Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Small town seeks economic recovery and growth

I grew up in a small northern Illinois community, Mt. Morris (and Forreston 15 miles away) which had a healthy economy in the 1940s through the 1960s based on the printing/publishing/magazine fulfillment business. The town had been built first on education, and when the college failed during the 1930s Depression, private investors took over the buildings and developed a nice economy to complete the printing business already established by the Kable twins at the turn of the century.  The printing plant, originally known as Kables,  was sold several times, and finally closed a few years ago. The publishing company, Watts, known for its numerous agricultural journals, moved out of town, as did the fulfillment company.   Murray Trout (now deceased) wrote a history for me a few years ago.  Now another friend, a member of the Mt. Morris Economic Development Corporation,  has updated me on the current negotiations on using the printing plant.

“The initial behavior of the 'new' owners, "Phoenix" seems to be more favorable and more 'engaged' than the previous owners, IRG.

Omni-trax, owner of the RR spur has been busy clearing brush and repairing track.

The plant has an overabundance of electric power, natural gas service, two deep water wells and a water tower, a $14 mm waste water treatment plant within a mile, one block from buried, ultra-high speed (giga-bit) fiber optic cable, the RR spur, of course with 'cross-docking' capabilities, 600K square feet, fully sprinklered  under roof and a 30+ acre property base.  

The problem is NOT the facility, but its location in the state of Illinois.  One of the highest property tax structures in North America; workers comp and unemployment tax rates off the charts, and a legislature that is run - and has been run for 30 plus years - by a 70+ year old Democrat from Chicago, not to mention a $100+ billion unfunded liability, public employees' pension fund, with unsustainably generous (3%) annual cost of living increases, and a structurally unbalance-able budget.  Have I forgotten or overlooked any other disadvantages—oh yes--each of our contiguous neighbors - WI, IA, MO, KY, IN - are 'right to work' states.

A Janesville, WI, outdoor and children's furniture manufacturer has 'waltzed' with us several times:  His company is reported to be headquartered in Battle Creek, MI; and he expressed an interest in moving it to the Mt. Morris Printing Plant.  He claimed possibly 400 semi-skilled labor jobs.  He claimed that Kellogg's was his financial backer, and wished to establish a 'maintenance facility' for their long-haul trucks.  After the Kellogg's decision makers studied the location, they reportedly determined that, "We aren't interested in doing business in Illinois."

It's not a 'pretty' picture … although we have had several small successes, e.g., Sullivan's Foods replaced MM SuperMart with a new, 50% larger store, DOLLAR GENERAL and CASEY'S have opened stores.  But downtown is virtually half deserted! 

The ENCORE! arts group has become instrumental in attracting music groups to summer concerts, and visual artists to The Gallery, i.e., 1st floor of Old Sandstone, as well as several summer festivals, i.e., PorchFest  - music on private porches, functioning much like a 'progressive dinner' - and StrawFest, a straw-statue constructing competition.   The Performing Arts Guild continues to showcase several productions each year.

And periodically, we are contacted by IL Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity to 'bid' for re-locating businesses, but to no avail as yet.

Mt. Morris has two Tax Increment Financing ("TIF") districts, which accumulate tax funds for rehabilitating 'downtown' structures, and nearly 200 acres of Enterprise Zone property, which offers tax abatement and sales tax avoidance incentives.  We have engaged a Rockford-based architect, who specializes in restoring buildings to their once, long ago glory; and hope thereby to 'spruce up the downtown' with some of the TIF funds.

Many of the 'experts' which we hear and see suggest towns and villages build their own 'creative economies'; but when one studies the demographics of Mt. Morris, and realizes that Pinecrest Communities [retirement/nursing facility affiliated with Church of the Brethren] is the growth industry, one doesn't find many early, middle aged entrepreneurs!

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