Success in Southern Illinois’ Heartland

Jefferson County, IL
Written by Jessica Ferlaino

The goal of the Jefferson County Development Corporation is to connect people and businesses with the required services to increase productivity in the region. The organization’s most important role is providing assistance for business retention and expansion for its existing stakeholders, since nationally, 60 to 80 percent of the economic development is generated by existing employers.
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The Jefferson County Development Corporation (JCDC) also reaches out on the national and international levels to new business prospects, aiming to attract new companies to Jefferson County through trade shows, events and trade missions. Last year, for example, the JCDC accompanied Governor Bruce Rauner, and a team of economic development, educational and government professionals on a trade mission to Japan and China seeking foreign direct investment opportunities. The county has previously worked on expanding opportunities in freight and logistics and is now branching out into foreign direct investment, working with the Japanese Consulate and Japan External Trade Organization in particular.

Jefferson County is a far cry from Chicago; located in southern Illinois; it is closer to the St. Louis market than it is to Chicago. Southern Illinois is an agricultural area that is also known as for its manufacturing. Mount Vernon, the county seat and the largest city in the county, is known historically for the construction of railroad cars at Mount Vernon Car Shops. Today, the city still has interest in rail through National Railway Equipment Company, a manufacturing company that sells new and rebuilt locomotives to railroad companies worldwide.

Modernizing older engines through refurbishment is popular in the rail industry, as the sector seeks to find the intersection of environmental and economic sustainability, and it has become a lucrative niche market for Jefferson County. Companies such as Caterpillar, Inc. have joined this market as well by refurbishing construction equipment.

Other historical linchpins in Jefferson County are the oil and gas industry and coal mining. Although there are no mines in Jefferson County, the area has performed a lot of service provision for nearby mines with its manufacturing facilities.

In the 1970s, General Tire opened in Jefferson County and was later acquired by Continental Tire, which has a division called Continental Tire the Americas, LLC. Continental has experienced tremendous growth in Mount Vernon over the years. Continental Tire the Americas, LLC has become one of the largest and longest-lived employers in the area and it is an important component of the local economy in Jefferson County. The company has completed more than 800 million dollars’ worth of expansion projects in the last eleven years and further growth is expected in the future.

Employing approximately 3500 employees, Continental Tire has been an essential aspect of the economic growth of Jefferson County. “They [Continental Tire] have done a great job by our community; they have helped our economy by bringing in other business such as Mount Vernon Mold Works, Inc., which is a division of an international firm,” shares Jonathon Hallberg, Executive Director of the JCDC. Magnum Steel Works Inc. also does a lot of work for Continental Tire, as do other local specialty manufacturing and machining shops in the county including Bennett Metal Products, Inc. and InnoTech Manufacturing, LLC. These Jefferson County companies have been fortunate to realize a lot of business as a result of Continental Tire.

Mount Vernon also hosts a Walgreens Distribution Center, which employs approximately 1500 people, and the SSM Health Good Samaritan Regional Health Center – Mt. Vernon, which employs over 1100. “I’m pleased that we have groups like Walgreens Distribution Center and SSM Health to offset our concentration in the Continental division,” says Hallberg. “We would also like to diversify our manufacturing a little bit more.” Other leading employers in the area include NAPA Auto Parts Genuine Parts Company, Benoist Brothers Supply HVAC, and Pepsi MidAmerica.

The JCDC works very closely with the Southern Illinois Workforce Development Board, which itself serves five counties: Jefferson, Jackson, Williamson, Perry and Franklin. Jonathon Hallberg sits on the board and also works with other agencies and divisions to leverage the county’s exposure. The JCDC regularly assists with the workforce initiatives established by the Southern Illinois Workforce Development Board. “I conduct 20 key retention visits with our key employers every year and we track those numbers in partnership with a group called Man-Tra-Con Corporation, which is a non-profit organization that serves the five counties. They are the workhorse of the workforce board, so to speak,” explains Hallberg. Man-Tra-Con provides workforce solutions to both businesses and employment seekers in southern Illinois.

