Growth through Innovation

The Economic Alliance of Kankakee County
Written by Jessica Ferlaino

Kankakee County has seen its share of adversity, but the county has persevered through the challenges to become a thriving jobs center with a diverse economy, a place for recreation and a community with a vision for the future.
Kankakee County is focused on innovation, technology and marketing its assets. This is a great place to live, work and visit. As it is located only fifty miles from Chicago, Kankakee County appeals to those who want access to the market, services and amenities of a larger metropolis while enjoying the affordability, proximity and business friendliness of the county.

Working collaboratively to provide opportunity and prosperity for its residents, the Economic Alliance of Kankakee County, a non-profit organization that was established in 2007, brings together the community’s public- and private-sector stakeholders.

In the Best-Performing Cities index by the Milken Institute, the Kankakee-Bradley metropolitan statistical area was named third nationally in high-technology growth in 2014. It was also named Milken’s leading small metro in Illinois for job growth, economic vitality and technology growth and, among small cities, Forbes ranked it ninth nationally for the cost of doing business and second in the state for job growth.

The Economic Alliance has helped to facilitate more than $750 million in announced and completed capital investment in Kankakee County over just a few short years. “We’ve been seeing a lot of our industries investing a significant amount of capital in our community, which is very encouraging and a stabilizing force for our tax base,” explained Michael Van Mill, president and CEO of the Economic Alliance.

“In terms of new business attraction, one strategy is looking at our biggest industries, like CSL Behring, and exploring ways to optimize supply chain and similar types of connections,” he said.

A global leader in the plasma protein bio-therapeutics industry, bioscience and technology, CSL Behring has invested $500 million to expand its facility in Kankakee County. “We are very fortunate to have a diversified economy and industries like CSL that are in growth mode.” The project, which is expected to be completed in 2017, is a testament to the company’s long term commitment to the county and the advantageous biotech manufacturing environment in the state of Illinois

A significant component of the county economy is manufacturing. “Our exports are up 11.6 percent from 2013 to 2014,” said Lisa Wogan, director of marketing and business attraction, citing statistics from the U.S. Department of Commerce Bureau of Economic Analysis. “That’s an increase of $78 million, so we’re up to $753 million for the Kankakee Metropolitan Area.”

Kankakee County enjoys the benefits of having two enterprise zones and access to solid infrastructure and logistics that offer passenger and freight air, rail and interstate connectivity. It also supports businesses with fiber optic networks covered by twelve carriers and three routes, as well as proximity to the Chicago metro area with its highly skilled labor pool.

“We have seen, in our enterprise zones, the creation of more than 6500 jobs, well over $400 million in investment just in the recent past,” stated Van Mill. “The program was set to expire and the state of Illinois passed legislation two years ago to extend enterprise zones, and we were very pleased that we were successful in retaining both of our zones.” Kankakee County is the smallest in the state to be awarded two enterprise zones.

Beyond the tax abatements, credits and other benefits associated with the enterprise zones, there have also been significant investments in the county’s infrastructure, including a brand new Interstate 57 interchange, which is slated for completion in 2017 and for which a comprehensive business development strategy is currently being devised. Already, the $46 million Bourbonnais Parkway investment is seeing public and private developers preparing one thousand acres of industrial land for use, including ramping up utilities to better support interested businesses.

“Our sewer treatment facility is just finishing up a $60 million project to enhance its processing and capacity as well as improvements for treatment. Our water system has invested well over $20 million in distribution lines and our electrical supplier has just invested about $6 million in distribution upgrades as well,” Van Mill described.

The Greater Kankakee Airport has also enjoyed investments to the tune of $4 million in the form of a U.S. Department of Transportation grant to lengthen its runway, as well as a $50 million investment which will see the training facility for Black Hawk helicopters moved from Midway Airport as part of an Illinois Army National Guard project. With proximity to I-57, the airport can play a great role in development.

Kankakee County also boasts a robust and advanced food processing industry, as agriculture has been a mainstay of the economic landscape throughout its history with companies such as Del Monte, Merisant, Plochman’s Mustard, Momence Packing Company, Bunge North America, Dawn Food Products Inc. and Silva International. Van Drunen Farms, a leading supplier of organically grown culinary herbs, is also here and has recently announced a multimillion dollar investment in a new Momence processing facility.

Kankakee County is also home to Van Drunen Farms sister company FutureCeuticals, an industry leader in the research, development and manufacture of fruit, vegetable and grain-based products for the functional food, cosmetics and dietary supplement markets. FutureCeuticals holds more than 30 trademarks or patents on products in its portfolio, and with VDF has more than 1,000,000 square feet of manufacturing and research facilities, along with 700 conventional acres and 500 organic acres of farmland over four locations.

