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Economic Indicators Show Improvement For Bloomington-Normal

Charlie Schlenker
BN EDC Director Patrickk Hoban said during an online briefing that site visits to facilities like the one pictured and requests for proposals by prospective businesses are up in recent months.

New data show the Bloomington-Normal economy continues to bounce back from the pandemic in spots.

After big drops in retail sales during the spring, the summer improved. Patrick Hoban, president and CEO of the Bloomington-Normal Economic Development Council, said during a B-N By The Numbers quarterly briefing on the economy that there was no traditional bump in sales for April as people spent tax returns. He said they continued to spend cautiously in May. Hoban said retail sales improved in June, and then July "shocked" him.

"July somehow passed the last two years. I want to take a deeper dive in this to see if there were changes in the rates or if we really just loosened our wallets with the loosening of restrictions. Was everybody cooped up for so long that when it was time to get back out, we did and started spending like crazy? Or is there something else in this number," said Hoban. "Either way spending is back."

Hoban said the sectors of spending have shifted. Sit-down restaurant sales declined. Purchases at hardware stores increased.

"You can just drive to the parking lots and see the rise there. Spending is up. I just did not expect it to exceed the last two years," Hoban said.

But not all is rosy.

Unemployment rates have begun to fall, though Hoban said the McLean and Dewitt county area is not where it needs to be. He said 8% unemployment might look good compared to rates recorded during the height of the Great Recession when the housing bubble popped, but alongside the average of the last few years it's not so great. He said he finds an uneven picture as well in the number of workers who have jobs in the area.

"From March to April, it dropped about 12,000 jobs. From March to July we are down about 4,000. It is good news, but we are actually still down 9,000 jobs compared to last year," said Hoban. "But we are trending in the right direction on employment."

Another metric the economic development council pays attention to is business investment--existing businesses expanding or new ones coming in and building. Hoban said data for the second quarter is mixed, but overall presents a hopeful picture.

"The number of permits for projects is down. But that's totally made up by the spending. We had projected we would exceed last year because of projects in the pipeline. We have surpassed last year. Total investment in McLean County is right now about $178 million. Last year it was at $124 million. I see this continuing through October and November. Even though we would normally decline then because of colder weather, there are still more projects on the way," said Hoban. "I think we will have a really good year when it comes to commercial investments creating new jobs for the community. "

Rivian accounts for a significant portion of the total as it ramps up projection of its new electric vehicles.

Hoban said the number of leads, site visits and the people who ask for proposals from the economic development council for possible locations for new businesses is up a bit, close to one a week.

And while Hoban's job encourages him to "romance" potential businesses and to be optimistic about Bloomington-Normal prospects, he said current thinking in the economic development field suggests permanent economic changes the pandemic may bring could help McLean County.

"Data centers used to be these really large national centers. Now they are starting to be smaller, more regional based, even what I would call micro data centers. You will see smaller units getting closer to cell phone towers because as we all started working from home, as the kids went back to school and crashed Zoom, there is so much more cloud computing needed. And that's why you will see more data centers on the rise," said Hoban.

He said continued use of work-from-home technology also will make it more likely for people to choose Bloomington-Normal in which to live and work, and only occasionally commute to an office in Chicago.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.