advantage of the Chamber’s services.

To anyone who argues that keeping the two organizations separate is not the way to go, I would strongly disagree. Bringing EDC and the Chamber closer together as affiliates of The Heartland Partnership has been of benefit to both. There’s less duplication of services and much broader cooperation. From what I understand, there used to be a brick wall that existed between EDC and the Chamber. That is not the case anymore. It is a very friendly coexistence because I think each organization realizes it can do its own thing and serve its own purpose without feeling like it is “competing” with the other. And the combination of energy and synergy of some of the staff can really make things happen.

Progress results when you jointly utilize the talents of the professional staff and voluntary leadership from these organizations and get everyone working together on some of the broader macro-level issues I’ve mentioned. The Heartland Partnership has helped each organization reduce overhead. You don’t need 12 receptionists, 12 bookkeepers, and so on. But you must be careful because you still have twelve boards of directors and twelve executive committees.

We are well recognized both in and outside the state of Illinois. As an example, on September 10th and 11th, we have a group of 25 delegates visiting from Springfield, Missouri, to study The Heartland Partnership’s operational success, Peoria area improvements, and the success of the Civic Center.

We have people from all over who come here to see how we’ve put this thing together. We receive a great deal of respect at the national level with our congressional and senatorial representatives, and have a reputation as an organization that gets things done.

I will admit, however, that The Heartland Partnership organization can be very confusing to the general public. And I would say that it is probably confusing to a lot of the members. Often times they ask why there is a need for so many different organizations. As long as people remember that The Heartland Partnership is just the umbrella, and not the marketed entity, it is really quite simple to understand. This is the best example I can think of to describe The Heartland Partnership: You’ve probably heard of Proctor & Gamble, and you have likely used it products, that ones who brands are marketed and advertised. Think of The Heartland Partnership as being similar to Proctor & Gamble. EDC, Chamber and the other Heartland affiliates are the marketed products, whose brand names you are supposed to recognize. In that context, it is fairly simple to understand.

There has been concern about a lack of inter-governmental cooperation in this area. You are doing in the private sector what is done in the public sector in some parts of the country – that is combining organizations under one umbrella. Ultimately some major metropolitan areas have instituted uni-government. Do you ever see a uni-government type of situation coming to the Peoria area?

I know the private sector here talks a lot about it. The example most people refer to is Indianapolis. I do know that they have their challenges, but I understand that their form of government is highly successful.

We have entered into that arena with discussions; however, in my opinion, this area will never have unit government. Again, witness the Medina issue – more government on top of more government. I feel this is a shame, just like you might say it’s a shame that the Civic Center is not tax-supported by more than the city of Peoria. It is a shame that the Convention and Visitors Bureau is not supported by all communities in the region in the way of hotel/motel/restaurant tax. But all of these things take education, in addition to a great deal of patience and time. It’s one step forward, get pushed back a few, then move ahead.

What have been some of the recent changes in The Heartland Partnership? There have been some personnel changes and financial challenges. Also, what changes can we expect in the next year in The Heartland Partnership?

One of the changes we are pleased about is the Small and Minority Business Services (SMBS) and Illinois Business Financial Services (IBFS) successes. A few years ago, we were challenged by the Peoria City Council to consolidate the services of the former PEDA (Peoria Economic Development Association) and our Small Business Development Center, which included ICC, the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) and our existing small business services.

The result had been dramatic. Over the past two years, through SMBS and ICC’s Self Employment Training Program, 40-plus new businesses have started; five of the seven students who were on welfare have graduated from our Self Employment Training Programs and are not operating their new businesses.

In addition, through our SBA funding arm, IBFS, twenty-seven area businesses have received over $23 million in federal funding to help start and grow their small businesses.

Both IBFS, the SBA funding arm, and SMBS, the assistance coordination, are under The Heartland Partnership umbrella. We have been successful in providing opportunities for self employment training, business plan writing, existing business counseling, and perhaps most importantly, funding. A range of financing tools are available through The Heartland Partnership affiliates to assist people in getting their businesses off the ground.

