Inter-county collaboration is the key to economic progress.

Affecting change in a region doesn’t take place overnight. And it doesn’t happen with a single individual. But with an army of ambassadors, the pace quickens.

Leaders of the regional economic development effort dubbed Focus Forward CI are quickening the pace of economic progress, encouraging new investment and expanding business opportunities. This monumental collaboration is unlocking doors to innovative educational and training opportunities through which tomorrow’s highly skilled workforce can emerge.

More than 1,000 individuals have gotten involved in various aspects since the effort officially launched last July. They come from varied backgrounds, both tiny villages and large communities. Some have advanced understanding of economic development practices and principles, bringing institutional knowledge to the project, while others have no such background at all, offering a clean palette for building a new knowledge base.

But they all have one thing in common. This is their community. This is their future. “All of these volunteers—these ambassadors— will be part of the legacy,” said Jim Baumgartner, chairman of the project’s Policy Steering Committee. “The strength of the journey we’re on is a function of the energy and commitment from people within our communities… who are interested in raising the level of economic security.”

“I believe this will be a different effort than we’ve seen in the past,” added Mason County Clerk Bill Blessman. “It brings a different set of resources. It brings a different method. It will have specific goals, and they will be measured. The main thing we need is a groundswell of support.”

Discovering Our Assets
In November, Central Illinois Discovery Week attracted more than 300 people from Woodford, Tazewell, Peoria and Mason counties to uncover the region’s assets and learn how they can create economic value that stays in the region. These assets are both tangible, such as infrastructure or historical buildings, and intangible, like knowledge and innovation.

“We look at the core of this economy. What are its strengths and natural assets… that rise to the level of excellence? More than creating a list, we look at how those assets can be leveraged or deployed to create more economic value,” said Jim Haguewood, a consultant with ViTAL Economy, the firm hired to oversee the economic development transformation. “This approach focuses on the positive side of the economy and community versus… focusing on need. All people are learning how economic development works and what their role is.”

Focus Forward CI aims to shift the thinking from individual county economies to a regional economy. This was noted at some of the asset mapping meetings in November, during which Mason County residents, for example, cited assets in Peoria County, and the residents of other counties likewise cited the assets of their neighboring counties. It is critical to promote this idea that assets in other counties can be sources of economic opportunity for their neighbors.

Through this process, hundreds of regional assets were identified, and a preliminary filter and prioritization process was conducted to recognize assets of high value. That will lead to the Vertical Asset Mapping sessions in January, when regional subject matter experts will fully develop these assets for economic opportunity. The purpose is to recognize the assets within four strategic categories: Quality of Place, Community & Economic Development, Education & Workforce Development and Innovation & Entrepreneurship.

Central Illinois already has a competitive advantage. It’s just a matter of mining the available resources.

A Paradigm Shift?
How do we know this is a true paradigm shift? Of the roughly 125 individuals who attended October’s Discovery meeting from varying levels of the private and public sectors, 97.5 percent of respondents said Focus Forward CI is making a positive impact.

“As a member of both the Peoria County Board and Tri-County Regional Planning Commission, I recognize that in less than a year this process of economic development renewal has grown,” said Andrew Rand. “The work of those involved in bringing this process to this point has been truly remarkable.”

The leadership structure that has been created is led by the Policy Steering Committee, chaired by Jim Baumgartner, which includes individuals from not-for-profits, the private sector and public officials to guide the process and oversee the high-level vision. Beneath them is the Technical Working Group (TWG), which hosts regular meetings—roughly two dozen thus far—with more than 20 economic development, workforce development and education professionals.

TWG is assisting with the coordination of economic development functions and supports action teams to accomplish specific objectives. It helped create and submit the five-year Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) document, which describes goals and projects to enhance the economy in the now five-county Economic Development District (Logan County was recently added by the Economic Development Administration). The CEDS document is required for certain projects to be eligible for federal funding.

In addition, there are county teams, a communications committee, a Hispanic group, Generation Y committee and more. And soon to be formed are a collaborative funding committee, data center of excellence and leadership institute.

The Regional EDC Re-Organization Team, which will ensure clear goals and a broad base of support for a newly formed EDC, first met in early December. “Our hope is that the re-organization will culminate in a professional economic development team with skill sets in line with the new strategy currently under development,” said Jennifer Daly, executive director and CEO of the Morton Chamber of Commerce, who co-chairs the team with EDC board chairman Rex Linder.

Pumping Life Into the Economy
Focus Forward CI has set lofty goals that could pump an additional $1.75 billion into the region by 2017. “This initiative, properly implemented, will support a competitive environment that attracts and retains our vital workforce, provides for an attractive environment and supports necessary growth on both sides of the river,” said Goal-setting Action Team Chairman Mike Hinrichsen of Woodford County. Specifically, these S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time Based) goals are to:

Focus Forward CI is about lifting all boats. The sense of urgency, quality of place and goal setting teams have zeroed in on the need to provide a real sense of opportunity for the 120,000+ persons between 16 and 69 years old who either do not work or are underemployed. They are directly engaging urban and rural underserved populations, women business owners, business incubators and accelerators for startup minority and small businesses.

Central Illinois also has a rich manufacturing base. The jobs being created in that sector are solid, middle-income wage jobs, and the ripple effect largely stays within our local ecosystem. But there exists an obvious skills gap, and the burden has shifted to local communities to ensure the availability of a skilled and educated workforce. In the interim, the need for some of those jobs has slightly leveled off.

Doug Parsons, CEO of Pekin’s Excel Foundry & Machine, chairs the FFCI Workforce Action Team. His company has dozens of open jobs without the skilled bodies to fill them. “While some of the job growth may have slightly slowed, there is still a major skills gap. In the long term, this is still a large and relevant problem and only going to grow,” Parsons said, noting that work must also be done to alter the perception that there is little room for growth or upward movement in the manufacturing sector.

The Workforce Action Team is exploring the best options for establishing a workforce that is fully integrated with community economic development frameworks and strategies. Centers of excellence will be created to address the immediate workforce needs of specialized manufacturing and the health services sector. “At the end of the day,” said Parsons, “we want to make sure the training we are giving to prospective employees is very specific to the jobs we have available now.”

Building on Successes
What have been some short-term successes of this initiative so far? Here are a few:

“What have we learned so far is that we can’t communicate enough about the journey that we’re on,” Baumgartner said. “We’re moving at a rapid pace that has only been possible with the help of more than 1,000 volunteers and dedicated individuals in the region.”

So what’s next? The Connect Milestone will take place in February. At that meeting, which is open to the public like all other FFCI meetings, measurable strategies will be created to link assets and opportunities. Next, the Report Milestone, the final of four major milestones, is expected to take place in the spring. It is intended to establish enduring support by communicating the goals, strategies and recommendations for implementation.

“As we look back at all the accomplishments since those first meetings last year, it is exciting to see that we are, in fact, changing our habits,” said Diana Hall, president/owner of Bard Optical and Policy Steering Committee vice chair. “We are working together to create our tomorrows, instead of talking about why we cannot or will not work together. As long as we continue to focus on the agreed-upon goals for our future, the power of community and the power of a common vision will continue to bring people together. Just imagine the energy that brings to the effort.” iBi

Upcoming events include Vertical Asset Mapping Sessions in each county (January 7-10th), a Policy Steering Committee meeting at the Caterpillar Visitors Center (January 8th) and the Connect Milestone Meeting (February 4th). For details, visit focusforwardci.com.