By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
Twenty-five years ago, a group of Southwestern Illinois supporters pursued a novel idea. Wanting to draw attention to the area as a destination to live, work and do business, they came up with a marketing campaign that essentially adopted a new name for the Metro East.
Their slogan was: “East County … If You Only Knew.”
The backlash was fairly immediate. Land of Lincoln locals who didn’t want to be associated with St. Louis and its West, South and North counties, had little use for such an idea. And the St. Louis business community and news media remained skeptical.
Eventually, the effort was abandoned, a victim of lack of interest, more important events and historic tides. “East County” rode in with the Great Flood of ’93. And eventually ebbed back into the landscape.
Still, two and a half decades later, many people remember the campaign and believe it helped bring attention to Metro East at an important time. The area, supporters say, has enjoyed some of its most robust growth in the period since the campaign sank. Highways were built, business parks boomed, an air base was rescued. The population represented by Madison, St. Clair and Monroe counties increased from 534,512 in 1990 to an estimated 562,004 in 2017. Many people and companies from the St. Louis side have been attracted by the wide, open spaces on this side of the river.
Some say growth was bound to happen; others say the campaign sped things along by planting the idea that Metro East was open for business. Even before it had an official name, the idea for a campaign was first advanced by public relations professional James Grandone, an Alton native who said he had grown tired of trying to explain his Illinois roots to less-than-interested St. Louisans, many of them his work colleagues.
“There were a half million people over here and it was like nobody noticed across the river,” said Grandone, who today lives and works in Edwardsville.
In 1991, he began contacting Southwestern Illinois business, education and civic leaders to discuss what he felt was the urgent need to create a positive image and to change mistaken perceptions.
“The urgency was partly due to my own embarrassment in people's reaction when I told them where I lived, as well as the clear opportunity to make money turning a negative into a positive. Mostly, it was due to my good fortune in being very familiar with both sides of the Mississippi River,” Grandone wrote years later, in a reflection piece about the events.
He had lived in St. Louis for years and knew many prominent businessmen there from various campaigns he’d worked. Most people, he said, knew nothing about Southwestern Illinois or based their idea on crime reports they’d seen on television. Nothing, he said, served as a “counterbalance” to the negative image.
Seeking some backing for his idea, Grandone began meeting with a who’s who of local leaders to get their opinions. Part of the long list included Ralph Korte of Korte Construction, Al Kerth with Civic Progress, and Gary Berkley, the publisher of the Belleville News-Democrat. Businessmen, real estate agents, organizational representatives, the university chancellor — all of them thought a comprehensive marketing effort for Southwestern Illinois targeting St. Louis and St. Louis County was needed.
“Every one of them recognized that Illinois had as much if not more to offer to businesses and developers” than St. Louis, he wrote. Metro East was “underdeveloped given its proximity to a major city and its amenities.”
The problem was money — or lack of same. A good marketing campaign was probably going to be expensive, and the economy at the time — President Clinton’s first year in office — wasn’t all that great.
An avenue to advance the idea opened for Grandone, who at the time was general manager of Marketing Mix in Clayton, Mo., when he wrote an unsolicited letter about a campaign to Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois, a nonprofit economic development corporation representing primarily Madison and St. Clair counties.
He found an advocate in Leadership Council’s then-Executive Director James Pennekamp, who had spent years in a variety of business-oriented roles.
“At the time you couldn’t even get a map that had both sides of the river,” Pennekamp said. That’s how isolated Metro East seemed from its bigger neighbor.
The next year was spent trying to convince the group’s members — heads of many Illinois businesses — that they should invest in their future. Coming from a marketing guy based in St. Louis, the message was a challenge, Grandone said.
He proposed a $3 million campaign, and Pennekamp immediately balked.
“I remember what I told him. ‘I don’t have a budget’,” Pennekamp recalled. “But as any good salesman would say, he said, ‘Don’t worry about the money’.”
Grandone laughed upon being reminded of the conversation.
After more than a year of discussions and a competitive bidding process, Leadership Council eventually recognized the need and embarked on an unprecedented fund-raising effort.
Part of the Marketing Mix proposal consisted of conducting professional survey research. East County supporters needed to identify perceptions of Metro East among business decision-makers in St. Louis in order to address those perceptions in their message. An SIUE polling group queried people in the Central West Corridor, which generally consisted of a geographic area that started in the city's Central West End and ran west into St. Louis County.
The results of that research surprised everyone. It showed that opinion leaders and residents in the St. Louis city and county portions of the metropolitan area had little or no understanding of what Illinois had to offer.
“We were acting under the assumption the impression of Illinois was negative,” Pennekamp said. “What we found out was very interesting. It wasn’t negative, it was zero; they had no perception. Which was better for us. We didn’t have to overcome the negative, we just had to tell our story.”
The campaign's original message consisted of two major elements. The first was targeted to reach St. Louis business and civic leaders in the Central West Corridor. “East County...If You Only Knew,” became the agreed upon message. The second message targeting Metro East residents never really got off the ground.
