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#1 Small City in Illinois

The following Alliance op-ed was published in the June 8, 2014, edition of the Daily Journal.
Resilient Kankakee County Tops “Small Cities” in Illinois
By Michael J. Van Mill, CEcD, AICP
Strength. It is said to be revealed not when life is easy, but when one is faced with significant challenge. By most every measure, Kankakee County’s businesses, institutions and individuals are clearly exhibiting resilience, rising to the many challenges wrought by national economic downturn, and experiencing real growth.
Earlier this year, the acclaimed Milken Institute announced its 2013 Best-Performing Cities. In the “Small Cities” category, the Kankakee-Bradley Metropolitan Statistical Area was the highest ranked in the state of Illinois, vaulting from #121 to #42 nationally. In fact, while the ranking for our area jumped 79 points, those for all other small Illinois MSAs fell. The outcome-based Milken index measures community success in creating and sustaining jobs and economic expansion, components of which include job, wage and salary, and technology growth.
The good news from Milken tells the big picture story, synthesizing leading statistics that our office tracks closely. The most recent report from the U.S. Department of Commerce Bureau of Economic Analysis, for example, positions the Kankakee-Bradley MSA #6 among 381 MSAs nationwide in Real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth and #1 in the state of Illinois. Personal income and job growth are also on upward trajectories.
These figures confirm our local economy’s robust underlying structural performance, performance driven by the foresight, strategic planning and prudent development activity of leaders right here within our community. We Midwesterners are modest and solutions focused, yes, but progress requires us to also pause periodically to recognize and applaud our achievements.
Kankakee County has seen $500 million in private capital investment over the last 24 to 36 months. Industries like CSL Behring and Bunge North America are choosing to expand and hire here rather than elsewhere. That is a testament to, in particular, the loyalty of our workforce, ready access to major markets and a cooperative local regulatory environment. The commitment to excellence and continuous improvement of institutions like Riverside Medical Center and Olivet Nazarene University has resulted in significant expansions of their respective campuses over the past several years. Kankakee Community College has demonstrated consistent responsiveness to employer training needs and a commitment to workforce readiness. This was exhibited most recently in the establishment of its Manufacturing and Industrial Technology Center, which imparts the fabrication, machine tool, welding and millwright skills required by our advanced manufacturers. In addition, KCC’s new LEED Gold-certified North Extension Center provides state-of-the-art classrooms for credit division courses, corporate training and GED preparation classes.
An emerging market presence is imperative for any community seeking to thrive now and in the future. The Milken study ranks our area #15 among small cities nationwide in terms of single-year high-tech GDP growth, reflecting the pioneering work and relative strength of our local advanced manufacturing sector. Aligned with this growth is ONU’s booming engineering program, which is spurring the Reed Hall of Science expansion along with cutting-edge capstone projects with local industry leaders like Nucor Steel, Millipore/Merck, Peddinghaus and Merisant. In addition, KCC’s award-winning and nationally certified renewable energy program prepares students for real-world jobs in the emerging solar and wind industries.
Challenges remain in Kankakee County, to be sure. The unemployment and poverty rates are long-range issues that must and are being addressed. The Economic Alliance is investing this year in an initiative to stem the high school dropout rate. This project, led by Dr. Susan Emmerich, is an effort to bring public- and private-sector leaders together to develop a shared vision and action plan around this critical subject.
Clearly, Kankakee County has proven that, despite both external and internal obstacles, it has in place the foundational structure and talent, along with many of the plans and protocols, for success. Advancement will persist if that knowledge base is continually matched with confidence and calculated – but bold – action. A little bit of celebration along the way would not hurt either.
Mike Van Mill is President/CEO of the Economic Alliance of Kankakee County, a public-private partnership that works to create jobs and expand the economic base by improving the local business climate. For more information, phone 815-935-1177 or visit kankakeecountyed.org.
5/19/14 Op-Ed to Daily Journal: Milken Ranking