By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
EDWARDSVILLE — Madison County’s economic development head has been busy making the rounds, lining up support from mayors, businessmen, educators and others for an ambitious plan for regional growth.
The particulars are contained in a 19-page document presented to county officials back in March, and they address issues from barge trade to tourism. Some of the strategy involves necessary, out-of-the-box thinking, Frank Miles said.
“If you don’t do it, somebody else will,” said Miles, director of Community Development. “I’m a planner by nature. County leaders said they want to become leaders in economic development. That’s what they said when they hired me, and that’s what I hope to provide. The framework was there. Now we want to put some meat on the bones.”
Miles presented the Community and Economic Development Plan to Chairman Alan Dunstan and County Administrator Joe Parente, as well as the County Board and Grants Committee back in the spring, as part of a strategy he first espoused after he came to the job last year.
“In addition, I provided copies of it to all of the mayors and village presidents within the county and all of our economic development partnership folks,” Miles said. During that time he met with many of them to explain his priorities.
Some of the programs are already in the works, in concert with others who are pushing the same thing. Other components are part of a plan to, in general, build the region’s economic opportunities.
Among the priorities:
- Establishing a Southwestern Illinois Trade Development Board
- Establishing a microloan program
- A new 270 river bridge
- Extending brownfields research to more rural parts of the county
The Trade Board will be unveiled in conjunction with St. Clair County, the state of Illinois and the International Trade Center at SIUE.
“It is a group made up of private sector companies that are involved in trade and export development. One of our goals here is to promote that and grow that sector within our economy locally. That will be announced soon. We had a meeting last week and got names that we’ll be submitting to Chairman Dunstan for appointment for Madison County and to Chairman (Mark) Kern for appointment in St. Clair County,” Miles said.
The board among other things would support the efforts of America’s Central Port Foreign Trade Zone No. 31.
The microloan program would be administered by Justine Petersen, a nonprofit agency that works to build wealth and homeownership among those in need.
“That should be in 30-60 days. All we need now is the paperwork OK. That program will offer small loans, capital access, to folks who want to start a small business,” Miles said.
The seed money will come from a revolving fund stemming originally from an Urban Development Action Grant received by the county in the late 1970s/early ‘80s, he said.
“I believe the amount we’ll be putting into it will be about $200,000. The loans would be $5,000 and below,” Miles said. The money would be loaned out, repaid and the fund in theory will rebuild itself. The County Board approved the program last year.
Regarding transportation, Miles’ staff has developed a list of priorities for Madison County and shared it with state and federal legislators. At the top is a new Interstate 270 Mississippi River bridge, crossing from Illinois into St. Louis County.
“It is also IDOT District 8’s priority as well. That bridge needs replacement. It’s outlived its life. This will be a project that is shared between IDOT and MODOT,” he said.
A second priority on the list is related — to widen Interstate 270, from Interstate 255 west to the Mississippi River, from four to six lanes. “If you’re traveling there in the morning, you will quickly see the bottlenecks that are created there. Trucks coming out of Gateway Commerce Center and Lakeview Commerce Center are choking that intersection with (Route) 111,” he said. “That’s going to help the logistics and warehousing facilities there.”
Miles said he has also conducted several meetings with Timothy Renick, the director of the county’s IT department, and met with all the universities and colleges in Madison County as well as some of the hospitals to talk about broadband accessibility.
“We’ll be looking in late summer to host a meeting with all those entities that utilize or have need for increased broadband access, “ he said. “We found, for example, that some of the hospitals have tremendous needs. All of these medical records flow over their systems and one of their chief concerns is redundancies. We want to look at ways to mitigate that.”
He also has expressed a desire to meet with all 26 companies that provide Internet services in the county.
“We will be asking them what their plans are, how they intend on growing and what the county can do to help,” he said. “We’ve also reached out to Northern Illinois University, which has matured their broadband network fairly significantly. We’d like to see if we can get that replicated down here.”
Related grants are possible, and Miles noted that there are still places in the county where residents cannot access the Internet.
In tourism, Miles said he has been working with Brett Stawar, president of the Alton Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau, to see if there are ways to expand tourism throughout Madison County.
“We may look at development of tourism corridors. We’ve got history here from the Revolutionary War, the Civil War all the way to Operation Desert Storm,” he said. The former U.S. Army Depot in Granite City (now part of America’s Central Port) trained engineers for the Persian Gulf War, he said.
“We’ve got (Elijah) Lovejoy. We’ve got Benjamin Stevenson. We’ve got all these opportunities and they create jobs,” he added.
The county is also waiting to hear back from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on a brownfields grant application, money from which could be used to inventory previously unrecorded brownfields. Communities have long needed to clean up such polluted sites in order to make use of former industrial locations.
“Most people think of Alton and Granite City. But those areas have been analyzed and inventoried. What we’re interested in is the eastern part of the county,” Miles said. “Highland, Marine and St. Jacob, for example, might have a former gas station that could be redeveloped.” In addition, the grant also provides for some loan funds for remediation of such sites, potentially in combination with other money.
The county is also planning a Veteran Services Forum for Veterans Day this year in which the Community Services Block Grant program will be assisting veterans looking for jobs, education and training. Miles hopes to enlist the help of veterans’ programs at local colleges in putting together an event that goes beyond simply saluting veterans to actually help them. There might be some crossover applicability, he said, to the cybersecurity missions coming to Scott Air Force Base, as well as the National Geospatial Administration, which is considering a site on MidAmerica Airport property, abutting Scott, for potential relocation from St. Louis.
Agriculture’s role in the economy is also addressed in the plan.
“Madison County’s economy is 60 percent agricultural, and we need to look at ways to help grow that portion of our county’s portfolio,” he said. “We can do that by working with producers on their needs, say, like some of these county roads. If they’re not in good shape, these farmers can’t get to the fields or the terminals to deliver their product. Our county transportation department has done a good job of widening and upgrading a lot of these old bridges, but there are other things we can do with access to rail and access to roads systems to help them do their jobs better.”
Job training and workforce development also remain an economic interest, and one area is the maritime field.
“That’s a very important industry for us,” Miles said. “We’re bounded on our western boundary by the river, and it’s only natural that we follow that course.”
Discussion is underway among several parties, including Lewis and Clark Community College President Dale Chapman, Madison County Regional Superintendent Robert Daiber and SCF Marine, the barge-fleeting company located at the port district, about building interest among high school students in barge piloting.
On a related vein is extending a STEM initiative in Madison County schools, at the urging of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“The Corps has a full curriculum devoted to it,” he said. “They are already in the Alton school district. Working through Bob Daiber and the ROE, we’d like to get that replicated in some of the other districts.”
Miles is also interested in making more use of a CSBG program to make scholarships available to lower-income individuals that would allow them to get certifications in various trades.
“One of the areas I’m interested in looking at is minority careers in law enforcement. One of the problems we’ve seen and heard is that there are not enough African Americans and minorities in law enforcement. I’d like to direct some of our scholarships there, working with SWIC or LCCC, or organizations like the NAACP or the 100 Black Men of Alton,” he said.
Among other strategies:
- A Poverty Summit, which a working group is now putting together for presentation this fall.
- Support for the Illinois Manufacturing Excellence Center, which now has an office within Community Development after the latter agreed to loan space. An entity created by the federal government, IMEC has a regional office in Carbondale and has a home base in Peoria but nothing else in Madison County, where it wants to work with industries.
- An Income 101 Survey, which was held to help target communities qualify for block grant funding.