It has been 25 long years since International Harvester (IH) closed in Canton. This once-thriving community saw years of decline, as did hundreds of small Midwestern communities when much of the industrial base was lost in the ‘80s. Many families were forced to leave the communities they had called home for generations. With that exodus, Canton lost much more than population—it lost diversity, wealth and economic stability, and, perhaps most damaging, we lost pride in our community, to some extent.
Recent years have seen Canton stabilize. New retail businesses have in part replaced the dozens of stores lost with the demise of the old economy. In the late ‘80s, when prison building was Illinois’ answer to the need for economic development, Canton “won” such a facility, which provided jobs for many and was the impetus for much growth at that time.
But Canton has always known that something was missing. It had jobs in retail, the school district, hospital and prison, but it sorely lacked good-quality, head-of-household, manufacturing jobs. This community was built on manufacturing, ever since the first blacksmith shop opened in the 1820s. The old IH brownfield stood as a reminder of those days. Younger people do not remember the “shop,” but the old timers do, and that loss still haunts many. The daily drive past that battle-scarred lot was a constant reminder.
Connecting with Cook
Over the years, several failed attempts have been made to connect with former Canton resident and entrepreneur Bill Cook. Cook is the CEO of the Cook Group, the largest privately-held corporation of its kind in the country. He is on the Forbes 400 list of wealthiest Americans and has a deep connection to Canton. Last year, our luck changed, when Mark Rothert, executive director of the Spoon River Partnership for Economic Development (SRPED), again wrote to ask for his opinions on what could be done to help his hometown today. Cook welcomed Rothert and Canton Mayor Kevin Meade to Indiana to discuss his thoughts.
Since then, Mr. Cook has become actively involved in his hometown. He spoke to the SRPED at its annual meeting last year and announced the purchase of two downtown buildings and his intention to renovate them. He and his wife are avid historical preservationists, having restored dozens of buildings in Indiana.
Mayor Meade called me to his office last October, along with Rothert and City Attorney Chrissie Petersen, to inform us of Cook’s intention to build a medical device factory on the IH site. This was manna from heaven—a new factory on the site of the city’s core, a high-tech facility that will manufacture medical devices and employ up to 300 people.
The IH site has seen other developers attempt to locate there but fail due to any number of reasons. This time, we knew it was real. We had a commitment from a man who would do what he said and had the means to see his plans come to fruition. The mood in the room was that of disbelief that the fortunes of this rust-belt community were finally about to change. We were ecstatic and allowed ourselves a few minutes of celebration before realizing that Cook wanted to start immediately, before a hard freeze. We had very little time to prepare.
The Team Goes to Work
It was time to get to work. A team that had worked on a major project the year before was reassembled, including Meade; Rothert; Peterson; Carol Davis, a vice president from Spoon River College; and me. Soon we added City Engineer Keith Plavec, Public Works Director Clif O’Brien and the Mayor’s administrative assistant, Carol Kohler, to the team. Each was charged with achieving a specific set of goals to meet the December 11th deadline.
Chrissie Peterson was responsible for structuring the development agreement and subsequent real estate transactions. She has provided wise counsel during every step of the process. Mark Rothert and his SRPED staff members, Missy Towery and Dana Smith, were to write the IDOT economic development grant to help cover the costs of constructing Third Avenue, which will service the new site.
As the Opportunity Returns representative for Canton, I was to identify all state grants and loans that could assist with the project. I met with my counterparts in Springfield and Chicago to identify available funding. We identified the Economic Development for a Growing Economy (EDGE) as one program that the project would qualify for. It would provide a $990,000 Illinois Employment Tax Credit for the first 150 employees hired and would grow with the number of new hires. A $75,000 Employer Training grant was also awarded to assist with training the new workforce.
Help was needed to pay for infrastructure improvements to support the new factory, so we applied for a Community Development Assistance Program grant. Because of the short timeframe, we needed expert help to complete the application correctly and on time. For this, we turned to an outside grant writer with years of experience. Even she had doubts about our ability to complete the process within the timeframe. I am proud to say that my co-workers at DCEO went above and beyond the call of duty to make this happen.
The Mayor and I met with IDOT officials to discuss an economic development grant from that agency. They deemed it a good project, and the Mayor instructed Rothert to complete the application. A grant of just over $1 million was awarded to the city. Grants and credits from the State totaled $2.8 million in support of the project.
Carol Davis was charged with the coordination of educational and workforce issues for the project. With the help of Career Link, the local Workforce Investment Board, Davis will direct employee screening and provide educational opportunities for future employees. She also worked hard to plan the groundbreaking ceremonies on December 11, 2008, which included a variety of speakers and presentations viewed by an overwhelmingly enthusiastic crowd of over 600 people.
City Engineer Keith Plavec of Maurer-Stutz was critical to the project’s success, providing invaluable technical services. He has been involved in every phase, from the planning of the new Third Avenue to the remediation of the old concrete on-site. Director of Public Works Clif O’Brien has been around a long time and is very knowledgeable of the town’s infrastructure. He is the hands-on, go-to guy for almost anything in Canton, and he gets things done. Carol Kohler was an invaluable asset, quietly doing all the necessary administrative work. Nothing happens without a professional like her to dot the “i”s and cross the “t”s.
Mayor Meade has been the leader of this group from that first day in October, tirelessly traveling to and from Indiana to meet with Cook officials, and he has always been there to ensure the project was moving in the right direction. He has developed a personal relationship with Mr. Cook, providing insight into what he and his company were looking for in a new location and the leadership necessary to bring the project to Canton.
This is just the beginning of a new day for this community and the region. It will bring much-needed jobs to the area and allow for Canton’s continued growth for years to come. Watch for the ribbon cutting of this new facility in January 2010. iBi