By ALAN J. ORTBALS
In the late 1990s, I was the executive director of the Southwestern Illinois Development Authority, a regional economic development agency covering Southwestern Illinois. One day I was called to a meeting at the Tri-City Port District office along with other economic development specialists from the city, county and state.
The port director, the late Bob Wydra, explained that a drywall manufacturer was seeking a location for a new plant and had hired a site selection company to review the alternatives and make a recommendation. The port had made the short list of two. The other site was in Indiana.
We met with the site selection team and made our presentation. Everything went well but sometime later we learned that Indiana had won out.
Rather than cry in his beer or opine about why we had lost, Wydra asked the site selection team to come back and meet with us — not to try to change their minds but to learn why Indiana was chosen and Granite City was not. I had never seen this before — or since — but the site selectors agreed to return.
They went through all of their criteria with us, the indices they used to grade the sites and how the two matched up. The gist of it was that we ran even with the Indiana site except when it came to incentives and that’s what swayed the decision. Indiana had a program that was called EDGE, Economic Development for a Growing Economy, which returned some of the payroll taxes generated by the company’s new hires to the company to offset some of its development costs.
We went to work immediately, meeting with our local legislators to relay to them what had happened and garner their support for an Illinois EDGE program. They agreed and were successful in passing the legislation. That’s how the Illinois EDGE program came to be. It’s been used many times since to win development battles with other states. It is still a state economic development incentive program and was part of the regional submittal to Amazon in pursuit of its HQ2.
Often you learn more from losing than winning, and I recommend that we do that here. Rather than cry about our misfortune or conjecturing about why we lost, I urge the St. Louis economic development team to go back to Amazon and see if their site selection group will reveal the reasons St. Louis didn’t make the short list of 20. Was it the airport? Was it our crime statistics? Was it the dysfunctional panoply of local governments? We won’t know until we ask. If we can find out the reasons why, that should become an action plan to pursue and the impetus to finally get people to work together to achieve it.
I said in my October editorial that St. Louis would not be Amazon’s choice. But I also said that we should use this experience as a learning opportunity so that we can set a course to become the kind of metro area that would make such a company’s short list. If we do that and become what we need to be, we’ll have lots of companies beating a path to our door.