The new head of the Bloomington-Normal Economic Development Council promised regular updates on development efforts during a joint Bloomington City Council, Normal Town Council, and McLean County Board meeting Monday night.
Under previous EDC leadership, some elected officials had expressed dissatisfaction with the amount of information they were getting and disapproval that they were surprised at what they believed were short-notice requests for incentives to bring businesses to the community.
New EDC Director Patrick Hoban told elected leaders “I don’t want you ever to ask what we’re working on.”
“There will be a report that comes out quarterly. You’re not going to know what the business is but I will give you the high tier code so you will know it’s transportation or it’s manufacturing. But, then we’ll talk about it’s this many jobs and this much investment,” said Hoban. “I’m here to do deals and bring in investments.”
But he acknowledged it might not be fast.
“And at some point, hopefully closer than five to 10 years, you’re going to see that come through and you’re going to say that’s what we saw so long ago, that’s as we continue to work these deals. But the goal is to track the jobs, track the wages, and show the ROI (return on investment). If there are going to be incentives involved, we need to see over time we’re going to get our money back and everyone is going to grow because of it,” said Hoban.
Hoban promised a regional approach to economic development and pledged to work with other cities such as Decatur, Champaign-Urbana, and Peoria. He said when incentives are needed, public officials should find them to be predictable based on the quality of jobs, the amount of investment in the community, and the number of jobs. He said there is a multiplier to help package incentives in a consistent way to favor more "impactful" additions to the community.
He promised the EDC will do cost-benefit analyses to compare the cost of infrastructure development to attract new business stacked against where the new jobs will be. For instance, Hoban noted some people who will have Rivian jobs will end up living in the Peoria area and not benefit Bloomington-Normal as much as if they lived in town. He said some job sectors have a regional labor force and some will be purely local.
He also promised the EDC will seek to leverage existing businesses in a variety of ways. One would be to ask local businesses who their suppliers and buyers are and then look for better, closer, and cheaper options to help the local firms expand, or to seek those outside businesses out to convince them to relocate.
Elected officials generally responded positively to Hoban’s presentation.
“I like what I heard from Patrick Hoban, I really do. The dashboard (an online development tool), the quarterly updates, being very numeric – numbers oriented, I liked all of it, so I feel very good going forward,” said Normal Town Council member Kathleen Lorenz.
Lorenz said she is also a big fan of regional development and marketing efforts.
“I like the idea of a standardized set of incentives. I think it would be very advantageous,” said Lorenz.
McLean County Board member Laurie Wollrab said she was very pleased with Hoban’s presentation.
“Just a breath of fresh air to me. I know the EDC was struggling and I had patience with them knowing they were going through a difficult period. I think they have done an excellent job at hiring someone that looks to me like they’re going to be able to lead that organization in the future and so I feel much better about where we are at today,” said Wollrab.
Some elected officials said they wanted a little more from Hoban.
Ward 4 Bloomington City Council member Julie Emig said the high-level report on business recruitment might not be enough for her.
“I’m going to push back at the EDC and say you’ve talked about this data gathering you are going to do. How are you going to share it with us? How are we going to have an opportunity to ask you questions about what you are finding and how can we have input in the future with this work? So, I think the expectation is there that there will be greater transparency, but we need to make sure that it’s really happening and that it’s happening in a way we can really use the information,” said Emig
Ward 9 Bloomington council member Kim Bray said she looked forward to the city working with the EDC, but noted she might not always agree with the type of business the EDC is looking to add.
“I think we’re going to focus on education. We’re going to focus on technology. We’re going to focus on financial services. And we’re going to focus on those ancillary businesses that go with that. At the same time, I’m thinking there are some things we need to leave behind or some things that may come up towards us and we may have to say look that doesn’t fit our model. What would undermine our workforce rather than bringing people into education, getting people on the job, what would impair their abilities to be at work and to be all that they can be?” said Bray.
County Board member Chuck Erickson said the presentation went a little bit of the way to curing the previous lack of transparency and responsiveness from the EDC.
“I mean it used to be that in my view we didn’t always hear from the EDC until they wanted something from us,” said Erickson.
Erickson said he hopes the new leadership will communicate more. But he was cautious about use of development incentives even if they are standardized and public ahead of negotiations.
“I have to believe there is a group of Republicans, Democrats, and fair-minded independents that if someone would sit us down we could come up with rules and regulations and streamline some of the stuff so possibly to bring businesses in that don’t necessarily require necessarily monetary incentives because we really are taking a lot from the schools when we give those incentive out,” said Erickson.
The councils and the County Board also heard presentations on workforce development from the Chamber of Commerce and on the economic impact of the marketing efforts of the Convention and Visitors Bureau.
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