The campaign was launched in 1993, and even its most ardent supporters didn’t know how it would go. Nor could they predict how future incidents might affect their plans.
For more than a year, Grandone and Pennekamp wrote letters, made calls and met with people. Some who heard the idea were polite but dismissive. Others were openly scornful. The media reaction was a mixed bag.
Grandone remembered a radio interview in which a producer asked if the east side was having an “identity crisis.”
Most media was about as friendly.
“This went on for a while,” Pennekamp said. “But if we were going to promote Southwestern Illinois we were going to have to take some risks. And we did.”
The campaign was introduced in a series of press conferences at strategic locations — the Clark Bridge in Alton, the Jackie Joyner-Kersee stadium at SIUE, Scott Air Force Base and Union Station in St. Louis.
“It had an impact, it was an introduction, which is all we wanted,” Pennekamp said.
Illinois was getting attention, negative or not, and it was being talked about. Still, the police scanner held more interest than economic development for most news outlets.
There were some good stories along the way, though.
“In addition to the announcements sent to St. Louis and local Illinois media, we slowly began to expand the reach of the campaign to include trade publications in the Midwest and nationally,” Grandone said. Positive publicity found its way into regional and national economic development media, such as Midwest Real Estate News, Illinois Real Estate, Plants, Sites & Parks, and others. One of the publications used the phrase “hot spot” to describe Southwestern Illinois and its new development.
“The accomplishment of getting the regional and national press attention was very significant in that previously many of those same publications considered Illinois as beginning in Chicago and ending at Springfield,” Grandone wrote.
The campaign might have gotten more attention in its initial stages if everyone’s attention hadn’t been diverted by one of the greatest natural disasters in these parts.
“The campaign was launched in 1993 at the height of the Mississippi River's worst flood in history with the media's complete attention focused on that,” Grandone said.
Still, the cadre of supporters, which included Bruce Holland, the Southwestern Illinois builder and then-chairman of the Leadership Council, dutifully made the rounds.
It was all beginning to gain ground when, in 1995, the federal government announced that it was seriously considering closing Scott Air Force Base in St. Clair County and the Charles Melvin Price Support Center in Granite City as part of the Base Realignment Closing Commission process. Suddenly, a simple marketing effort took a back seat to a much more important and singular focus.
Holland and Pennekamp were invited to a meeting in Collinsville in which Congressman Jerry Costello told them the Leadership Council should take over the local organizing effort to keep the bases open.
“We were in a perfect position to do it, and there was no question we were going to do it,” Pennekamp said. “And actually, the East County thing had teed us up to be able to put in motion what was necessary in the Scott AFB and Mel Price retention efforts.”
Its ability to generate a campaign to save some of the local military operations helped bolster the Leadership Council reputation as an effective organization. In the end Scott Air Force Base became stronger, but the Price Support Center closed and was later redeveloped as part of America’s Central Port.
After the BRAC effort, Grandone continued with his marketing push to bring attention to Southwestern Illinois until around 2000. He managed to generate several of the positive stories mentioned earlier. In a blog he compiled for the 10th anniversary of launching the East County campaign, he praised the cooperation of local leaders, noting their vision helped lure billions of dollars in new private and public development, and that thousands of new families had moved in.
The modern-day view
For Ronda Sauget, the executive director of the Leadership Council since 2015, there is no question that Illinois is noticed more today by St. Louis than ever.
“We’ve had tremendous outreach from Missouri, for us to present and be part of meetings that we’d never been part of before. For instance, we see the St. Louis Municipal League reaching out to us. We see organizations like the Regional Business Council and others partnering with us in a major way. A lot of them see the Metro East and all the things we have — the jobs and industry and also the available, affordable land and all the transportation assets. That’s a huge plus.”
So how much did the East County initiative play a role? Would the area have grown regardless?
“That’s hard to say,” Sauget said. “I think we had to get to a point where Southwestern Illinois became a valued asset to the region as a whole, and I think that’s what you’re seeing. And it’s a wonderful thing to happen.”
The area, with 215,000 jobs and $19 billion in revenue, cannot be ignored, she said, quoting numbers from a study of the area done a few years ago when local leaders began a massive campaign to justify updating levees along the Mississippi River.
“Those type of seeds make a big difference,” she said.
Businessman Rich Sauget named his company, East County Enterprises in the town of Sauget, after the campaign, she said.
Leadership Council itself has seen a surge in interest during the 25 years since it pushed East County. It now has almost 250 members.
“Just over seven or eight years ago we were at a little over 150 members,” Sauget said. “A lot of the ones we’re getting in are very large firms, and they see the advantage of having the participation by a lot of companies. One company doesn’t have a big voice. Two hundred and fifty of the largest, prominent companies have a big voice. I would say a third of our businesses have ties with both states.”
Companies today are more regional than ever.
“They don’t see that river being a great wall,” she said. “I’m very optimistic about where the future could go.”