By Douglas L. Whitley
For years Illinois citizens, especially business owners and managers, have suffered embarrassment over political corruption, higher taxes and fees, chagrin over failed government fiscal policies, frustration with anti-business rhetoric and public employee discontent.
Employers have suffered anti-business initiatives by our own elected officials, while governors from other states routinely launch business-poaching parties to entice our highly desirable job creators to seek greener pastures.
Enough! Despite governmental and political headwinds, Illinois remains a great state that offers business owners and leaders many advantages that should not be overlooked or dismissed.
Illinois has the key components for business success. There is an abundance of land, fresh water, highly educated and trained workers, competitively priced energy, state of the art data capability and extensive transportation networks to move people, raw material, goods and services. Population density assures a substantial labor pool. A higher than average personal income for Illinois residents and the appeal of an attractive destination city for visitors guarantees a robust and extensive consumer market. Illinois is home to quality educational and health care facilities, as well as renowned research institutions and national laboratories.
Chicago is a world-class city with the ethnic diversity and global connections to cultivate and propel international business growth. Illinois’ second urban area, comprised of the “metro-east” communities of southwestern Illinois, accounts for much of the industrial output of the St. Louis region. Metro-east helps anchor the state’s position as a transportation center and a gateway to the west.
Illinois is blessed with the most productive farmland in the world. It is the foundation upon which agribusiness industries rely. Food processing, farm supplies, grain handling, global markets and advances in bio and machine technology are derived from ever-improving productivity on Illinois farms. If your business is connected to agriculture, Illinois is the place to be.
Illinois sits above vast reserves of high-BTU coal deposits. There are more BTUs under Illinois than under the Saudi desert and Kuwait combined. Most Illinois coal production is currently being shipped to international markets. Thanks to a new hydraulic fracking law, Illinois oil and gas production is poised for a resurgence that could greatly improve opportunity and economic fortunes in southern Illinois.
Unlike much of the eastern United States, Illinois still offers an abundance of land in both urban and rural settings that is readily available for development. And, unlike many of the western states, Illinois has an abundance of fresh water resources.
Illinois hosts large population centers in the heartland of the nation and provides access to suppliers, industrial markets and raw materials. Illinois’ central location facilitates one-day business travel schedules and offers a convenient location to gather for meetings and conventions.
The expanse of Shawnee National Forest that extends across the Illinois Ozarks is an overlooked and underutilized recreational wilderness that continually amazes visitors, as does the grandeur of Lake Michigan and the width and palisades of the Mississippi River that shapes the state’s western border.
Transportation networks are one of the cornerstones of Illinois’ economy. Illinois is known for transportation, logistics and warehousing. Our state contains the largest rail hub in the nation and is the only state served by all of the class-one railroads. Illinois holds 165 rail yards and 12 expansive, modern intermodal terminals. Currently, 25 percent of all U.S. rail traffic and 46 percent of all intermodal units in the U.S. touch the Chicago region. Illinois has the third largest interstate highway system in the country and is served by 15 interstate routes – more than any other state. Eight interstate highways converge on the Chicago region while four major east-west arteries converge at St. Louis.
Chicago’s O’Hare airport hosts the nation’s two largest airlines, but also accommodates 40 other airlines. O’Hare airport handles direct flights to 255 cities, nearly half of which are international destinations. Chicago’s Midway airport handles direct flights to 140 U.S. cities and 57 international locations.
The nation’s oil, gas, chemical and fiber optic networks converge in Illinois. Chicago’s Union Station is the hub for AMTRAK nationwide passenger rail service.
Illinois is well equipped to move people, physical products and electronic commerce.
Business and industry
Illinois is the fourth most productive manufacturing state. Such a large state, both from a geographic and a population perspective, means that Illinois commerce is highly diversified. No single economic segment totally dominates the economy. Such diversity means the state boasts pace setters and industry leaders in practically every business category.
Illinois companies are global leaders in advertising, agriculture, aviation, business services, consumer products, commodity-options-futures-derivatives trading, communications, construction, energy, entertainment, financial services, food products, food service, health care, hospitality, insurance, manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, publishing, retail, technology and water treatment to name a few.
The overall economic output of Illinois’ biotechnology industry is more than $98.6 billion with 81,000 direct jobs and more than 3,500 biotechnology companies in the state. The biotechnology industry in Illinois has demonstrated the strongest revenue growth in recent years (averaging 13.3 percent) among all of the states analyzed according to a recent iBio report.
The University of Illinois research facilities are among the best in the world. The university secured more than $1 billion in competitively awarded federal research grants last year and now ranks sixth among universities nationwide.
Conventions and tourism attracts an increasing number of visitors to Illinois. In 2013, Illinois hosted more than 2 million international visitors.
The state’s major tourist attractions include world-renowned museums, Navy Pier, Willis Tower, Wrigley Field, the riverboat architecture tour and Millennium Park in Chicago. Natural beauty is celebrated along the Great River Road, the Illinois River Valley, the Shawnee National Forest, the Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge and Lake Michigan’s shoreline. Premiere historic sites include Cahokia Mounds – a United Nations designated world heritage site – in Collinsville, Lewis and Clark State Historic Site also near St. Louis and the numerous Abraham Lincoln sites in central Illinois, including the Presidential Museum and Library. Twentieth century progress, mobility and America’s fascination with motorized vehicles is commemorated by thousands of intrepid travelers who pursue the historic Mother Road Route 66 that traverses the state.
Illinois is 390 miles long. The northern border lies parallel to Boston, Mass., and extends south to a point far below the historic Mason Dixon Line, even below Richmond, Va. Cairo, Ill., is two hours driving time closer to Memphis than it is to Chicago. Thus, southern Illinois’ proximity to servicing industrial facilities in the Deep South is comparable to Chicago’s access to the upper Midwest.
Illinois has been blessed with many strengths and assets to capitalize upon. As a result, Illinois business continues to do well despite years of political scandal, poor management of governmental finances, dysfunctional government and frequent missteps that challenge employers’ sensibilities. Many elected officials simply fail to recognize there are real economic consequences to political decisions, regulatory indecisions, inefficiencies and delays.
Even what they say and how they say it gets the attention of investors and business owners looking for clues that Illinois is a stable, predictable, progressive and supportive business environment.
Douglas L. Whitley is president and CEO of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce.