This editorial appeared in the Oct. 21, 2017, edition of The (Springfield) State Journal-Register:
Given the state's poor reputation for its finances and being unfriendly to businesses, Illinois needs to communicate — in a big way — that the Land of Lincoln is a place where innovation is nurtured and encouraged.
A loud message went out last week with the announcement of a proposed public-private partnership in Chicago that would focus on innovation. While questions remain on how to make this idea reality — notably, how to pay for it — if it gains momentum it could generate hope that a new day could soon dawn in Illinois when it comes to encouraging economic development.
The two-year budget impasse didn't just deprive businesses, health-care facilities, colleges, schools and social service agencies from money the state owed them; it cast a dismal pall across Illinois when it came to economic development. It seemed impossible to lure any new businesses among the instability, especially as funding for higher education was slashed and thousands of students fled to other states they thought would provide a better experience.
As we noted in our Sounding the Alarm series, a strong higher-education system is vital to attracting and retaining businesses. They want to be where smart people are working on tomorrow's breakthroughs.
If it comes to fruition, that's the crux of the idea behind the University of Illinois-led project announced Thursday by the system and Gov. Bruce Rauner. The Illinois Innovation Network aims to create a $1.2 billion network of research universities, businesses and public sector partners that would develop talent and ideas, as well as find innovative solutions, in computing and big data, advanced materials, food and agriculture, and biosciences and health, according to a news release from Rauner's office.
Besides the U of I system schools, Northwestern University and University of Chicago would be partners in this endeavor. Related Midwest is donating land along the Chicago River in the South Loop to house it. The IIN's first step would be to develop the Discovery Partners Institute, which would eventually house up to 90 faculty and 1,800 students a year.
The intent is to have them work with researchers and Illinois businesses to "create new technologies and advancements in its areas of study. The idea is to have collaborators advance global solutions to attract both venture capital investment and talent to the state," according to the news release.
We've long called on Rauner to champion such an idea, as his business background would be an invaluable asset to pursuing such an endeavor. We are excited that the blueprints he's been sketching of this idea since the campaign have a shot at becoming reality.
But just because we're jazzed about the potential this presents doesn't mean we don't have concerns. The biggest one is how it will be funded, because the framework needed to encourage innovation doesn't come cheap. The U of I System will lead the fundraising efforts, and the governor expects the financing to come primarily from private sources, although he would like some state and local investment as well.
However, it's not like either entity has money just lying around: A few days before this was announced, Rauner's administration said it has identified more than $200 million in cuts to human services, agriculture and transportation due to a state budget he says remains out of whack by at least $1.5 billion even with those cuts. The budget proposal pitched Wednesday by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel included suggested tax increases and cost-cutting measures.
Rauner initially stated he would use proceeds from selling the Thompson Center in Chicago to help fund the initiative. But that estimated $300 million also has been incorporated into this year's state budget (plus, the measure that would allow its sale hasn't even reached his desk).
So questions remain. But talking seriously about implementing this long-overdue idea is generating some positive buzz. Illinois already has top-notch research programs and staff among its higher education institutions. It's time to better leverage those into an initiative that shouts the state can be the hub for the research and development a global economy thrives on.