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DeKalb development officials learning from missed Toyota-Mazda opportunity

City applying lessons learned from Toyota-Mazda sweepstakes

DeKALB – The state of Illinois is not short on assets that could entice big businesses to set up shop.

With 146,000 miles of highway, seven Class 1 freight railroads and a triple-hub airport system, Illinois has a world-class transportation system. It also boasts an educated workforce, with about 40 percent of its population older than age 25 having an associate degree or higher, 192 higher education institutions and more than 1,500 manufacturing-related programs across the state, according to materials presented by the city of DeKalb for consideration by a major industrial project.

Unfortunately, there still is the matter of the more than $200 billion in unfunded pension liability, a credit rating teetering on the edge of junk status and a growing number of students and residents fleeing for states with lower property taxes.

DeKalb economic development planner Jason Michnick said if DeKalb, which was in the running for a $1.6 billion Toyota and Mazda manufacturing plant last year, wants a better shot at landing the next major industrial project, the promotion of local assets will be key to overcoming the fiscal uncertainty of the state.

“We have to show that despite the political uncertainties, Illinois is still a great place,” Michnick said. “Until Illinois starts turning things around, it’s going to be challenging, and we’ll see the population decrease with high taxes and see business owners relocated just beyond our boundaries.”

DeKalb competed against four other in-state communities that proposed sites for the plant: Coal City, Greenville, Rockford and Rochelle. Of the five, DeKalb had the largest workforce within 60 miles because of its proximity to Chicago, access to the largest manufacturing workforce and access to the largest fabricated metal manufacturing workforce, according to documents submitted by the city for consideration by Toyota-Mazda.

In a letter to the site selection team, Paul Borek, executive director of the DeKalb County Economic Development Corp., promoted the ChicagoWest Business Center, an estimated 334-acre site that was expanded to a 1,000-acre “megasite” adjacent to Interstate 88, as a potential candidate. The area is about 20 miles from the Aurora-Naperville area, less than 60 miles from O’Hare International Airport and has abundant access to utilities.

“I’m not aware of that many places that have the acreage and that kind of proximity to other assets,” Michnick said.

Although Huntsville, Alabama, ultimately was chosen as the site for the manufacturing plant, Borek said the components of DeKalb’s proposal easily can be tailored to the specific requirements of current and future projects in a timely manner.

“That’s important since site selectors require information quickly,” Borek said. “In many respects, it’s a test of a community’s readiness.”

In doing so, Borek said the DCEDC has been able to build relationships between INTERSECT Illinois,
Gov. Bruce Rauner’s nonprofit economic development organization, the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity and local resources such as Northern Illinois University and Kishwaukee College.

DCEDC also reaches out regularly to industrial real estate brokers and site selectors through various trade associations.

“This outreach ensures that we’re top-of-mind and reliable with quick turnaround site selection requirements,” Borek said. “Our location was recognized as one of the best in the country by Toyota-Mazda and their site selectors. We’re capitalizing on that by promoting it and building upon it.”

DeKalb County Community Development Director Derek Hiland said his office plays a smaller role by encouraging developers to operate in municipalities that can best serve them.

“The county is here to support our 14 municipalities for economic and community development issues,” Hiland said. “While we encourage development to occur within municipalities, we’re a conduit to make sure we meet with the right partners.”

Although municipalities still have to contend with the state’s current fiscal perils, Borek said developers often look at long-term trends since a new plant or factory could be in place for decades.

Over the past two years, DeKalb County has added 1,600 jobs, about half of which came from the Target Distribution Center and 3M.

“It’s the ability to rally knowledge, capability and resources that can address the needs of the largest food, vehicle or electronics manufacturers that may be out in the marketplace searching for a viable community they can succeed in,” Borek said.

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