Agency Helps Fill 'The Hole In The Doughnut' With Development Projects
An agency in north central Illinois helps towns, many with few resources of their own, get a leg up on economic development.
The North Central Illinois Council of Governments was founded in 1979. Nora Fesco is its executive director.
“Our tag line is we provide professional services to local elected officials,” she says.
Kevin Lindeman is economic development district director, and senior planner with NCICG. He says there’s a lot of competition for a limited amount of money, so you have to know where to look as well as how to apply.
“We look at not only the federal part of it, but we also look at whether state funds might be available, that we can bring those two together ideally. It’s trying to connect them with the right people to help them, whether it’s us or another agency,” Lindeman says.
Fesco says it all began with efforts to encourage development across the state. Four counties -- Bureau, Stark, Putnam, and Marshall – lacked a planning agency.
“And this area felt like, they’re really the hole in the doughnut. You know, Peoria’s an hour away, the Quad Cities are an hour away, you know, Rockford’s an hour away, Bloomington’s an hour away. And they felt like they weren’t really capturing what was available,” Fesco says.
So towns in the four counties banded together and, with state and federal help, founded North Central Illinois Council of Governments as an independent non-profit regional planning agency to help them do that. Eventually, Grundy, LaSalle and Putnam Counties also came on board.
Fesco says the needs vary across the six counties, and from year to year. The organization has evolved as the system of economic development at the state and federal level has changed. But the mission is essentially the same.
With more than 18,000 people, Ottawa -- the county seat of LaSalle County -- is easily the largest city in the region served by the agency. But even though he has a good-sized staff, Ottawa Mayor Robert Eschbach says he welcomes the help NCICG can provide.
“It’s their experience and expertise and knowledge that we don’t have, to do all of the grant applications, the grant monitoring, and just be aware of what the options are out there. We’re always getting emails from North Central, saying, ‘Have you heard about this?’ or, ‘these opportunities are coming up.’ So they kind of keep their communities abreast of what is out there,” Eschbach says.
Toward the other end of the spectrum is the Village of DePue. Kevin Bryant is the mayor of the Bureau County town of 1,800. The village has some big problems – an EPA Superfund toxic waste site among them – and a small tax base. Bryant says that means grants are essential to make improvements, but the village lacks the expertise needed to compete for them successfully. Bryant says the agency helped with a new water tower and other basic, but necessary, items.
“NCICG has been terrific for us. We just had a sewer project done. Along with that we did several improvements to our wastewater treatment plant. One of our big ones was a comprehensive plan. It gives us direction, things we want to move towards, and it also is very beneficial to have something like that updated during the Superfund process, too,” Bryant says.
Bryant says the NCICG also is helping the village connect with other communities in a bid for a share in regional economic development.
It’s not glamorous work, and often tedious. But they know they’re making a difference. Lindeman says he just has to look around at the communities his organization has served.
“Whether you know they’re getting clean water because they had a bad system, or there’s a new business in town that’s now employing people, and there’s jobs in the community. Or whether it’s kids are now playing in a park now because equipment wasn’t there before, or it was dilapidated and old and wasn’t safe. People don’t see that we’re involved in the project but we know we were,” Lindeman says.
That’s something, he says, that’s always rewarding. And it means the agency is doing its job, as intended, for the communities it serves.