Healthcare is another economic driver, with Riverside Healthcare, Shapiro Development Center, Presence St. Mary’s Hospital, Cigna Healthcare and Illinois Veterans Home located here. “We’re seeing our two hospitals and our health care sector investing a lot of money and creating quality jobs in our community,” noted Van Mill.

Education and training is being bolstered in Kankakee County to foster a skilled and employable local workforce to support the growing healthcare and advanced manufacturing sectors. The initiative has carried through to the energy sector as well, with companies like EDF Renewable Energy, Kinder Morgan, Enbridge and Midwestern Gas Transmission Company investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the county.

“We’re pro energy, pro renewables here,” noted Wogan. “Kankakee County is well situated to grow the energy sector because of our business friendly regulations, tax advantages, utility capacities and proximity to major markets.”

Partnerships are crucial to development, and Kankakee County draws from its local educational institutions to contribute to growth and development in the county. “[Kankakee Community College] is a regional hub for renewable energy training,” Wogan explained. In 2014, the college received the Interstate Renewable Energy Council’s Clean Energy Training Provider of the Year Award, with Professor Tim Wilhelm receiving the Clean Energy Trainer of the Year.

Olivet Nazarene University (ONU) has experienced exceptional growth in its engineering department over the last several years. ONU is also working toward the successful launch of the Catalyst Innovation Center to support the community’s corporate R&D community as well as foster technology startups.

ONU has also raised the regional profile of Kankakee County by playing host to Chicago Bears Summer Training Camp over the past 14 years. The event, which draws 100,000 to Bourbonnais for two weeks each July, is expected to remain at ONU through 2022. The community has rallied around training camp as an opportunity to showcase key recreational and commercial assets.

The Coalition for Hope and Excellence in Education (CHEE) is undertaking efforts to address the local challenge of having more jobs available than qualified individuals, representing a disconnect between education and workforce, as today’s highly technical, knowledge-based economy requires ever-increasing technical skills and training.

Several initiatives are taking place in conjunction with the KCC Manufacturing & Industrial Technology Center and the Kankakee Area Career Center to match workers with jobs and students with opportunities. These emphasize STEM education and career-oriented studies, especially in manufacturing, logistics and healthcare, and are designed to fill the 3000 available jobs in the county.

“Ultimately, all of these efforts are aimed at bringing more people into our community. Our population has been stable, which is very positive, but we want to put ourselves in the position for growth, creating a climate in Kankakee County conducive to living comfortably. An important part of that is raising awareness among our young graduates about the plentiful, well-paying jobs and varied amenities available here, in order that they consider staying and planting roots of their own,” said Van Mill.

Communities in Kankakee County are providing the foundation upon which quality of life and sustainable growth can occur. Kankakee, the county seat, is undertaking great local initiatives for the betterment of the whole county. Kankakee is currently in the process of having the downtown placed on the National Register of Historic Places and is working closely with the Economic Alliance to do so.

“When people come through our downtown, I want them to get a good impression, not just of Kankakee, but of Kankakee County as a whole,” said Kankakee Economic Development Director Bill Yohnka.

“I want them to feel like this is a place that is vibrant, making a good impression for the entire county.” The city is doing this by fully utilizing and revitalizing spaces, filling any service and amenity gaps, and increasing overall appeal. The downtown is home to a farmers’ market, two historic theaters and was the recipient of $100 000 donation that will be dedicated to constructing an outdoor stage for all to enjoy.

Kankakee’s downtown was recently named the Arts and Entertainment District by city council, to acknowledge its role as a destination for residents and visitors alike to enjoy. Efforts are being made to ensure diversity in housing options, bringing more life to the downtown.

The downtown core demonstrates a balance between history, redevelopment, services, retail, dining and entertainment, and the city is always finding ways to offer these services and amenities in more cohesive and engaging ways. “In community development, the goal is always to capitalize fully on our existing assets, while identifying and filling critical gaps in systematic ways over time,” said Wogan.

“Revitalization, and perhaps new construction of housing in our downtown areas, that’s one thing we’re giving more attention to now,” stated Yohnka. “That is on our radar, and I think it ties in nicely having a different housing option for people who are coming to our area to try to take advantage of all these jobs.”

Preparing for the future, the county is ramping up its attraction strategy to showcase its growing economy and why it is a good location for business.
“I think just an overall sense of being very pro-business, keeping projects moving forward. Industry doesn’t like unpredictability. We provide predictability in the processes that we have and being able to make decisions quickly for industry,” Van Mill explained.



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