County appointee hopes to enlist others in economic push
EDWARDSVILLE — Madison County’s new administrator of Community Development hopes to apply years of economic development experience to a multipronged, major effort to transform lives.
Frank Miles says it may take the rest of his public service career to get done all the things he’d like to do in his new role, which began in June.
“Somebody said seven years. That’s probably about right,” he laughed.
Joking aside, he’s formulating an ambitious plan that calls for taking Community Development well beyond its traditional services of housing and social services and into the region at large.
He’s going to rely heavily on his many contacts. Few people have the background — or the connections — that Miles does in Southwestern Illinois, where he’s worked with movers and shakers for more than 30 years.
Now 54, he started in 1987 in the city of Edwardsville as a graduate student working in planning and development, responsible for downtown renovation. He worked with developer Ralph Korte on what became the new Mark Twain office buildings on Main Street. That project helped launch a serious transformation of the downtown core that continued with the construction of the County Administration Building and more.
Miles, who became the city’s assistant planner and, by 1990, the city’s director of development administration, was in the middle of a lot of it and still looks back on that transformative era as a major accomplishment.
His foray into an ever-widening circle of government experience began when newly elected Madison County Circuit Clerk Matt Melucci named Miles his deputy in 1992. Together, they worked to automate an office that had largely gone unchanged for 50 years.
From there, he became administrator for the city of O’Fallon and was there from 1994 to 1999.
The St. Clair-Madison County experiences and his longtime political connections made him a natural for the next job, as district chief of staff for U.S. Jerry Costello, D-Belleville, from 1999-2006.
Miles eventually went on to a series of other prominent posts: director of planning at Madison County (from 2006 to 2010); Madison County treasurer (2010); business manager at America’s Central Port (2010 to 2013); and finally, executive director at Southwestern Illinois College (2013-14).
The latter is where he was when County Chairman Alan Dunstan asked him to serve as head of Community Development upon the retirement of longtime director Walter Hunter.
It’s all been good experience for what Miles proposes to do now, which is expand the services — and the impact — of Madison County Community Development.
“I’ve got the ability and the capability within this department to impact a lot of folks. I’ve been blessed to be tapped for this role,” he says.
One of his main pursuits will be economic development.
“Chairman Dunstan has indicated to me he really wants to ramp it up. Hopefully, we can build on relationships we’ve built in the past,” Miles said.
Judging from his answers during an extensive interview, Miles doesn’t simply see Madison County when he peers out the office window; he’s looking at a bigger picture and the county’s role in it.
“We’re in the ‘middle of it all.’ That’s a great tagline,” he said.
His role as business developer at the port helped teach him the importance of logistics and the role it plays in modern business, and he’s already started to look for ways his department can work with the port district, local railroads, local airports and other big goods movers. If nothing else he wants to help people “connect the dots” to get things done — a phrase he uses often.
Miles was appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce to serve on the Missouri-Illinois District Export Council, part of a national program with local bodies that advise companies interested in foreign trade. That position has helped keep him in the loop on regional economic possibilities, as have several other civic board posts he now holds.
While at the port district, he accompanied the port’s District Executive Director Dennis Wilmsmeyer to China to explore mutual interests.
“The port here is (a real) opportunity with the new South Harbor under construction. They are really focusing on ‘container on barge.’ When we were in China, at the Nanjing Port on the Yangtze River, up and down the river all you could see was barges. The goal (here) is to develop the (local) harbor into a major container operation … to move traditional commodities like corn, fertilizer and oils, but also have the ability to load containers on barge.”
The Chinese are interested in mass movement of corn and soybeans from the Midwest and have been to the local port twice.
“You can get so much more product on a barge than you can by truck or rail. All that needs to be matured and the federal government is interested. That’s one of the reasons the port received the TIGER Grant funds ($18.5 million for harbor construction),” Miles said.
He notes his hometown of Granite City has some “fairly significant food processors” — such as Prairie Farms, Kraft and Bailey Foods.
“Eighty percent of U.S. agriculture goes down the Mississippi River. There’s got to be ways that we can help improve the avenue of moving products from farm to the terminals to the processors,” Miles said.
