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Illinois Country Living


Commentary:

Russ Simpson
Russ Simpson,
senior vice president and chief administrative officer for Jo-Carroll Energy

Best practices for rural economic growth
Cooperatives support programs for job retention

It seems no matter where you go economic development is a hot topic. And well it should be. The 2010 census data confirms another decade of job and population decrease added to the several decades of decline already experienced by many communities.

To address the dilemma many cooperatives have pushed economic development to the forefront of strategic discussion. But that’s the easy part. Developing action plans to successfully end and ultimately reverse the downturn is often an incredible challenge.

It’s generally agreed that economic development success is measured ultimately by job creation, hopefully with an accompanying increase in median income. But without some luck it can take years and a significant investment of time and money to achieve these results. The risk and nearly nonexistent short-term return on investment might tempt some to focus attention elsewhere. On the other hand, doing nothing or waiting for someone else to solve the problem ensures little progress if any.

Most co-ops pursue economic development to some degree anyway, perhaps without realizing it. The strong connection between low energy costs and small business success cannot be ignored and striving to keep rates low is typically foremost on every co-op’s board agenda. According to Business Retention and Expansion (BREI) sources, up to 80 percent of job creation is the result of current businesses expanding. So it is important that as much as possible be done to help local businesses survive and grow.

Many Illinois co-ops have also implemented several economic development best practices approaches worthy of highlighting.

For example, during 2009, Jo-Carroll Energy expended considerable resources to launch the Tri-County Economic Development Alliance (TCEDA), a Northwest Illinois regional economic development initiative modeled after the very successful Greater Dubuque Development Corporation. Two years and a few bumps later the initiative has taken root.

TCEDA shows great promise for becoming the go-to organization in support of small business retention, expansion and attraction in Jo-Carroll Energy’s service territory and beyond. The initiative has spawned a manufacturer’s council, a banking summit, marketing and promotion projects, business education programs, and many other ideas and suggestions for business support activities.

New and expanding businesses often have difficulty obtaining needed funding. Prairie Power, a generation and transmission co-op, has assisted several Illinois co-ops with securing USDA Rural Development REDLG loans and grants for several local businesses. Several million dollars in loans and grants have been distributed through Prairie Power member co-ops to bolster numerous manufacturing, infrastructure and renovation projects.

Aaron Ridenour, Manager of Marketing and Economic Development for PPI, is an enthusiastic proponent of the REDLG program. “In the 30-plus years that I have been involved in economic development working with various funding programs, REDLG is by far the easiest for the businesses to use,” Ridenour said. More details regarding the revolving loan program are available through your local USDA Rural Development representative.

Even when resources are limited cooperatives can positively impact economic development. Many cooperatives have formal policies that endorse employees getting involved outside normal working hours. Because of the guidelines at Corn Belt Energy, Kacy Dorr, Director of Human Resources, comments that they have numerous leaders involved in community organizations, some acting as board members and others as non-office holding members. This involvement can result in partnerships that lead to more focused economic development direction and decision making. As an example, Jo-Carroll Energy provides city council governance training - a great approach to resolving mutual community development and infrastructure issues.

It is natural for cooperatives to be concerned about economic development. There is a direct connection to member satisfaction and the Seventh Cooperative Principle, “Commitment to Community”, and most co-ops could certainly benefit from membership growth. Aggressively participating in projects and programs that can potentially lead to job creation is a value-adding proposition from the members’ perspective.

If you are concerned about jobs and economic development in your area remember, Illinois cooperatives have the knowledge, experience and network to help build a better community.


Russ Simpson is senior vice president and chief administrative officer for Jo-Carroll Energy, 815-858-2207, www.jocarroll.com

 

 

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