Group Touts Benefits Of Regional Cooperation
Local governments work with a wide array of agencies and partnerships for projects within their jurisdictions. Another organization aims to cross local boundaries for the good of all.
The Rockford Area Economic Development Council, the Rockford Metropolitan Agency for Planning, and Belvidere’s Growth Dimensions all work to promote fairly localized development. There are other organizations, too. Some work mainly on a particular issue; others promote a number of initiatives usually within a circumscribed area.
Enter the Economic Development District of Northern Illinois -- known as EDDNI -- with a better way to do things. Thomas Bona is its Director of Research and Information.
“The Rockford Area Development Council and Growth Dimensions, and Winnebago and Boone Counties, formed our agency, came together to say, what is a way we can work together?,” Bona says.
There was also a push for EDDNI from the U.S. Economic Development Administration. Bona says members of EDDNI must agree on a Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy in order to apply for EDA grants.
“The federal government is saying, we like that you have these individual organizations, and they do good work. But we want you to get together with this wider body, so that we know you’re speaking with one voice. It’s not just Rockford saying this, it’s not just Belvidere saying this, it’s not just Woodstock and Crystal Lake. But together you’re saying, ‘These are our priorities. These are the kinds of projects we want to push forward and need your help on,” he says.
For example, Bona says, the group was able to secure federal money for road upgrades around the Chicago Rockford International Airport because, through EDDNI, local governments could tell the federal government it would benefit everyone in the area. EDDNI has also gotten grants to help the region’s aerospace industry, which has companies in different municipalities throughout the area.
Bona says EDDNI started with just Winnebago and Boone Counties but has grown to include McHenry County.
Pam Cumpata is President of the McHenry County Economic Development Corporation. She says regional cooperation allows each member to leverage the assets of the others.
“McHenry County doesn’t have an international airport. The Chicago Rockford Airport is a great asset for us, because we have a lot of companies that use it to ship. That’s an asset of Winnebago, and they don’t tell us we can’t use it,” she says.
Bona agrees with Cumpata about the importance of shared assets. He says EDDNI’s members are just catching up to the reality of today’s business world.
“When companies look for places to grow and add jobs and hire people, they don’t just look at one community. They look at a whole region. They look at the health of a region. They look at its workforce. They look at the suppliers. For us to compete, and bring more jobs, we need to get together and be those regions and work together to answer a company’s needs, so that they can grow here and hire more of our workers,” he says.
EDDNI is just one of many such regional organization throughout the state, and the country. Norm Walzer is a Research Scholar at Northern Illinois University’s Center for Governmental Studies with a background in business and economics. He helped EDDNI with its research and documentation. He says the impetus for a regional development approach started in the 1960s, with efforts to help Appalachia and other depressed areas.
“And a recognition, I think, at that point, was that you can’t really build at the county level. You have to build a region. Your labor markets are much broader than a county. Your product markets are, you know, way broader than a county. Your transportation system links various products and product sources together. So the Economic Development Administration was created to basically cause regional planning and development,” Walzer says.
But, Walzer says, it wasn’t -- and isn’t -- always an easy task.
“So many times, counties or cities look only at themselves. And they want to design a strategy they think will cause something to happen for them. And they don’t recognize the spillovers into other area, or what they actually need from other areas,” he says.
Walzer says most places now realize they’re in competition, not just with the town or county next door but with other states -- and even other countries in the world. So, even without a push from the federal government, regional neighbors feel they must band together out of necessity.
Dan Jacobson, public works director for the City of Loves Park, sits on EDDNI's strategy committee. He says the principle behind EDDNI is invaluable. His city deals with a number of different departments of the federal government
“Historically, it seemed that those agencies have operated in silos. And that’s not just the federal government; that’s right down to the local units of government. And we’ve learned that it’s always better if we work together,” Jacobson says.
Jacobson says the new Woodward facility is a refreshing example of what can happen when different municipalities work together rather than fight. Jacobson says everyone realized that the plant’s thousand or more workers will live in and contribute not just to Loves Park but the whole region.
Traditionally, politicians have touted their prowess in bringing businesses, and jobs, to their local communities. That’s still true. But Belvidere Mayor Mike Chamberlin, another Strategy Committee member, says it isn’t enough. He says small communities like his find themselves competing for state and federal dollars with large cities facing huge problems, in an economy still recovering from the economic downturn.
“It has become a necessity to band together as an identity to be able to get on the page with state and federal monies that are for infrastructure or economic development,” Chamberlin says.
Chamberlin says he’s found the conversations about regional cooperation enlightening and energizing, and sees other institutions following suit. He points to local colleges and schools, working together and with and public and private groups, to solve education issues that have an impact on the entire area.
Members of the Rockford Metropolitan Agency for Planning -- also members of EDDNI -- have been talking with their neighbors in a six-county area about a possible collaboration.
Walzer says including Rochelle and its intermodal hub, along with the Rockford airport and regional interstate access, makes sense when you’re marketing to the west coast and beyond. And he says the whole region benefits from the pool of engineers and other graduates from Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. Chamberlin says the larger grouping could mean a lot.
“We’re not 125 thousand people in the city of Rockford. We’re not 25 thousand people in the city of Belvidere. We’re in a six-county area that is about a million people. A million people is a tenth of the population of the state of Illinois. We now have a voice,” Chamberlin says.
Chamberlin says it’s really about providing opportunities to achieve prosperity and a higher standard of living for all, whoever and wherever they may be.
“It is important to everybody, because everyone has a child or grandchild that they want to see succeed in life,” he says.
So for Chamberlin, Walzer and the others, EDDNI reflects a recognition that economic effects don’t start or stop at the city limits, or the county line. And that finding solutions requires working together in such a way that the sum is greater than the parts.