In May of this year, the Japan External Trade Organization was invited to Rend Lake College campus to meet with eight different colleges in the area and have discussions about the workforce development needs of foreign firms that may consider expansion into southern Illinois. Employers look for communities that are working to improve their workforce environment. Workforce challenges are certainly not unique to Jefferson County, yet the county has taken the initiative necessary to improve its workforce even further, which is an attractive quality for business development.

The JCDC also works closely with the community colleges in the area on educational and entrepreneurship initiatives such as the Jefferson County CEO program for aspiring entrepreneurs and the Apprenticeship Plus program for youth, ages 16-24. Man-Tra-Con received funding for the Apprenticeship Plus program and established a partnership with Rend Lake College for young people to experience manufacturing in a hands-on way. The program has been well received by local employers and it will continue to move forward with its participating businesses including Phoenix Modular Elevator, Magnum Steel Works and National Railway Equipment, to name a few.

Last year, the schools in Jefferson County participated for the first time in the national Manufacturing Day event that is held on the first Friday of October annually. “We secured funding and brought 141 high school students through six different plants in our town to show them what modern manufacturing looks like and the direction things are going,” says Hallberg.

The JCDC considers these programs and events to be essential in raising awareness about the many different opportunities that students have. For students who cannot afford the cost of university or do not feel that college is the correct path for them, there are plenty of options to begin building a sustainable career immediately. “You don’t need to go through four years of college and accumulate a lot of student loans in order to be successful in life; you can get a certification and jump right into the workforce here with our local employers. It’s been a successful initiative that will hopefully continue for many years,” says Hallberg.

The largest high school In Jefferson County, Mount Vernon Township High School provides vocational education at the Area Career Center, which services all four of the high schools in Jefferson County as well as another in Wayne City. The students in Jefferson County are well prepared and equipped to seek out any career they desire.

Competing with the metro area to the east can be a challenge for Jefferson County. The St. Louis area has many employers to choose from and typically higher pay levels; however, it also has a higher cost of living and it has more congestion. “Being in a rural southern Illinois community is the best kept secret of our existing stakeholders because we do really work closely with groups like Continental and Walgreens to help accommodate their needs and it is working very well,” says Hallberg.

To be sure, there are many benefits to living in a rural environment. Rend Lake College is located at the edge of Rend Lake, which is the largest man-made lake in Illinois. It is a beautiful location for hunting and fishing and it receives many outdoor enthusiasts as tourists. “We have a lot of natural beauty in the Shawnee National Forest to the south and we have quite a few parks. We are a nice landing ground because we have about 1000 hotel rooms in Mount Vernon alone,” says Hallberg.

Jefferson County is also blessed with a vibrant arts and culture scene. Mount Vernon is the residence of the Cedarhurst Center for the Arts, which is a small museum that boasts a world-class sculpture garden. It offers exceptional programs for visual and performing arts on its 90 acre campus. It continues to grow year over year and has become a source of pride for the area. The Center also holds a regional art competition annually that draws many visitors, and holds an arts and crafts fair every fall.

Jefferson County boasts excellent freight and logistics connectivity, with five Class 1 railroads, two major highways, and three major exits from those highways at Mount Vernon. The city of Mount Vernon is considered the jobs capital of southern Illinois and it is a particularly convenient location for transportation and distribution companies. It is located at the intersection of I-64 and I-57, where an average of 35,900 vehicles and 12,750 trucks and semis traverse each day. The state of Illinois is focusing on widening the I-57 corridor with construction projects to become a six-lane highway, which will be a boon for both safety and efficiency.

Mount Vernon is home to a small transloading facility in its downtown area, operated by Milano Railway Logistics Co. The area currently has high potential for growth as there is additional land being freed up for development. Three miles away from the highway in Mount Vernon, the transloading facility features the intersection of three Class 1 railroads. “It is fairly unheard of to have three Class 1s intersecting in one area,” says Hallberg. “We can do a lot of things with truck to rail and vice versa.”

Not only a good location for business, the city of Mount Vernon, and Jefferson County as a whole, is a beautiful area with a good education system, a cultured environment and strong family values. Southern Illinois is known for hard work and hospitality and Jefferson County represents that principle well. The cost of living is much lower than in a metro area yet it is located close enough to St. Louis to experience big-city amenities. The natural beauty of the area is cherished by its residents who value the ability to hunt, fish, hike and explore close to home.

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