Another new face at the Partnership is the Illinois Riverfront Development Corporation. As most people know, the Riverfront Corporation is in the midst of a $12 million fund drive to support the various riverfront development projects, and The Heartland Partnership is serving as a valuable resource in providing financial oversight for the Riverfront Corporation.

The Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce has changed from a staff-driven chamber to a board- and committee-driven chamber, which is healthy for any chamber of commerce. This success is reflected by the increase in membership and credibility.

Last month, the Illinois State Chamber held a PAC meeting here, and they are still talking about the success and east with which we do things. Our joint effort with School District 150 regarding our Academies, and over 90 Adopt-A-School partnerships are recognized both in Illinois and nationally.

Business Resource Services (BRS), a subsidiary of the Chamber of Commerce, is a value-added organization and is here to help small businesses save money. For instance, big industry and corporations frequently self-fund their own health insurance programs, while the little guy doesn’t have that kind of group buying power. So, through BRS, they too are starting to see the benefits of group purchasing alliances.

A Chamber membership survey revealed that worker’s compensation insurance costs were also of great concern. BRS is working towards developing cost-saving programs for the members in that arena through the creation of a self-funded trust.

Are the EDC and Heartland Partnership in financial straights?

I would be less than honest if I didn’t tell you that some of our affiliates had some financial challenges last year. They were short-term challenges that have been rectified and we are beginning this fiscal year (June 1) with a balanced budget. In addition, we continue to have faith in the business community and in people who have come forward to invest in our organizations. We will come through this stronger and better off financially. We are doing much more with a lot less people and we’re always looking at ways to make things more efficient and streamlines.

Some time ago there was an attempt made for a fund-raising effort for the EDC which by all estimates was not real successful. What is the challenge there?

First, let me say that EDC has more private financial contributors than at any time in the organization’s history. The major area corporations, banks and credit unions, developers, hospitals, and utilities are all investors in EDC, with a few notable exceptions. EDC’s major challenge is that fifteen of those companies make up 82 percent of our private sector income. We want to spread the funding burden among many more companies than just fifteen. Most development groups across the country are facing similar challenges of trying to be equally privately and publicly funded.

We did make a very concerted effort to broaden our base. We picked up man more companies, but we also found that there aren’t many larger investors out there, so EDC still finds the same companies paying much of the freight. Another reason it is more difficult for EDC is that many of the same companies that invest in EDC also give to their hometown chambers, so there is only so much they can give to a regional effort.

You have not been shy recently about being somewhat critical of companies who reap the benefits of The Heartland Partnership and the greater Peoria community and yet do not support it financially. How has that been received?

Not well. There are some companies in this community that have made incredible commitments to support area growth – Caterpillar, CILCO, the hospitals, and many more too numerous to mention.

But, quite frankly, there are many more companies that have benefited by our work that have not come to the table and supported us financially.

I am a great believer that the companies we’ve helped should reciprocate. I have not seen this in our area to the extent that I have seen it is other areas where I have worked. It is always the same ones who give and give, while the freeloader just complains you’re not doing enough for them.

That leads to another issue that has been the hot-button issue over the past few months in Peoria – leadership. Is there a particular problem, in your estimation, with leadership in the Peoria community, or is this a phenomenon that is national and cultural in scope?

First of all, I would say this area has a tremendous capacity and talent for leadership. However, I’ll be the first to tell you I am beginning to see a change in thinking. I now realize the different challenges that today’s young people have in their jobs. The time commitment by the companies is not there. Secondly, the younger people do not have the same values, right or wrong, that they older generation had. They have been through a lot of different cultures.

For example, financial institutions are no longer in the same situation they used to be in. Their corporate offices in many cases are headquartered outside the state of Illinois. Not only has their financial commitment been reduced, their ability to have their people involved has been hampered.

