EDC head: Bloomington-Normal needs an industrial park to stay competitive
In recent years, economic development efforts in Bloomington-Normal have focused on workforce development and creating a standard incentive package for prospective new businesses to locate in McLean County. That's about to change.
Workforce development came first with partnerships between existing manufacturers and Heartland Community College and other institutions. Patrick Hoban, CEO of the Bloomington-Normal Economic Development Council, said that work is moving ahead.
Hoban, spealing on WGLT's Sound Ideas, said the community also has begun working on infrastructure improvements, and a new marketing and branding campaign for the county will be unveiled soon, perhaps in October.
Of all the elements of fostering new business in central Illinois, though, entrepreneurship has had the least attention, said Hoban. The topic was at the bottom of the current EDC strategic plan, which not so coincidentally is about to run out. A new one will soon start development, and Hoban said entrepreneurship will bump up in priority in the plan to be developed over the next six months.
Hoban said some elements of a system to promote new business creation are active. There's a business incubator and a maker-space is on the way at Illinois Wesleyan University. But he said Bloomington-Normal needs more.
"Illinois Wesleyan has a pretty cool dorm concept they're planning. Illinois State University also has a couple of programs they're working on. It's just getting the collaboration from everyone to build out an entire ecosystem that mimics what we see in our surrounding communities," said Hoban.
He said some programs in the area can be thought of as business accelerators, but new businesses have to have coaches to get them beyond where they are now
"Illinois Wesleyan has done a wonderful job at the Small Business Development Center helping out with business plans and some of the smaller coaching. But having some specialists that act in more than a mentorship role, I think, will get us in the right frame of mind to go forward," said Hoban.
Another piece of the framework to support entrepreneurs, he said, could spark new tech development as well as make the area better for existing businesses.
"Making a light industrial park in the area I think will help out a ton because we are getting a lot of contacts for some of the suppliers of Rivian. We want them as close as possible because whenever it comes to logistics, they'll save money and time if we can get them in town. Right now, we're just out of buildings. So we need someone to come in and actually master-plan an industrial park," said Hoban.
The University of Illinois has a research park on its campus that Hoban said throws off a number of startups every year. Peoria is planning one. Hoban said the Twin Cities would be a good spot because it's a freight-shipping crossroads for railroads.
"There's a couple different locations. I definitely think north Normal is a great area. And ideally you keep all this outside of our beltway. Another good location would be south of the airport because there is rail down there on the south side," said Hoban.
Developing an industrial park can take a couple years, Hoban said, not only because of supply chain issues, but because gathering the partnership pieces takes time to arrange. And then there's the money question: Who pays for an industrial park?
"A lot of times it does start with the universities and that's where those have been housed for now. I think there is opportunity though for a public-private partnership to raise funds from some of our local companies that are here that want to invest in startups," said Hoban.
Hoban said Peoria's Distillery Labs is further along than Bloomington-Normal in creating entrepreneurship. He said the Twin Cities will look to that regional partnership for best practices as it pays attention to its own efforts, adding Bloomington-Normal also should focus on the manufacturing sector.
That's not only because it helps existing manufacturers such as Rivian and Brandt, but because manufacturing tends to create more spin-off business than the financial and business services sectors. He said subcontractors and suppliers tend to locate near existing manufacturing hubs.