Economic Development - Promoting Regional
Prosperity in Northwest Illinois

Northwest Illinois is typical of many rural parts of the Midwest that have a rich tradition of agriculture and manufacturing, but are struggling to redefine themselves in the highly competitive global environment of the 21st Century. Faced with an aging population, job losses and the out-migration of young people following the last recession, local officials invited the Center for Governmental Studies to develop a plan to revitalize the regional economy. The year-long process was funded by a grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration, the Whiteside County Office of Economic Development, and the Northwest Illinois Economic Development Alliance.

It identified the elements necessary to attract and retain area companies and/or launch establishments, leading to increased growth and prosperity in the Region. The analysis has three main components. The first component was a regional wage and benefit study based on data collected from an online survey in April 2012. This was an update and expansion of a wage and benefit study conducted by the Center for Governmental Studies (CGS) in January 2009. The second component was a regional underemployment study conducted by Pathfinders, Inc., completed in July 2012. This was designed to determine the extent to which workers with specific skills were available in the Region and were willing to take jobs at various wage levels. The third component, and primary objective of the regional report, was an analysis of industry clusters to determine the greatest potential for future growth by identifying business activities which could capitalize on the human, material, and locational assets in the Region. These potential industries were examined further to determine their importance for the Region if they were to locate in or around the area.

The process was guided by CGS staff and an advisory board comprised of regional economic development officials and representatives of the business community. Two regional meetings were held with manufacturers and resource providers to identify the current and future skills, training, and education needed to create a competitive workforce. In addition, the meetings identified ways in which providers such as Sauk Valley Community College and Highland Community College could work with the Whiteside Area Career Center, CareerTech, and other regional higher education and training facilities to upgrade the capacity of the workforce in advanced manufacturing. In addition, private interviews were conducted with 15 businesses from around the region to gather additional perspectives on the Region’s economic and workforce challenges and potential.

The final report contained a regional vision statement and identified five key goals:  

  1. Develop a competitive and highly productive workforce with up-to-date skills and capable of using the latest technology in production processes.
  2. Support major existing and emerging growth industries such as transportation and aerospace component manufacturing to become a major Midwestern production/assembly region.
  3. Create an entrepreneurial region with a climate which supports new business formation and encourages existing businesses to invest and prosper.
  4. Make better use of local (regional) inputs and specialties to develop a highly profitable agribusiness and food processing region integrated into Midwestern markets.
  5. Leverage and market existing regional assets to encourage growth, enhance the quality of life, and maximize the potential of the region.

Since the final report was issued in April 2013, local officials along with business leaders, educational institutions and elected officials have been working diligently to implement these goals. Some examples include:

     ♦ The re-establishment of small business assistance programs in Carroll, Stephenson and Whiteside counties with funding from local businesses, government and economic development organizations.

     ♦ The establishment of an economic gardening program in Whiteside County to identify and assist promising companies with business strategy and market research needed expand into new markets and grow their customer based. The County is pursuing certification of the pilot program through the National Center for Economic Gardening at the Edward Lowe Foundation.

     ♦ Local manufacturers are encouraging high school students to explore careers in manufacturing by participating in national Manufacturing Day. In 2016, 15 local manufacturers and businesses opened their doors to over 800 students from 17 area high schools combining tours and assembly presentations about manufacturing.

     ♦ To deal with the impending shortage of workers in the machine trades, local manufacturers collaborated with Sauk Valley Community College and the Whiteside Area Career Center to re-establish a college level machining curriculum. The new curriculum was approved by the Illinois Community College Board in February 2017 and the first classes are being held now.   

     ♦ The partnership between regional institutions and manufacturers also led to a collaboration with the Chicago-based Digital Manufacturing Design Innovation Institute (DMDII) on a $500,000 grant proposal to the U.S. Department of Defense. The grant will provide funds to engage 20 engineering students from NIU, as well as 5 technology interns from Sauk Valley Community College to assess and assist small and medium sized manufacturers with digital projects tailored to their needs based upon their stage of digital development and readiness.

In the four years since the project concluded, the Center for Governmental Studies has continued to engage with our regional partners by providing advice and assistance as they request it. Opportunities for funded new projects are a continuing possibility as the Region continues to build on its successes and looks to the future. One example is the Whiteside County Office of Economic Development’s economic gardening initiative. Once the pilot program becomes established, the County plans to seek grant funding through the USDA Rural Development program. The Center has agreed to play a support role providing technical assistance to clients to the program. In addition, the Center continues to promote other NIU outreach efforts by providing referrals to other NIU programs such as the EIGER Lab in Rockford and the technical assistance programs available through the College of Engineering.