The Wall Street Journal has been relentless in its criticism of Illinois in recent years, largely because of our budget and political problems. To read its editorial pages, you would think we had contracted the plague.
For a book I co-authored a couple of years ago on “Fixing Illinois” (University of Illinois Press, 2014), I was invited to visit Rochelle, in the north central part of our state. This small city belies the rap that business won’t come to Illinois.
Below is an op-ed I submitted recently to the WSJ. The short piece is an illustration of how I think we must change the narrative about Illinois and stop flailing ourselves with barbed whips:
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Illinois has taken a beating on these pages in recent years. Nevertheless, vibrant Rochelle is hands-down the best place in America to build a planned new Toyota-Mazda manufacturing facility.
Sounds like typical boosterism, right? You bet it does, and here is the proof.
Rochelle sits smack-dab in the middle of a venerable manufacturing belt known worldwide for building the best – from John Deere on the Mississippi to Caterpillar on the Illinois to UTC Aerospace in Rockford.
Talk about being in the middle. Yes, Rochelle is literally the “Heart of the Heartland,” at the crossroads of the nation. Two million folks live within working distance of this small city.
Rochelle is a hub of multiple Class I railroads/intermodal ramps and fiber trunks. Up the road 20 miles is the Chicago-Rockford International Airport (RFD), which is a top-tier cargo airport that moves freight across its ramps at a fraction of the time and cost of other airports.
And just down the interstate is O’Hare, which the Center for Air Transport at MIT in 2013 named the best air hub in the nation for domestic connections – and for international connections as well!
Don’t forget the critical workforce, with rural kids who have been brought up fixing equipment on the farm, as well as city kids whose fathers and grandfathers worked long and hard at manufacturing plants across northern Illinois. It’s in their blood.
These kids now often hone their skills at one of the more than 40 community/technical colleges in Illinois, five of which are located a stone’s throw from Rochelle.
So, it’s no wonder that since 2003, Rochelle has generated $1.2 billion in capital investment in logistics, manufacturing, energy, and data centers. And more than a thousand new jobs.
When Nippon Sharyo chose to manufacture electric rail cars in Rochelle, the company found the highway, rail and utility infrastructure already in place, plus an abundance of workers ready to go.
Rochelle is hot, and it has every reason to be.
Sure, Illinois has been through a rough patch recently. Our 13 million people are a diverse, feisty lot, and we squabble. Name me a state that doesn’t have conflicts?
Illinois is working its way through its challenges. At long last, we have a new state budget, and we recently revived an economic development incentive program to make us competitive in that game once again.
Rochelle has been identified as one of several places under consideration by a Toyota-Mazda venture to build a new auto plant.
As the incredible success in recent decades of the Japanese auto industry attests, Japanese auto executives know the auto business better than anyone else in the world.
I believe they will look closely at the unmatched transportation resources, ideal geographic location, and skilled workforce in Rochelle and conclude that Illinois is the place to build – regardless of what the WSJ says.
Note to readers: Jim Nowlan of Toulon can be reached at email@example.com.