Business as usual

Sangamon County tries to reinvent the wheel

In 2015, in a rare lucid moment (see “A place for business to live,” Aug. 6, 2015), I suggested that Mayor Jim Langfelder’s just unveiled economic development commission include not only the usual businesspeople and pols but labor economists, urbanists, tech-heads and an historian or two, the last to remind aldermen of all the economic development miracle cures swallowed by the city in the past that failed to cure what ailed it.

The economic prognosis for the area has only gotten grimmer since 2015. Mild panic among policy-makers is the only explanation for the Sangamon County Project, yet another economic development initiative buttressed by yet another report, this one  commissioned by Sangamon County from the Petersburg-based consulting firm, The Development Consortium. (One of that firm’s heads ran the Decatur and Macon County Economic Development Corp. for 11 years, so at least he knows what doesn’t work.)

There is little new to say about such efforts because there is little new about them. I wrote a history of the Chamber of Commerce for that group in 1976 (Shoulder To the Wheel: A Centennial History of the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce) and I learned that the same groups have been making the same complaints leading to the same questions and coming with the same answers since 1900. Sometimes new companies came to town, usually they didn’t, but in each case the factors that decided the choice were, and remain, beyond the ability of any town to control.

That is not the prevailing wisdom locally. The top guy of The Development Consortium told the SJ-R’s editorial board that the reason Springfield lost Fiatallis, Sangamo Electric, Pillsbury was because “the community really didn’t want those kinds of jobs anymore.” No, Springfield lost Fiatallis, Sangamo Electric and Pillsbury because the global firms that owned each of those companies decided that they really didn’t want those kinds of companies in Springfield. The local workforces were sclerotic, the plants old, the production equipment outdated; a company like Fiat bought Allis-Chalmers mainly as a cheap way to access niche markets or to eliminate competition, after which they squeezed it dry and threw away the rind.   

“TIF!” shout business boosters. But offering tax increment financing is like offering free air to breathe; every other place has it too. Ditto land beside a road that doesn’t already have a nail salon and a Subway on it. The real determinants of choice are access to markets, workforce quality and location. Probably key among these is location. Springfield became a government center in the 1800s because of its location smack in the middle of the state. It became an industrial center in the1900s because of its location smack on top of thick seams of high-heat coal that lay smack between two big coal markets in St Louis and Chicago.

Look at Rochelle, a bumptious town in Ogle County that has factories and warehouses like Springfield has ugly strip malls. Rochelle sits at the intersection of Interstates 88 and 39 overlooking the scenic Union Pacific track. But, you say, Springfield sits at the intersection of two interstate highways, too, and Springfield has mainline rail freight service. So why them and not us? Because what matters is not how close a town is to interstates and rail connections but whether those interstates and rail connections place that town close to the world. Rochelle’s UP track can deliver goods lickety-split west to the Pacific Rim; one of Springfield’s interstates can deliver goods lickety-split west to Quincy, where it stops.

More crucially, just outside Rochelle is the 1,200-acre Union Pacific Global III Intermodal Facility, a massive yard where cargoes from more than 25 trains and 3,000 containers/trailers can be efficiently exchanged every day. Rochelle – here I quote the Union Pacific – is “strategically located on the growth edge of Chicago’s westward commercial frontier [where] industries look to locate warehouse and distribution facilities outside of Chicago’s capacity-constrained downtown area,” while Springfield, alas, is strategically located on the growth edge of Decatur’s westward commercial frontier.

As for workforce quality, no polite development consultant dares say it in mixed company, but after decades during which the best and brightest (or at least the youngest and hungriest) left town, the Springfield blue-collar workforce has been enfeebled. Which might not matter anyway, since (as I noted in “Manufacturing crisis,” Jan. 5, 2017) a lot of blue-collar work isn’t blue-collar any more. The president of Chatham’s Micromedical Technologies told the SJ-R’s Tim Landis that it’s not easy to find “manufacturing people” locally; what if a high-tech firm hoping to staff up to, say, 600 such workers comes shopping in Sangamon County?

 The Development Consortium, we read, talked with 130 local business, government, labor, education and community leaders about attracting and keeping jobs in the area. If local leaders knew what Springfield needs to do, of course, Springfield wouldn’t need to do it, because it would be done. When they start talking to people who know how to do it, then the rest of us might listen more respectfully.  
Contact James Krohe Jr. at

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