5. Grow the local economy

In February, we introduced our “Contract with the Community,” a 10 item list of simple reforms and ideas intended to bring about a more open, honest and transparent government. Over the coming weeks, we will explore in-depth each of those 10 items. This week, we look at No. 5, “Grow the local economy.”

Most presidential elections are about change. But the vast majority of the presidential victors prevailed because they understood one thing. “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Consider this current election cycle. Rockford, Loves Park, and Machesney Park all had contested mayoral races. Tons of Rockford Alderman and City or Village Board members had contested races. When you think about the platforms, what do you remember? Crime? Property taxes? And yet two of the most important decisions the city of Rockford made or will make this year was funding an Indoor City Market, and will be approving a downtown hotel and convention center.

Any social media user is sure to have seen the videos, tweets and posts on both sides of the debate, highlighting either the pitfalls or virtues of the downtown project. Winnebago County Board Economic Development Committee Chairman Fred Wescott thinks Rockford’s City Council played politics instead of making a decision when they chose to lay over the vote on the project until after city elections. He says, “If they’re gonna do it at all, they gotta get it done this year.”

During this municipal campaign season, one political operative repeatedly claimed, “We have no jobs. All our jobs are leaving because of the crime.” This is untrue. Most fast food restaurants have “Now Hiring” stickers on the doors. A former upper level Rockford Area Economic Development Council member, once said, “The problem isn’t that there aren’t jobs. The problem is people don’t show up to work.”

Winnebago County Board Chairman, Frank Haney says, “One of our challenges is workforce (upwards of 5,000 unfilled jobs, 45,000 people without a GED or high school); however, one of our regional advantages is also workforce (access to  large labor shed).” As our community fights to hold public officials accountable for their part in growing our economy, including job training, we should also be accountable for ourselves.

How can we influence local governments and grow our local economy? With all the platitudes and criticisms swamping our senses, what steps can people take to hold public officials accountable? Three simple steps are a good start.

1. Make the right choices

It sounds easy enough. Just make the right choices and everything will be fine. Unfortunately, choosing how to invest thousands or even millions of taxpayer dollars on economic growth projects are not as simple a choice as picking an apple or an orange.

Wescott says, “We should focus on businesses that build on our economic footprint and create jobs.” The first part to making the right choice is to know what our footprint is. A 2015 study by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, Enabling Entrepreneurial Ecosystems, calls the process, “Mapping the ecosystem.”

Transform Rockford serves as an excellent local resource to learn what our community’s business ecosystems are (transformrockford.org). Haney says we should, “Build upon our strengths: Health Care, Advanced Manufacturing, Aerospace, and the fact that we have an Airport. These are sectors with a lot of primary job growth opportunities.”

Once the community has identified our core ecosystems, the next part should be to develop those ecosystems. The Institute for Local Reliance offers insight. In its web article, “Key Studies, Why Local Matters,” it says, “In recent decades, policy across the country has privileged the biggest corporations. Yet a growing body of research is proving something that many people already know: small-scale, locally owned businesses create communities that are more prosperous, entrepreneurial, connected, and generally better off across a wide range of metrics.”

The data suggests that growth is better when the focus is on local business and opening doors for local opportunities, instead of chasing massive corporations. The Kauffman Foundation suggests that investment reducing red tape for entrepreneurs will help make a community’s business ecosystem healthier than favoring “incumbents.” Public officials should place a premium on developing local businesses, especially new business, and market local business resources to owners and entrepreneurs to improve opportunities.

2. Ask the right questions

In order to ask the right questions, public officials need to have enough time to understand the issue and make a decision on whether public resources should be used. It’s important for every public body to give the people who decide how to spend tax dollars enough time to understand what they are buying.

There should be a standard time frame for economic development projects, communicated at every level of a public organization. Neither taxpayers nor their representatives should feel as though they do not have enough time to understand the pros and cons of a project.

Information should be made available in an easily digestible format both online and through social media. Public bodies should avoid “data dumping” or “cheerleading”. Tell folks the score, not a perception of the score.

A good question to revisit on the downtown hotel project is, Why should developers and taxpayers be held hostage by landmark status?

Wescott says the Winnebago County Board worked hard to ask the right questions with respect to tax abatements, voting against an abatement for the Sonic restaurant on Riverside in 2010 because its cost outweighed the benefits. An example of a “good” abatement was the North Pointe facility in Roscoe, which opened in 2007.

The Winnebago County Board approved a scaled abatement from 90 percent to 10 percent over time. The selling point was that even with a 90 percent abatement to start, the county would collect more property tax revenue (thousands more due to a change in zoning) than was collected from the property before the project began.

3. Regularly evaluate

There should be an ongoing evaluation of publicly funded projects. The metrics should be easy to understand, and made readily available to taxpayers online and through social media.

For example, people should know how the millions of local dollars invested in the AAR project are performing, what the plan is, and where we expect to be. The same applies to the downtown hotel, the South New Towne housing development, etc.

The community should have public officials who make the right choices by asking the right questions and regularly evaluate those choices. Timelines and performance should be made available to the public. Public officials, or entities who refuse to report performance should be held accountable. After all, it’s not their money. It’s ours.

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