In the same regard, St. Louis Regional Airport in Bethalto and Gateway Commerce Center in Pontoon Beach and Edwardsville have overlapping, regional interests in transportation and infrastructure. Miles said he wants to explore ways to work with each of them.
“We can provide ways to connect the interests together to increase the awareness, working with the rail folks, the trucks folks, the air folks. We have some areas where we can assist, such as infrastructure loans and incentive programs to help meet gaps,” Miles said.
He’d also wants to reach out to the region’s hospitals, colleges, tourist attractions and agricultural businesses, all of which represent wide swaths of the economy.
The county office is responsible for pursuing and processing some $15 million worth of grants that come into the county each year. The department’s biggest constituencies are low-income individuals and communities.
Most of its programs are well known and long established. Among them is distribution of Community Development Block Grant funds from U.S. Housing and Urban Development, which go primarily for infrastructure improvements and loans.
There is also a home program that deals with improving the county’s housing stock. His department also works with the county’s own Housing Authority as well as the housing authorities in Alton and Granite City.
Community Development also deals with homelessness in that it provides emergency housing and short-term help with food. The department also administers the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program to help people with heating and cooling bills. There is also a weatherization program, where agency representatives upgrade homes to make them more energy efficient. There is also a lead hazard abatement program.
Miles’ office also administers some of the sales tax the county receives through the Metro East Park and Recreation District. A separately appointed Madison County parks commission serves as grantor for program fund distribution.
“There’s a lot of good things that are going on in this department that people don’t know about. I think my role as the administrator is to try to communicate that,” said Miles, who is also the elected township supervisor in Edwardsville Township.
All of those programs address the community’s well-being and, in a sense, its economics.
“Through the CDBG grant program, we provide funds for streets or to improvement drainage. That’s related to economic development as well because you’re stabilizing neighborhoods and helping a city maintain where businesses are located,” he said.
He hopes to pursue a wide range of grants to promote topics as diverse as health care, redeveloping brown fields, the green economy and broadband communication. Right now, the county is chasing after a grant dealing with educating people about smart grid technology.
The department also provides technical assistance to the smaller communities in the county that do not have their own economic developer but are interested in setting up a TIF or a small business district.
In the big scheme, he says, if his office can assist in any way in regional progress, it will, while at the same time not forgetting its traditional programs.
“Community Development is economic development,” he said, reflected by what his predecessors did in the past to deliver services. With many projects having been accomplished — senior centers, road and sewer work, etc. — and with grant programs drying up, some new tactics are needed.
“I think the focus should be on working to collaborate with others (with minimal resources),” he said. Such a pooling of efforts creates economic opportunities.
“Maybe they haven’t looked at it that way in the past, but I think now it’s a big picture kind of thing,” he said. “Money is not falling from the sky. The watchword they are giving us is collaboration. You’ve got to demonstrate a collaborative approach in order to be successful to obtain these grants — and to obtain real results.”
He would like to see the county develop a comprehensive list of locally based development sites and do more to make its website a place where visitors can get that kind of information. The county recently hired a firm to redevelop its website and Community Development is slated to become the first department to undergo the change, he said. It’s an opportunity to post maps, interactive fact sheets, processing forms and more as the department prepares to move toward future projects.
Regarding forms, Miles is hoping to convert to a “centralized intake” that features only one form people would have to fill out to access all the assistance the department offers.
“That way they’ll have a one-stop shop,” he said, adding that one day he hopes the office “goes paperless.”
Two critical groups that continue to demand attention are senior citizens and veterans.
“I serve on the board for the Southwestern Illinois Area Agency on Aging,” Miles said. “They are sounding the alarm about the impact that seniors are going to have on our economy. The baby boomers are retiring and in another year or so there is going to be a huge wave of retirements. Those folks are going to need services. Some will need retraining. Some will need outlets for further education.”
Regarding veterans, he notes there is going to be a need to address the many veterans who are coming off 13 years of war.
Community Development operates off of a grant-funded, $15 million budget and averages about 20 full- and part- time workers throughout the year, depending on the season.
Miles hopes to employ a “system of advocacy” to tell the county’s story to congressmen and state legislators, to keep up the support for various financing and grants.
All this is likely to be years in the making.
“As long as they’ll have me here and as long as I do a good job, I’ll try to do the best job I can,” he said.