Caterpillar obviously continues to provide great support for community and business efforts. What does Caterpillar leadership mean to this community in such things as riverfront development, jet service at the airport, etc. What does Caterpillar mean to you and your job?

It means a great deal. Without the commitment of leaders from Caterpillar, and without their financial backing on numerous fronts, I think this area would be in dire need. You can’t underestimate what it means to have a Fortune 100 company that is not only in your back yard, but willing to make sure the yard is taken care of.

However, I would have to say there are other area companies that have a tremendous capacity to show similar leadership, maybe not on the financial scale that Cat is able to, but certainly in encouraging their people to get involved.

Large businesses are very important for this area, and the high profile players are well known. But 80% of the Peoria Chamber’s members are small businesses. How do you work to help these businesses?

We can help, through the legislative proves, to protect them from some of the damaging legislation that often comes from state, federal, and local governments. Secondly, we can be there to assist them with training through educational seminars, value added products and the other assistance that helps them to succeed. And, when asked for assistance, we are there with the one-stop shop, through the Chamber, and all its committees and programs. I truly believe we have the resources to make their challenge easier for them in this day and age if they take advantage of our services. This process will always remain a challenge.

Bring us up to date on what is happening in the transportation arena.

I had the opportunity to work in Springfield, Illinois, for much of my career. I was always amazed when Governor Thompson decided to build the Route 39 Corridors of Opportunity and it also went through Bloomington. I always wondered why there was no unified leadership and why these two highways got away from Peoria. It happened for reasons I am not aware of.

Why wasn’t an airport built between Peoria and Bloomington rather than in each community as if to say, “We’re going to protect our turf.” Again, I wasn’t here, so I’m not familiar with the circumstances that led to this.

Transportation is far and away the most critical challenge this region faces. When companies are looking at locations, ample accessibility, particularly for manufacturers, is usually at the top of their list.

While we’re fortunate in this region to have all four modes of transportation (air, rail, highway and water), we have to improve our highway accessibility and air transportation. The communities that have these things in order are the communities that grow. The others, someday in the future, are just going to be left behind. That is why we are working so hard with Canton, Galesburg and Quincy to continue work toward an interstate that will go all the way over to Quincy, Kansas City, and on to California. And we’re trying to help the Airport Authority with jet service and reliability issues.

Maybe in days past Peoria thought it could afford to be an island because it had several large companies that were the economic engines that drove the community – engines that never sputtered. But Peoria saw what happened when it put all its eggs in one basket.

We are a much more economically diverse community today and to a degree, much less parochial and much more cooperative with our neighbors to the east. Unfortunately, this area has a ways to go to catch up because of the improvements some of these other communities have made.

What is the labor image of our area like to outsiders?

The perception has improved since the early 80s, but many people outside 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 Peoria. And our diversity has helped as well. Most of our best relocation projects have not been manufacturers. It is still very hard to do business as a manufacturer in the Peoria area.

What is general development like in the Peoria area right now?

It’s an exciting time. There are more people on area payrolls than at any time in the region’s history. Consumer confidence is high. Realtors are enjoying record years and housing costs are appreciating. Retail development has picked up. We have had a number of area companies expand their facilities and add jobs. Banks are making capital investments.

We have been a part of some sizable attractions of new companies here – the Postal Service and Federal Reserve among others. I think most people within the business community get the sense that we area finally starting to dig out of the hole in which we found ourselves in the early 80s. We don’t want to get complacent though, because there is still much more work to be done.

What are the legislative priorities of The Heartland Partnership?

Our biggest priority is to continue to be heard in Springfield. I’ve mentioned how we’re much more likely to get results when we rally many communities together on certain issues. As always, we’ll continue to work on the bigger issues like worker’s compensation, unemployment tax relief, health care, education and training, and working to eliminate so many regulations that tie the hands of both business and industry. IBI