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Southwestern Illinois doing some things right in economic development

grubaugh new picBy DENNIS GRUBAUGH
    I’ll admit that Ron Starner and I are a couple of dinosaurs. He said as much when I interviewed him this past month.
    “I somehow managed to survive 30 years in the publishing world,” he told me.
    I have him beat by a decade — a total of 40 years this spring. That doesn’t make me all that special, more of an oddity really, in a profession in which endurance is as much about luck as it is talent.
    And while all my time has been spent at newspapers in Southwestern Illinois, Starner has traveled extensively in multiple media roles, the latest being a 19-year stint with Conway Inc., which operates Site Selection magazine and related ventures. Starner is now the executive vice president. The magazine is a go-to source for economic developers around the world.
    To be sure, Starner has a depth of knowledge that I’ll never be able to match. He’s been all over the place, writing about a wide range of issues. Topics are as diverse as attracting top talent; the growth of aerospace and homeland security firms; robotic takeovers; the challenges of high-tech; the travails of agribusiness; renewal energy; the pharmaceutical industry; and on and on.  Good stuff and well documented, too. He frequently travels to discuss the magazine’s research. His home base is Peachtree Corners, Ga., in suburban Atlanta.
    He came to Madison County at the invitation of the Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois, a not-for-profit member-based economic development corporation representing primarily Madison and St. Clair counties. Members wanted his thoughts on what works — and what doesn’t — when it comes to attracting (or repelling) development.
    He praised Leadership Council’s efforts. The council’s expressed mission is to unite the region for economic growth through its coalition of 250 board members who are leaders in business, industry, government and more.  
    The council’s Executive Director Dr. Ronda Sauget and individual committee members have traveled extensively in recent years spreading the word about Southern Illinois, trying their best to get this region’s name in front of people who are simultaneously considering dozens if not hundreds of other opportunities.
    Sauget, when I last talked to her, was planning a trip to Washington, D.C., for a presentation to a Japanese trade organization. She was hopeful of meeting with firms interested in foreign direct investment in Southwestern Illinois. Japanese interests have more than 3,800 business operations in our country employing more than 400,000 with a concentration in Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee, she said.
    It would be nice to see more of that interest shown in Illinois, and Starner said such a dedicated, local approach is the right thing to do.
    “Absolutely. That is exactly the way to go. You absolutely need your best and brightest minds, the leaders of the community who have skin in the game and have (professionally) accomplished something. They know what it takes to succeed in this region.”
    Without that kind of leadership, a region is “doomed,” he added.
    Regional economic development agencies that live up to their promises are a top attraction for companies wanting to locate in a market, Starner said. The big turnoff for developers, it turns out, is when they negotiate with individual communities who balk at permits, incentives, infrastructure or other particulars at crunch time.
    Illinois has gotten a bad rap in recent years, but so much has made of its fiscal problems that some successes have been overlooked.
    Site Selection magazine regularly compiles datapoints of interest. During his visit here, Starner presented a list showing that Illinois in 2018 was actively involved in 444 development projects — making the state the third on a list of top 10 states.
    Most of those projects were in the Chicago area, but the point still must be made. There are things happening in the state if you’re paying attention and will continue to be if we’re doing things right. In Southwestern Illinois, I believe we are.
    A related story is on Page 1. Dennis Grubaugh is editor of the Illinois Business Journal. He can be reached at (618) 977-6865 or

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