Economic development efforts move toward ‘dramatic change’

of the Journal Star

Posted Jul 26, 2012 @ 10:22 PM

PEORIA —Frank Knott presided at his first Economic Development 101 session for central Illinois with more than 200 students – community leaders, business people and legislators – in the first class.
The Regional Economic Development Steering Committee hosted Thursday’s meeting at the Civic Center to move toward “dramatic change” in the region’s approach to economic development.

Jim Baumgartner, the chairman of the steering committee, out of town as Caterpillar Inc.’s director of corporate public affairs, delivered introductory comments via video that outlined some of that drama.

“There is a sense of urgency about improving our economic development efforts. Data collected and vetted through the independent third party ViTAL Economy shows a lack of transparency when it comes to how economic development has been organized and delivered in the past,” he said.

“There is confusion over a strategic economic vision. There is a lack of measurable outcomes and benchmarks for the current Economic Development Council. It shows a general lack of trust for the Heartland Partnership.”

Rumors surfaced this week about the possible resignation of Jim McConoughey, president and CEO of the Heartland group. Reports that McConoughey told both Heartland staff and board that he might soon resign have circulated. McConoughey has not been able to be reached for comment.

At Thursday’s meeting, Knott, a consultant with Riderwood, Md.-based ViTAL Economy, laid out the results of interviews with 300 area decision-makers, work that started almost a year ago.

What those interviews told Knott and his team was that the Peoria area has tremendous assets that aren’t being used to their best advantage.

“Of the 300 community leaders we interviewed, many said they were being asked for input for the first time,” he said.

“Seventy-six percent of the people we spoke with weren’t able to identify a development strategy.”
Thursday’s meeting was designed to change that – to organize planning sessions to establish goals – for individual counties – and the region, as a whole, he said.

“The message to the general public is that we’re coming out to see you. We want to engage people in this community,” said Knott, who’s advised 40 communities in the United States and Canada on the subject of economic development in the past 20 years.

“Economic development is a continuous journey of improvement. If you stand where you are, you fall behind.

“In economic development, we say that denial is more than a river. In the case of this area, the Illinois River might be denial in what it does to separate the region. We need to pretend that it doesn’t exist,” said Knott, sounding the call for collaboration, a theme that would be touted throughout the 2 1/2-hour evening session.

Pat Sullivan, co-owner of Kelleher’s Irish Pub & Eatery and longtime champion of the city’s Warehouse District, said the key word in Thursday’s presentation was “regional.”

“Business draws business. If we work together, you’ve got development,” he said.

Steve Tarter can be reached at 686-3260 or