Focus Forward CI Defines the Moment

by Mick Hall

“Either define the moment or the moment will define you.” –Walt Whitman

Following the release of a study by an independent consultant finding that the area’s economic development efforts needed a new focus, central Illinois faced an uncertain moment in its economic development history. Who would take the helm? Was there a clear economic development mission? Who would be included in the development process? As more and more questions were asked, the answer leaders began to offer was the same: Focus Forward CI.

FFCI’s Birth
In early 2012, the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission (TCRPC) endorsed the 11 major recommendations offered by the consultant who assessed the performance of community investments throughout central Illinois, finding that the region needed to rebuild its economic development engine. “The clear message was that we lacked a regional approach to economic development,” says FFCI Chairman Jim Baumgartner.

In July 2012, Baumgartner was one of 30 business, community and elected leaders who formed the FFCI Policy Steering Committee. The group quickly identified longstanding political and cultural boundaries that thwarted the creation of a unified economic development strategy. "We realized that across geographic boundaries, there was little collaboration. Why should one community compete against another? To be successful, we need an asset-based strategy leveraging the many unique features of our region that can attract and retain talented people in our communities," Baumgartner explained.

At the time, the FFCI Policy Steering Committee worked under the umbrella of the TCRPC. That relationship ended in August of 2013, when the committee voted to become an independent entity. Shortly after the vote, Focus Forward CI Inc. was incorporated as an Illinois not-for-profit. According to its bylaws, 20 regional community leaders will be selected to serve on the board of directors, with one additional board member selected by each of the five county boards and the City of Peoria. The board will have diverse members from across the five counties: men and women with different ages and ethnicities tapping into experiences from a wide range of business and community activities. Once the entire board is appointed, FFCI will create committees and add structure to the not-for-profit.

A Regional Approach
From the earliest meetings, it was clear there was a lack of a cohesive regional approach to economic development. FFCI identified Logan, Mason, Peoria, Tazewell and Woodford counties as one region sharing a common labor pool, educational interests and overlapping employers. By harnessing its assets, FFCI believes it can market the quality of life offered in our area to young professionals and skilled tradesmen. Having a uniquely skilled workforce will, in turn, attract businesses to the region and spawn more local startups, as well as facilitate investments in the hundreds of assets already identified.

FFCI recognizes that economic development is about more than businesses and jobs. Economic development has a real and long-lasting impact, as local school districts reap additional tax revenue to improve schools, for example. “Equal access to educational opportunities in our schools is pivotal to closing the achievement gap,” explains Sharon Reed, an FFCI board member and retired educator from the Peoria and Pekin school districts. “Whether a parent or a grandparent, we must continue to invest in our schools with adequate funding to provide necessary resources for a vibrant community.”

Touting Transparency
Since its inception, FFCI has touted its transparency. “We made a decision to be as transparent as possible,” says Baumgartner. “We need the public to support FFCI so the door will always be open to anyone who wants to assist us in moving forward, or who just has a few questions.”

The organization looks to combat the criticism that a few insiders formerly held all of the cards in the economic development game. “Instead of a few people trying to get a big job done, we want hundreds and even thousands of volunteers helping us meet our goals,” explains Diana Hall, FFCI vice chair. There are so many talented people in central Illinois who never knew they could help in a way that would have such a profound impact on our region.”

“S.M.A.R.T. Goals Just Make Sense”
Just as corporations set goals and evaluate their efforts to determine which projects should continue and which should be modified or scrapped, FFCI wants to bring the same level of assessment to its efforts. To do so, the group adopted a “S.M.A.R.T.” strategy that sets five-year goals, strategies and action plans that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-based.

Baumgartner, director of corporate public affairs at Caterpillar, was very familiar with S.M.A.R.T. goals, as CAT has been using them for years. “We wanted the public and our investors to see that we set goals and meet them,” he says. “Or, if we need to adjust a strategy, we can be nimble and make the necessary changes to keep us focused on economic development.”

“How can you make investments and assess your performance without measurable goals?” asks Hall. “S.M.A.R.T. goals just make sense.”

FFCI wants to focus on measuring the impact of its strategies in a meaningful way—analyzing success by the outcomes it produces, not simply by the number of activities it undertakes. By doing so, the organization believes it can more accurately measure the return on investment of each strategy and open avenues for additional investment. “The return on investment of how our current resources are valued and will be leveraged at an increased level will create new partnerships and opportunities for all,” adds Leigh Ann Matthews, economic development/tourism coordinator for the City of Pekin and co-chair of the GeNext Action Team.

By designing measurable strategies and goals and being transparent with its stakeholders, FFCI looks to share information openly as it reboots economic development in the region.

Investing in FFCI
This message is resonating with local investors. Dozens of small and large businesses, local municipalities, counties, labor unions, nonprofits, foundations and individuals have begun investing in FFCI by making multi-year funding commitments to enable it to reach the goal of 60-percent private investment versus 40-percent local, state and federal investment.

Perhaps the most astounding investment thus far has been in human capital, as getting FFCI organized and moving has required strong volunteer dedication. “All of us have our own business and family commitments, but we know FFCI’s mission is vital to our future economic prosperity,” Hall explained. “It is an investment we all should be making.”

There are now 1,200 volunteers participating on committees and action teams, offering their time and talents to help focus the group’s vision. Never before have so many volunteers joined forces for economic development in this region.

FFCI also launched a five-year campaign seeking investors to fund the $3-million annual cost the group says is needed to generate $1.75 billion in new annual wages across central Illinois and at least $34 million in new annual tax revenue. Meanwhile, its inclusive, regional approach has created a unique buzz. “This feels different,” notes Hall. “When you hear people talking about FFCI, there is a real excitement in their voices. We know we can—and will—make a difference for our region.”

With solid momentum and a collaborative effort built on transparency and volunteerism, FFCI is heeding Walt Whitman’s advice and defining the economic development moment for central Illinois. iBi

For more information about FFCI initiatives and the five-year regional strategy, visit focusforwardci.com.

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