By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
JERSEYVILLE — A heavily agricultural region that has historically catered to livestock, crops and orchards is increasingly setting its sights on business development.
Jerseyville and surrounding towns could be on the brink of a new era, says a local economic development director.
“It’s a great time to be in Jerseyville because of all that is happening,” said Shari Albrecht, the economic development director for both the Jersey County Business Association and the Jerseyville Economic Development Council.
A big project at the moment is planning for development along the proposed Jersey Bypass, part of the 32-mile, four lane that will complete U.S. 67 through Jersey and Greene counties.
Also on Albrecht’s radar are investment and rebuilding in downtown Jerseyville, business retention and recruitment throughout the county, and tourism. Jerseyville is the county seat and its biggest community. Grafton and Brighton are also key communities.
The most potential for growth is completion of the U.S. 67 corridor, which is on the state’s long-range plan. Right now, the highway coming north from Godfrey stops near the town of Delhi, in the southern part of Jersey County, and takes back up again just north of the Greene County city of Roodhouse.
The Illinois Department of Transportation’s plan is to do a new bypass around Jerseyville, since there is no room to do it within the community.
The highway represents all sorts of development possibilities, chief among them a railroad transload project that Jerseyville has been discussing with Kansas City Southern Railroad. Such a project would allow cargo brought in by train to be offloaded onto trucks for shipping. Multiple sites adjacent to the city limits are being considered.
“Mayor (William) Russell has been working with Kansas City Southern for the better part of three years,” she said. “In the economic development world, three years on a project is not a long time. He has the vision these could be really good-paying jobs.”
Beyond that, many of the details, including potential sites, remain confidential.
Another major effort is underway that could bode well for development. In December, local officials applied for an Illinois enterprise zone designation. The first review board meeting was held about a month ago and officials were “pleased with comments on our application,” Albrecht said. Many letters of support from businesses and leaders were included.
The zone is being sought jointly by both Greene and Jersey counties and includes a 13-square-mile area across a portion of each.
No other enterprise zones are in place in that market.
“Around 12 applied, and we are thinking they will approve six. They will announce the ones that are approved the first of October,” she said.
Albrecht, who is married to former Macoupin County Sheriff Don Albrecht, had a similar economic development job in Macoupin before retiring. She was lured back to the field about 18 months ago.
“I was at home enjoying my grandkids when I got a call. The CEO of the JCBA was retiring and they thought it was a good time to look at their organization and see what they needed to do,” she said. That led to a six-month contract to evaluate the group and make recommendations.
Then, she was asked to stay another six months to implement JCBA’s restructuring. Eventually, she became economic development director for both organizations. The JCBA will focus on traditional chamber of commerce responsibilities, and the Economic Development Council will focus on the larger projects in and around Jerseyville.
An official agenda of the Jerseyville Economic Development Council was rolled out in May. The group is separately targeting large and small businesses with the help of two advisory boards comprised of a cross section of business people meeting under Albrecht’s direction.
The large-business/industry effort is called “Explore Jersey County.” It looks at industrial, manufacturing and agribusiness projects and focuses on business retention, expansion and recruitment.
Board members will analyze the business climate and provide appropriate support for applications, legislative efforts and recruitment. The board is working with consulting members: Erika Kennett of the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity; Carl Fisher of Ameren Illinois; Tony Heitzig, of MJM Electric Cooperative; Philip Lasseigne, an aide to Republican Congressman Rodney Davis; and state Rep. C.D. Davidsmeyer, R-Jacksonville.
“From May until now we’ve been putting together a brand and a website,” Albrecht said. “We’ve started to do some business retention visits, and I think we’ll see some different twists on those.”
During the visits, retention committee members have been accompanied by a videographer and photographer to record things for posterity.
“The idea is not only to get to know businesses, but to listen to what their needs are, now and the future, and to start putting together a video and photo library so we can show the world what we have,” she said.
Businesses will eventually have the opportunity to use some of that footage for their own promotions. So far, businesses visited have included Applied Engineering Plastics and William F. Brockman Co., both in Jerseyville, and FamilyFarms Group in Brighton.
The Economic Development Council’s small-business program is called Partners in Progress. Its purpose is to proactively promote small-business growth.
Various phases seek to individually boost the hospitality and entertainment sector; the downtown districts (primarily Jerseyville, Grafton and Brighton); women in business; retailers; and professional services.
Working groups assigned to each focus area will: conduct an inventory of all businesses; conduct an analysis of the business climate; establish a small-business development plan; and implement the development plan as appropriate.
The business inventory should be completed in the next 90 days.
“Jersey County does not have a business license, so a good inventory is something we don’t have,” Albrecht said.
A SWOT analysis of the area is also being conducted. It stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats.
The Partners in Progress advisory board is working with small-business consultants: Jo Ann Di Maggio May, director of the Metro East Small Business Development Center at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Jennifer Russell of the University of Illinois Extension, and Jamie Clayton, of the Grafton Chamber of Commerce.
Most attention has been paid recently to Jerseyville, which is seeing a rebirth. A new building is going up on North State Street (the new home of Heneghan, White, Cutting & Rice Insurance Agency), and four other nearby buildings have been renovated and completed.
The interview with Albrecht took place in one of those newly remodeled buildings, a trendy downtown restaurant and bar called “George’s,” on State Street.
“George’s is a wonderful example of the exciting things happening in Jerseyville,” she said.
Chris Lorton is the owner of George’s and six other buildings in Jerseyville, all of them viable properties.
“People are out on the streets, walking up and down in the evening. It’s happening,” Lorton said. “There were a lot of people leaving town (to dine). They were going to Alton, Carrollton, Grafton. It makes sense to stay in town. It’s easier and more convenient.”
Lorton was looking elsewhere at property when a Realtor suggested he look at the old Eagles Lodge, which had sat vacant for three years.
“I kind of liked the space. I made them an offer I knew they’d refuse — and they took it,” he said.
Lorton is now glad the deal that led to George’s went through. He had no idea what was under the wall coverings until he got down to the exposed brick, revealing a historic structure.
David Wiseheart, the owner of the Kirby’s Drug Store building across State Street from George’s, is another example of such entrepreneurism, Albrecht said. He has invested a lot of money into renovating the building and is hopeful of a buyer.
The building has been refurbished to look much like a 1940s pharmacy with a lunch counter, Albrecht said.
“It’s an exciting time. We don’t yet know what will happen, but I can tell you the team is working really well together. The Jerseyville Economic Development Council is made up of Jerseyville city officials, and we have representatives from the Jersey County Board, and we have three of our banking leaders serve on that board. So, we’ve some good business minds, and they are all very visionary,” she said.
Among the properties that Albrecht hopes to market are the now-closed Grafton fish plant; the business park on Illinois Route 16; and others.
The city has a fairly new tax increment district to help lure potential investors, she said.
“Light manufacturing, assembly and distribution, and agribusiness are our focus for larger businesses,” she said. “As far as smaller business, we’ve got retail and service space available. In downtown, we need a good mix, more retail and upper story renovations for residency.”