Drawing on its Strengths

Northwest Illinois Development Alliance
Written by Mark Golombek

The Northwest Illinois Development Alliance (NIDA) is a not-for-profit economic development corporation with a focus on retaining and expanding businesses and diversifying the economic base of the city of Freeport and Stephenson County. The area boasts a major agricultural base to complement its sizable manufacturing industry and its proximity to major urban centers such as Chicago and Madison, Wisconsin, and close ties with three states adds to the appeal. Business in Focus spoke with Executive Director Dave Young to learn more.
The Northwest Illinois Development Alliance was incorporated in 1984 by the City of Freeport and the private sector, and its not-for-profit structure was thought to provide a good framework within which the economic development of the area could be accomplished. The focus is on retaining existing primary businesses: businesses that make a product here that can be exported to bring the wealth back to the area.

“We retain and expand existing businesses and attract new synergistic businesses into the community,” says Young. “Our community is basically Stephenson County, which includes the city of Freeport and 10 villages, as well as unincorporated areas.”

Stephenson County and the city of Freeport are centrally located in northwest Illinois. “From an economic development point, we are strategically located. You can access the major metro markets in Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois from our location very easily.”

This entrepreneurial community lends its support to a diverse arts and cultural infrastructure, providing a much richer quality of life than one would assume based on its population of only 26,000 and a county population of 49,000 people, and there is a great mix of cultural opportunities with two theatres. The Ferguson Fine Arts Center is located in the Highland Community College, and the Winneshiek Theater is one of the oldest continuously running not-for-profit volunteer community theatres in the country, having started in 1916. Freeport Art Museum is the region’s destination for art, contributing to the vibrancy of the community.

“We have great access to recreational opportunities,” says Young. In addition to multiple golf courses, the region has the Jane Addams Trail system and the Pecatonica Prairie Trail that will extend from Stephenson County all the way through to Wisconsin. These offer biking, walking, horseback riding and winter snowmobiling and connect to the Pecatonica River. Tutty’s Crossing offers a canoe launch to the Pecatonica River right in downtown Freeport and it is the juncture at which the Jane Adams Trail and Pecatonica Prairie Trail connect.

Its location has brought in a great deal of foreign direct investment. Being in northwest Illinois, one can access the major regional metro markets of Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago and Dubuque. There are many modes of transportation to access these markets, strengthening the connections between population centers across the state, as well as nationally and internationally – destinations which help expand business opportunities.

Three international airports service the area – Chicago Rockford International is 30 minutes to the east, Chicago O’Hare International Airport is about 90 minutes from Freeport and Mitchell Airport in Milwaukee, Wisconsin is approximately two hours from Freeport. In addition, the nearby Chicago Rockford International Airport has a UPS hub that handles air freight and general aviation services are available at Freeport’s Albertus Airport for private and corporate aircraft. It is located three miles north of the city.

The city is also within thirty miles of Union Pacific’s Rochelle Global III Intermodal Terminal where six of the major railroads converge in a facility that serves both coasts. The intermodal terminal has a 720,000 lift capability, a 10-lane gate entrance and a 4,000 unit container/trailer yard. Refrigerated cars and U.S. Custom services are also available.

This relatively small city has everything anyone would need. Freeport has multiple high-speed internet providers and inexpensive utilities, being in the bottom quartile of pricing for industrial and commercial rates.

Land prices are significantly lower than in the surrounding major metro areas. Whether a company is leasing a facility or building a new unit, the occupancy costs are much lower which is a critical factor for businesses considering relocating to the area. The region also features a skilled workforce.

“In terms of workforce, we basically draw from about a thirty-mile radius that is home to about 160,000 adult workers,” explains Young. “They possess primarily middle skills. If you are an advanced manufacturer or if you are in logistics or food manufacturing, a middle skills workforce is the ideal building block.”

Roughly seventy percent of NIDA’s resources are spent retaining and expanding the area’s existing industry. A quarter of Freeport’s economy is driven by manufacturing, predominantly metal fabrication and machining as well as machinery production, and it is a very healthy and strong segment. NIDA works with those existing industries to optimize their ability to compete and works to understand their supply chains.

“Our goal is to work to make them very healthy and very competitive, and we learn through them what it will take to attract the suppliers that can support them. So, by devoting seventy percent of our resources, we are keeping our existing industries very competitive, and we are learning how best to attract their synergistic industries to the area.”

Another twenty percent of its resources are spent on creating an environment for growth that involves working with the various education training partners to align their education training capacity with the needs of business.

NIDA is working with the region’s six counties to put together an aggressive marketing program that will target both international and domestic audiences. The idea is to use the resources and assets of the region to improve its competitiveness for investment and jobs.

“This allows us to basically offer multiple location opportunities to companies in terms of different land and building costs along with different types of housing. In other words, it offers a diversity of options, which improves our ability to attract more and more companies into the region.”

A third of Stephenson County’s output comes from agri-business. One example of a recent major agribusiness expansion is the doubling of an egg producer’s capacity to offer a variety of “egg choices” to meet consumers’ demand for choice, which will put Stephenson County in the top five producing areas for that industry. Much investment is being made in food manufacturing and value-added agriculture, and there are some major projects in food processing that are just about to be announced that will position the sector’s companies to perform contract manufacturing for national brands.

“But we also have to find ways to work better with the agricultural producers because they are generational. They have been here for six to seven generations and are the backbone of the economy. In order to prosper, they will always work to improve business. Our goal is to develop collaborative relationships to help them grow and prosper.”

Advanced manufacturers in the area have been putting in significant amounts of new machinery and equipment as there is more of a trend toward automation and robotics. These companies have been optimizing buildings by pushing out warehousing/distribution to free production space and create bulk distribution warehouses. This enables them to attain higher volumes cost-effectively, in a smaller space.

“It’s all about optimization, because, in some ways, they are still concerned with how soft the market is. It’s in keeping with the well-planned-out expansion of investments in machinery and equipment.”

Freeport has a lot of fantastic urban amenities, and the idea is to continue to attract the millennial population by creating more opportunities in which they can live, work and play in the downtown area.

“So, our goal is to work with our companies to create an environment for them to continue to grow. Most importantly, we are trying to find ways to increase levels of innovation in those companies. Innovation is key to profitability and sustainability, so trying to make continuous connections between the educational community and companies is key to that continued growth in manufacturing. Our continued success in these areas will sustain the ideal environment for new company investment.”



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