Mark Rothert is the assistant county administrator for economic development in Peoria County. He took over the position at the end of April after serving as executive director of the Spoon River Partnership for Economic Development since 2006. In that role, he helped attract a $7.5-million manufacturing facility, facilitated reinvestment in downtown Canton, and helped obtain nearly $5 million in grant monies for a variety of economic development efforts. Today, he oversees Peoria County’s recently created Economic Development department.
What were the key drivers behind the establishment of Peoria County’s Economic Development department?
Why now? The economic downturn over the last several years has had an effect on every aspect of life and business. The establishment of an economic development department by the County was a significant acknowledgement of the need to focus on recovery, job growth and helping companies start and expand in our area.
Introduce the key members of the department and describe the general focus of their work.
Key economic development staff members include myself; Dennis Kief, regional economic development coordinator; and John Hamann, rural economic development coordinator. As a senior manager in Peoria County administration, I work to elevate economic development as a key function of county government amongst board members and community stakeholders. I focus on key development projects and in areas of importance to the board, such as small business and minority business development, industry attraction, and management of the GAP loan program. Dennis Kief's role is to serve as a bridge to our partners across the river and on area projects, such as the submittal of the region's comprehensive economic development strategy plan as required by the U.S. Economic Development Administration. John Hamann works with the rural communities of Peoria County on development leads and to provide them with the County's economic development programs and services.
What are the top priorities of the department in the near term? The long term?
Currently, short-term priorities include participating in the facilitation of the regional planning process currently being undertaken with the help of ViTAL Economy. This process also calls for a county-specific plan to be created. Other short-term projects include working with minority business owners, marketing the County's GAP loan programs, and conceptual work and discussion around the creation of a small business incubator.
In the long term, our goal is to build a business climate that is supportive of entrepreneurs, small businesses and large companies that want to make the Peoria area a destination of choice for their growth. Additionally, we want to continue to develop our region's employment clusters, which include manufacturing, healthcare and agriculture, and look for ways to expand Peoria's reach into global markets.
Describe some of the key initiatives in rural Peoria County. How is your approach to rural development different from that in the city? Do these priorities ever clash?
The primary goal with many of the rural Peoria County communities has been to build relationships with the stakeholders in each of those communities. Since the County has never had an economic development department before, these connections with rural stakeholders have never been nurtured. Moreover, our goals are to help the rural communities by adding to their capacity to undertake economic and community development, whether that be assisting with a development opportunity, applying for grant funding or discovering how to leverage local assets. Each community is at a different level of capacity for economic and community growth, which includes not only their staffing, but also their drive and commitment to growth.
Elmwood is a perfect example. They were forced into reality by the tornado, but they have since bounced back even better than before with a little help and guidance from the County. They now realize that economic development is an ongoing process that requires constant attention. Even though its population is only 2,000, they have seen the value in hiring an ED coordinator to keep the momentum going. The results have been amazing: a new hardware store, four new restaurants, clothing stores, and almost everything a small community needs. They have a small manufacturing plant that sells electrical equipment and components nationwide, with the potential to expand their market globally. The County and its regional partners want to find these unique niches in every rural community and help make the connections that would otherwise go undiscovered.
Rural and urban priorities don't necessarily clash; they are just different or on a different scale. Rural and urban communities alike care about jobs, economic growth and a good quality of life for residents. Some of the goals of the recent regional planning efforts are to eliminate or reduce the internal competition between local communities, establish similar goals and get everyone to work together as a region.
Describe the latest efforts underway for business retention and expansion. How important are GAP loans to these efforts?
Economic development is the increase in the flow of capital through a community and a reduction in its leakage. That definition certainly holds true when we talk about existing businesses that are either having troubles or, conversely, are in expansion mode. We don't want to see any business fail, nor see one expand to another region. That is why engaging with existing businesses is a crucial piece of economic development, one that arguably carries more value than business attraction because most of the newly created jobs in the local economy come from existing companies.
Oftentimes, however, when local leaders find out that a company is in trouble or is leaving, it is usually in the proverbial 11th hour. We could all do a better job of opening the lines of communication so that such situations are avoided. Over the past several months, Peoria County has engaged with several businesses in need of expansion capital—or that have even considered relocating out of the Peoria area. Our goal in meeting with these companies was to address their relocation or expansion needs and try to remove any roadblocks for their staying in Peoria. We are continually committed to address similar issues with other businesses throughout the community. One available resource is our GAP loan program, which can provide much-needed capital to businesses. The County offers three different categories of loans for business growth [see the chart below]. Our micro-loan fund, for example, is a great source for small businesses in need of working capital, while the macro-loan fund is for major company expansions.
What is your relationship with other ED groups in the region?
Our relationship with other economic development organizations and professionals is very good. The recent regional planning processes through ViTAL Economy have really allowed all of us to meet routinely and work toward common goals for the first time in years. We all see the value in building regionalism and supporting each other.
What are your thoughts on the ViTAL Economy report?
The ViTAL Economy report was needed. It has helped us engage sectors of our community that have often been left out of the dialogue (e.g. minorities) and has provided us with opportunities to identify key issues in the community (e.g. crime, poverty, quality of life, etc.). It has also helped the region work more collaboratively. The most important takeaway probably is that “change” is inevitable, but “progress” is an option we control locally. We must first awaken to the realities of our situation and our shortcomings, and change our basic attitudes. ViTAL Economy has helped us do that in regard to economic development, and it is providing a way for us to progress by identifying our community assets and leveraging them to build the region.
What is the County’s involvement in the redevelopment of the Warehouse District?
We firmly believe that without a strong central business district or downtown, the rest of the community suffers. Peoria needs a strong downtown and Warehouse District to compete with other regions. To that end, Peoria County stands ready to assist the City of Peoria on any development occurring in this area. The new museum and CAT Visitors Center will definitely be a tourism draw for the downtown, and as activity starts to grow with these two attractions, with more people coming downtown, other growth is bound to develop.
What is the greatest obstacle you face in your work?
Competition is fierce in economic development. Not only is this area competing with other regions, but also other states and countries across the world. Our challenge now is to come out of the recent strategic planning process a more unified and stronger region. If we do not, our competitors surely will. Second, we have to bring forth our best efforts to show expanding companies and site selectors that the Greater Peoria region is ready, able and willing for their development. Third, we have to build a local environment that is conducive to helping existing businesses and entrepreneurs. Last, we have to address the skills gap that is affecting many of our key industry clusters and leaving many valuable jobs unfilled.
What would you like to accomplish over the next year?
Part of Peoria County’s mission is to be a regional leader. In the next year, we want to participate in and positively influence the major economic and community development issues affecting our region. These issues include, but are not limited to:
- Helping address regional issues and coming to consensus on a new regional economic development model
- Helping entrepreneurs and small business startups, for example, through a business incubator
- Attracting new development
- Helping existing companies grow and expand
- Assisting rural communities
- Helping define workforce development in the 21st century
- Building capacity with minority and disadvantaged businesses. iBi