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With a new year, many people are reflecting on past projects and future endeavors. The Iroquois County Times-Republic posed some questions to Ken Barragree, executive director of the Iroquois Economic Development Association (IEDA), about what that group got accomplished in 2019 and what lies ahead in 2020. Below are the questions asked and his responses.

Times-Republic: Some Iroquois County companies, such as T&D Metal and Incobrasa, have expanded or are working on expansion. How has this helped the Iroquois County economic climate?

Barragree: It has and will continue to boost the Iroquois County economy. As these two major employers expand, there will be an increase in employment, which will add significant dollars to the area’s overall payroll or spending capacity. Those payroll dollars will turn into purchases. Statistics show that every $1 “turns over” six times in the local economy after the initial purchase before it leaks away to areas outside the local marketplace. Every new spending dollar counts — and counts a lot.

Times-Republic: Are there other established businesses in the county working on expansions?

Barragree: Many of our area businesses are constantly revamping, adding, and in some manner expanding all the time. Like I’ve always said, “You either grow, or you go.” Sometimes new jobs are also created by these smaller expansions, too. There are a couple of new businesses preparing to start up and a couple more that are adding significantly to their offerings. It would be unfair if not unethical to speak directly about any of them before they are ready to present their wares.

Times-Republic: There seems to be a lot of talk both locally and on a broader scale about opportunity zones and enterprise zones. Does the Iroquois County Economic Development Association work with those economic endeavors? How do they work? What are the benefits and pitfalls?

Barragree: Yes, we do. Whereever we can find a development advantage, we go after it. Last year I applied through state Rep. Tom Bennett’s office for five different opportunity zones across Iroquois County. We only landed one, but we did get federally approved for an opportunity zone that covers much of Watseka’s main street area as well as sections on the north and west sides of town.

Qualified opportunity zones were created by the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. These zones are designed to spur economic development and job creation in distressed communities by providing tax benefits to investors who invest eligible capital gains into these communities. Taxpayers may defer tax on eligible capital gains for years by making an appropriate investment in a qualified opportunity fund and in some cases eliminate the taxes altogether. It is a program to bring private money rather than public funds in to help challenged areas.

Enterprise zones are another excellent tool to spur development, but they deal with tax concessions, infrastructure incentives and reduced regulations to attract investments and private companies into the zones. I first tried to get an EZ for the entire county seven or eight years ago, but disagreements at that time forced me to withdraw the request. A little over a year ago, the Iroquois County Board gave me the authorization to try again, but I was told then that we were eight to 10 years too late to have much of a chance. I don’t want that to deter us from continuing to try, but I am afraid that current chances are pretty slim.

I think you would be surprised at how many prospects ask about tax incentives, TIF districts, enterprise zones and now opportunity zones, along with their normal questions about the schools, hospitals, shopping, recreation and, of course, the workforce.

Times-Republic: Nationally, unemployment numbers are falling, and Iroquois County and the surrounding area also had decreasing unemployment numbers. How does that help or hinder economically when networking with prospective businesses?

Barragree: It seems like it is always bad to hear that unemployment has gone up but always exciting to hear that it has gone down or at least stabilized at a lower level. There is another side to that coin. I always feel that the numbers reported are a bit misleading. The rate reported by the media is always the U-3 rate. As time passes, that rate can go down even if no jobs have been created. It ignores such things as people who have not actually left the job market but have just given up looking for a while, have gone back to school, or for a few other situations. For that reason, some observers prefer to track the more comprehensive U-6 rate that includes the marginals. I prefer to keep an eye on the jobs created to monitor the pulse of the economy. Now when working with prospective businesses, unemployment can also be a double-edged sword. When the rate is low, it tells employers we have motivated people with the skills to get hired, but it may also tell them that the competition may be stiffer and the pickings may be slimmer. All things considered, a lower unemployment rate is always the better situation.

Times-Republic: Regionally, there seems to be some economic growth. Does that help or hinder Iroquois County’s economic development strategies, and how so?

Barragree: Regional economic growth is always good for our local economy. We live in an ever-expanding world, and we certainly can’t take an isolationist approach to development. That reminds me of a comment I’ve heard many times: “It’s been this way for 50 years. Why change it now?” Well, change is not only good, it’s necessary. It is absolutely imperative that we keep up with what’s happening all around us to keep the tumbleweeds away. Consider the amazing growth expected in the Kankakee area at CSL Behring and Nucor Steel. The new job opportunities may keep some of our Iroquois County residents from moving away. Plus, our proximity may encourage new residents to move into our county, as well as create opportunities for businesses that support and service those two expanding companies to decide to locate in Iroquois County. It is high time for some more growth along our Interstate 57 corridor.

Times-Republic: There is talk again about a third Chicago-area airport being established. Can you elaborate on what this would do for the economic vitality of the area?

Barragree: I have little doubt that the third airport will eventually become a reality. There is a tremendous amount of money being spent in that area constructing warehousing and the like. Plus, big bucks are being invested in the infrastructure up there. A new airport would benefit our area in many of the ways I just expressed about the growth in Kankakee. One thing we always have to keep in mind, however, is that Iroquois County has some of the best farm ground in the world, and we don’t want to pave over any of it if it is not absolutely critical to our long-term success. That is not to say that we wouldn’t welcome new neighbors moving into the county, and we have plenty of non-farmland to offer to many small and medium size support businesses.

Times-Republic: What can local political leaders, business leaders and residents do to help the IEDA in it’s pursuit of economic development for the area?

Barragree: We have some great business, political and individual leaders in every community in our county. As a contribution supported nonprofit, the IEDA gets excellent financial support from these forward-thinking folks. How could they help us in our mission of building a better future for Iroquois County? Attitude is a starter. Stay positive about our area. Iroquois County remains a great place to live, work and raise a family. Tell everyone you can. Don’t let the naysayers get a foothold. Shout our benefits to the world. Another way you can help is communicate ... with us! Talk to us. Tell us what’s working for you and what is needed. Tell our positive story to all who will listen, and when you do, let us know immediately what the IEDA can do to help. With 10,000 groups just like ours across the country, there is no easy foolproof formula for growth, but if we all grab the rope and pull in the same direction, we will move forward.

Times-Republic: In looking ahead at 2020, what do you see on the economic front for the county and area?

Barragree: I believe totally in the quality of living and working in Iroquois County, and the opportunities we have and will have, but we are still in Illinois. I love Illinois! It is my home, born and raised, but our state-level leaders have pushed us close to the abyss, and that has to change. We have to stop the incessant tax increase and the wasteful spending. We have to reverse the population drain. We have to regain Illinois’ once-stellar reputation. We have to “Make Illinois Great Again!” Our state representative, Tom Bennett, and our state senator, Jason Barickman, both do a great job for Iroquois County, but they face a behemoth every day. We have to stay involved to build our own great future.

As far as 2020, I think it’s looking good for us, but we need to keep one finger on the pulse of the nation, one on the pulse of our state, one on the pulse of our neighbors, and all the rest on the pulse of Iroquois County. We do have a challenge ahead of us, but if we all pull together in the same positive direction, we will make it happen.