When the McLean County Regional Planning Commission recently finished its national search for a new director, it found the leader it wanted pretty close to home.
In fact, Raymond Lai comes from the same place as five other civic and government leaders who have come to Bloomington-Normal in the last year and a half: Decatur. The Macon County city, about an hour's drive south, has become almost a training ground for the Twin Cities.
Decatur native Patrick Hoban is now head of the Bloomington-Normal Economic Development Council. He knows what Decatur is known for. It's right under your nose.
“Coming from there, a lot of times, it has to do with the smell,” Hoban said. “That’s the first thing that comes to mind.
“Me being from Decatur, that’s the smell of money. That’s your ADM, that’s your Tate & Lyle, that’s your soybean processing.”
Agriculture has always been big business in Decatur. It has that in common with McLean County, but Decatur has generally lacked the abundance of white-collar jobs central to the Bloomington-Normal economy that come from insurance companies, hospitals, and universities.
Hoban said he saw the erosion of the blue-collar economy as he grew up in Decatur.
“I remember actually crossing some picket lines to play JFL (youth) football,” Hoban said. “Coming from a manufacturing town, we saw a lot of the manufacturers there going into decline.
“It was a tougher area to do economic development and real estate development.”
Hoban said Decatur commercial real estate in the early 2000s was tough. He spent a decade trying to attract businesses to Decatur in jobs with the city and a nonprofit corporation before coming to the Twin Cities. Hoban said he came to McLean County after a stop in the Chicago suburb of Tinley Park for the opportunity to run a regional economic development firm.
Hoban touted what Decatur has done in recent years. He said the city gets a bad rap.
“I don’t know if it’s because it’s a manufacturing town, that’s probably the same rap Danville would get and some of the other blue-collar towns,” Hoban explained. “That’s just what the jobs were and the industry that follows it and I think that’s some of the mentality that came with it.”
Changing The Reputation
As recently as 2016, Decatur was one of the fastest-shrinking cities in the country. Nearly 5% of the people left between 2010 and 2016. Those population declines and other economic setbacks stemmed from the 2001 closing of a Bridgestone-Firestone tire plant that once employed nearly 2,000 people.
But Hoban said Decatur has transformed in the last few years.
Hoban says during his time working in Decatur, the city benefited from $1 billion in private investment, mainly from agri-giants Caterpillar and ADM. Some economic indicators still lag similar-sized cities. Leaders say those metrics will take time to reflect the recovery.
One major sign of Decatur's recovery is its unemployment rate. It bottomed out in the summer of 2009 at 14.2%. A decade later it was down to 4.5%. That often gets lost in the narrative.
Tim Gleason came to Bloomington in 2018 to become city manager after holding the same post in Decatur. He said changing a narrative can be a challenge for smaller cities trying to rebound.
“There’s some communities where telling that story, trying to be transparent and tell the positives is more important maybe than in some of the other communities around the United States that are more affluent, maybe more things are happening,” Gleason said.
Not long after Gleason came to Bloomington, he brought his second-in-command with him to be deputy city manager.
Billy Tyus, like Hoban, was born and raised in Decatur. Tyus worked at city hall for nearly two decades. For anyone unsure about Decatur's transformation, Tyus offered a suggestion.
“I would encourage people to actually visit the community,” Tyus said. “What you'll see is that it's without a doubt not what your perception may be.”
In addition to the private investment, Tyus said Decatur has diversified its economy and reinvigorated its downtown. There's new lakefront development, along with a new amphitheater, water park and other attractions.
“When you took the opportunity to step back and look at it, it was an amazing transformation, frankly, to see,” Tyus said. “It’s not the same community that it was 10 years ago.”
So why have Decatur leaders taken such a shine to Bloomington jobs of late?
The latest in the Decatur pipeline is Raymond Lai. He's just starting as the new executive director of the McLean County Regional Planning Commission.
When you ask why hire from Decatur, here's Lai's response: “Why not, right? There’s nothing wrong with Decatur. It's a fine community, a lot of things going on (there).”
Tyus said many of the ideas they incorporated in Decatur are transferable.
“In the last couple of years, we started while we were in Decatur to deal with neighborhood revitalization,” Tyus said. “That’s something we want to do here, so we’ve been able to dig in and develop some ways to deal with that.”
Tyus said it's not leaders fleeing Decatur for Bloomington-Normal. It's more that the creativity needed to try to reverse years of manufacturing declines and population loss makes other cities take notice of your work.
“When you are in it and doing the work and sometimes it gets hard, you develop a skill set that I know a lot of people from our community – from that community – have been developing over the years and when opportunities come about and there are applications, those are recognized.”
Hoban said anyone who can emerge from the challenges Decatur has faced becomes battle tested. He says if McLean County encounters a problem, odds are he's been through it before.
“We’ve had projects that were ready to go, teed up and in the last minute fell apart,” Hoban recalled. “We’ve gone through those challenges before and a lot of the people that were a part of those teams that were working on that are still around, so being able to call them up, deal with best practices, partner with our regional partners, it’s something (that helps us) get deals done today.”
Why Leave Decatur?
So if Decatur is seeing such a renaissance, why leave and come to McLean County?
Tyus said it's still a no-brainer.
“I don’t know that the city of Bloomington knows how great of a community it is,” Tyus declared. “When you go statewide and we go to a lot of municipal events or you go to other communities the city is often seen like why would you not take an opportunity here if it comes about?”
Gleason said Bloomington has a culture of outside-the-box thinking to solve problems.
“It’s in Decatur as well, but what I’m saying is it’s noticeably greater in the Bloomington-Normal area and we are only 40 miles north,” Gleason said. “I have found that interesting and honestly, it’s extremely exciting, get your creative juices flowing and it’s fun to be a part of that.”
Gleason said he sees Bloomington as a “cut above” many communities, which is why he wanted to move shortly after signing a contract extension in Decatur.
Lai is the just the latest Decatur connection at the Regional Planning Commission. His predecessor, Vasudha Gadhiraju, came from Decatur. She is now the Town of Normal’s director of innovation and technology.
Unit 5 found its new superintendent from a small town near Decatur. Kristen Kendrick-Weikle is currently superintendent of Warrensburg-Latham public schools.
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