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EDC: Bloomington-Normal rebounds from a COVID economy, but housing remains a challenge

Patrick Hoban
Emily Bollinger
/
WGLT
Patrick Hoban is CEO of the Bloomington-Normal Economic Development Council.

The head of the Bloomington-Normal Economic Development Council says commercial growth is driving an economic rebound in McLean County.

CEO Patrick Hoban presented employment and other economic data at an EDC luncheon on Friday at Illinois Wesleyan University. The data showed commercial investment in the county is on pace to easily top last year's total of $185.5 million in McLean County. The county already has reached $122.5 million in 2022.

“The situation for us in economic development is wonderful. This is what you want to see is a thriving economy because it shows that there’s demand here and people want to do business here," Hoban said.

Commercial building permits through less than four months of 2022 (79) are almost half of last year's total for the year (172).

Hoban indicated the EDC had added 19 projects this year that could lead to development, adding he’s encouraged to see that nearly half of those are in manufacturing that have a greater economic impact.

“People just know that we are really good at making things right now,” Hoban declared. “As people continue to onshore business, moving away from foreign-direct investments, they know that we are a great place to manufacture due to lower electricity costs and the low cost of land,” said Hoban said, noting about half of the manufacturing projects are related to electric automaker Rivian.

According to labor data, nearly 34,000 people commute into Bloomington-Normal to work daily and close to 29,000 Twin Cities residents work out of town. Hoban said the EDC wants to find ways to help more of those workers live in Bloomington-Normal, but a housing shortage had made that difficult. The EDC plans to release the results of its housing study next week.

Community branding

Hoban said surveys and focus groups show what economic developers already think about Bloomington-Normal — that it's a great place to raise a family, it's inexpensive and stable.

Hoban said the EDC is exploring ways to incorporate those themes into a community branding campaign.

“In order to realize it, other people have to know and hopefully realize that there’s a lot here that is unexpected. I think that’s going to be a key message coming through this, that there’s more to here than corn," Hoban said. "I think whenever people think about Bloomington-Normal, if you are from Chicago area, this isn’t the best place, but if you are from a small town, this is a mecca.”

Hoban said the EDC plans to create new messaging and logos as part its new branding strategy to attract more business and workers to the area.

Economic development grants

Hoban also said the EDC and McLean County government are exploring ways to use $380,000 in economic development funds the county issued to help businesses recover from the pandemic.

The county initially approved $600,000 in assistance to help businesses rebound from COVID restrictions and got some assistance from a private donor, but a bulk of the money was never claimed.

Hoban said he’d like to see the county give that money to help start-up businesses through grants to property owners who could host a new business.

“It would be a combination where some of those dollars go to brick and mortar. I know it’s really easy to do startups at home, but if we can get some of the startups into some of the vacant brick and mortar, I think it will be a win-win for the little communities and also the businesses,” said Hoban.

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Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.