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By Dennis Wilmsmeyer

In the familiar children’s tale The Little Engine That Could, we learn the power of the mantra, “I think I can, I think I can.”  Persistence powered the little blue train up and over the hill, and that same spirit of persistence in the face of adversity is the engine that drives Southwestern Illinois’ desire for continued economic growth.   There are many factors that hinder growth, including the State of Illinois’ political uncertainty and its fiscal condition. These are realities.  Also reality, however, is that Southwestern Illinois has an abundance of positive factors that can compel our growth in spite of the negatives, with a little persistence.

The Leadership Council has worked diligently for three decades to unite business, industry, government, education and labor for economic growth. Today, the Council represents 175 regional leaders in these sectors from both sides of the river who believe Southwestern Illinois can continue to grow.  We don’t believe in wallowing in negativity. Rather, we set our course to do all we can to continue to foster growth, because despite the challenges at the state level, the Southwestern Illinois region offers abundant advantages to businesses and industry. 

Southwestern Illinois is growing.  In the last decade, the combined population of Madison and St. Clair counties grew 5 percent to 539,338, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.  Per capita income rose 29 percent. Part of the St. Louis region, Southwestern Illinois offers convenient access to all the amenities of a metropolitan city. The labor force in Southwestern Illinois represented 260,476 individuals in 2013.  Unemployment is at 9.3 percent, down slightly from 9.6 percent the previous year.

Why is Southwestern Illinois growing when much of Illinois is not? There are two primary growth engines in our region: Scott Air Force Base (SAFB) and the logistics and manufacturing sectors. 

SAFB has a $3 billion annual impact on the regional economy.  This is an increase of 40 percent in the last decade.  The base expansion has fueled business growth in the entire region.  Much of the growth at SAFB has been in logistics capabilities at United States Transportation Command and Air Mobility Command.  These resources help to provide exceptional talent for this industry.  The available property for expansion around the base and exceptional community support for the base also enables continued growth.

The second primary growth engine in SWIL is the Rte 3/I-255 corridor, where there has been an explosion of logistics companies in the last decade.  The location at the center of the U.S. is the envy of many locations, and with our multi-modal transportation infrastructure; six Class I rail lines, four major interstates, three airports, several pipelines, and of course, the most northern ice-free, lock-free river and port capability, the region is truly blessed. 

This infrastructure, coupled with available, affordable property, has attracted over 14-million square feet of distribution/logistics space with companies such as Walgreens, Hershey’s, Dial, World Wide Technologies and FedEx, to name just a few.  These companies locate here because it’s the right place to do business, and they have brought value-added light manufacturing jobs.  There have been 4,600 jobs created and $400 million in investment in the last 15 years in Gateway Commerce Park at I-255 and I-270 alone. Soon, it will be home to the largest speculative industrial building the St. Louis metro area has ever seen, a $40 million, 1.2 million square-foot facility being developed by out-of-town investors, further illustrating that others also believe in the future of Southwestern Illinois.

Manufacturing and freight movement has also expanded along the eastern shores of the Mississippi River in the last decade, with the addition of Center Ethanol, Kinder Morgan, Bunge, ADM and others, while Boeing, North Bay Produce and West Star Aviation are growing their presence at MidAmerica Airport and St. Louis Regional Airport.  There is a proven model of manufacturing and logistics excellence in the region, and we are working as a region, in partnership with the St. Louis Regional Chamber to brand, market and grow more manufacturing and logistics jobs right here. 

Economic growth is dependent on people, and Southwestern Illinois has a productive workforce, educated for the jobs growing here.  Ninety percent of Southwestern Illinois residents are high school graduates or higher.  Three exceptional universities – Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Lindenwood University-Belleville and McKendree University – along with two award winning community colleges – Southwestern Illinois College and Lewis & Clark Community College – provide employer-focused technical training and work with businesses to provide what they need. The Southwestern Illinois workforce is productive, as evidenced by the three mega projects that were completed on time and on budget in the last decade, including a $3.8 billion expansion at Phillips 66, the construction of the Prairie State Energy Campus and addition of scrubbers at Dynegy’s regional plants. 

The persistence required to continue growth efforts is typical of the spirit of the people in Southwestern Illinois.  We saw it first-hand under the leadership of the three County Board Chairmen from Madison, St. Clair and Monroe counties, when citizens stepped up to ensure the timely improvements needed to ensure the American Bottoms levees continue to protect the Rte. 3 corridor and the potential it offers for continued growth in the region. 

This persistence is the spirit that can keep Southwestern Illinois growing, regardless of the obstacles.  We don’t just think we can: we know we can.

Dennis Wilmsmeyer, executive director of Americas Central Port, currently serves as president of the Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois. a member-based, economic development organization that has worked for 30 years to unite the region for economic growth through its coalition of leaders in business, industry, labor, education and government.