Despite its challenges, Illinois offers many advantages that should not be overlooked.
For years, Illinois citizens—especially business owners and managers—have suffered embarrassment over political corruption, criticism over high taxes, chagrin over failed government fiscal policies, and frustration with public employee discontent. Employers have suffered anti-business initiatives by our own elected officials, while governors from other states routinely launch business-poaching parties to entice our job creators to seek greener pastures.
Enough! Despite the governmental and political headwinds, Illinois remains a great state that offers business owners and leaders many advantages that should not be overlooked or dismissed.
Illinois is blessed with the most productive farmland in the world—the foundation upon which agribusiness industries rely. Food processing, farm supplies, grain handling, global markets and advances in bio- and machine technology are derived from ever-improving productivity on Illinois farms.
Illinois sits above vast reserves of high-BTU coal deposits. Most Illinois coal production is currently being shipped to international markets. Thanks to a new hydraulic fracking law, Illinois oil and gas production is poised for a resurgence that could greatly improve opportunity and economic fortunes in southern Illinois.
In addition to having freshwater for irrigation and industrial use, commercial barge traffic is plentiful and efficient. Illinois-based shippers have access not only to the Great Lakes and the inland river waterways of the heartland, but also have saltwater access through the St. Lawrence Seaway to the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico through the port of New Orleans and the mouth of the Mississippi River. The Mississippi River provides direct access to the expanded Panama Canal and the Pacific Ocean.
Transportation networks are one of the cornerstones of Illinois’ economy. Our state contains the largest rail hub in the nation and is the only state served by all of the class one railroads. Illinois hosts 165 rail yards and 12 expansive, modern intermodal terminals. Currently, 25 percent of all U.S. rail traffic and 46 percent of all intermodal units in the U.S. touch the Chicago region. Based on containers handled, Chicago is the third-largest port in the world, and the only mega-shipping port in the top 10 not located on saltwater.
Illinois also has the third largest interstate highway system in the country and is served by 13 interstate systems—more than any other state. Chicago’s Union Station is a hub for nationwide Amtrak service, while O’Hare hosts the nation’s two largest airlines and accommodates 40 others, with direct flights to 255 cities, nearly half of which are international destinations. The RTA is the third-largest public transit system in the U.S., servicing a population of eight million and providing nearly two million rides every day. Public transit service in the rest of the state, including the Bi-State Development Agency serving the St. Louis region, accommodates 40 million riders per year.
Illinois is also home to a great number of schools as ranked by U.S. News and World Report. In its 2013 “Best High Schools” report, Illinois included 19 gold-medal schools, 50 silver-medal schools and 69 bronze-medal schools. The state also had the 16th-highest number of National Merit semifinalists in the nation among those set to graduate from public high schools in 2014.
Illinois citizens also have a myriad of higher educational opportunities, with nine public universities on 12 campuses, 48 community colleges, 97 independent not-for-profit colleges and universities, and 35 independent for-profit institutions. In addition, the state offers more than 40 universities at which to obtain a graduate degree. The University of Illinois is ranked first in the nation for its library science, engineering physics and engineering science graduate programs, while the University of Chicago, one of the most prestigious private institutions in the country, has produced 89 Nobel Prizes from students, alum, professors and researchers.
A little more than a decade ago, Chicago’s startup business scene was often overlooked in favor of Boston and Silicon Valley. After a dramatic wake-up call with the success of Groupon, Chicago has become a destination city for startup funding.
Illinois was one of the first states to deregulate electric energy pricing and embrace free-market pricing. In 2013, 78 percent of electricity used by residential and business customers in the state was purchased through competitive bidding. Over 80 companies are permitted to sell electricity in Illinois, while more than 600 communities are making wholesale purchases and offering aggregated pricing to their residents. Consequently, the average delivered price of electricity in Illinois is among the lowest in the country.
Natural gas customers have also benefited from the state’s leadership in accepting competitive wholesale market pricing. There are more than two dozen certified non-utility natural gas suppliers seeking customers in Illinois. Nearly 100 percent of industrial users and two-thirds of commercial businesses in Illinois are taking advantage of open market purchasing arrangements for their natural gas supplies.
Illinois has also embraced new fuel choices for vehicles, from electric and biodiesel to E-85 and LNG. The abundance and diversity of energy choices is attractive, but even more compelling is the research being conducted at Argonne National Laboratory, the University of Illinois, Caterpillar Inc. and ADM.
Despite anemic growth in recent decades, Illinois remains the fifth most populated state in the country. It is home to the nation’s third largest metropolitan area, with more than 9.5 million people, while its second largest metropolitan area in southwest Illinois is an extension and vital component of the St. Louis metro region. Chicago is the de facto capital of the Midwest, ranked ninth in PricewaterhouseCooper’s report identifying global cities of opportunity.
International trade accounts for approximately 18 percent of the state’s gross product. Chicago hosts more than 80 foreign consulates and trade offices, more than any other U.S. city except for the nation’s capitol and the host city of the United Nations—an indication of how significant global enterprise is to the state economy. Illinois’ most significant foreign trading partners are Canada and Mexico, and it is Canada’s top importer of crude oil—we spend around $12 billion per year on the product, which is processed at three Illinois refineries and the BP facility in Whiting, Indiana, part of the Chicago metropolitan area. China is the number one importer of Illinois grain.
Illinois is the fourth most productive manufacturing state. Thirty-one of the largest publicly traded companies as identified by Fortune magazine claim Illinois as the location for their corporate headquarters. Of the 224 largest privately-held companies identified by Forbes, 14 have Illinois as their headquarters’ location.
With such a history of great business leaders, entrepreneurs, inventors, innovators and creative minds who have founded and grown highly successful enterprises in our state, I cannot help but wonder how successful today’s businesses could be if public officials would devote more attention to providing the job creators a tailwind.
The objective for our public officials should be to help private-sector employers become prosperous, with the expectation that successful businesses will invest and grow jobs in Illinois. I do not think the General Assembly can tax its way out of the current fiscal conundrum, but a robust and growing economy that puts large numbers of people to work in private-sector jobs could do a lot to restore the state’s financial health. In so doing, our public officials could also help restore confidence and pride in our great state.iBi
Doug Whitley is president and CEO of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce