During the course of a boxing match, a fighter will deliver dozens of body blows to his or her opponent.
It’s unlikely that any of the punches will be decisive. But, fighters count on the cumulative effect of these blows to weaken, and eventually, topple their opponent.
Southern Illinois took another body blow last week when Honeywell announced it would idle its Metropolis plant, stripping the Massac County facility of 170 full-time jobs and dozens of related contract positions.
That’s a serious body blow to a community of 6,500 people.
And, it’s just the latest serious hit Southern Illinois has taken over the last decade or so.
It wasn’t long ago the region boasted of a wealth of coal mining jobs. Hardin County had fluorspar mines. The farmland in parts of the region is rich and fertile.
Economic conditions have gone south in recent years. Some of the coal veins played out. The move away from coal-fired power plants hastened the shuttering of other facilities. The increasing mechanization of the coal industry chewed up other jobs.
More frequent flooding of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, once two of the greatest economic engines of Southern Illinois, further staggered the region. Parts of Pulaski County, covered with sand deposited by the flooding rivers, now look more like a desert than a rich farming community.
The aforementioned economic calamities have weakened the region, as body blows are intended to do.
The signs are everywhere, as outlined in a recent series of stories by The Southern Illinoisan’s Molly Parker.
Parker’s research uncovered some uncomfortable, unsettling and sobering facts.
Probably the most telling, the region has lost 11,000 people since 2000. Nine of the southernmost counties in Illinois rank in the top 10 in the number of opioid prescriptions per person in the state. In five school districts in the region 10 percent of students are considered homeless.
The poverty rate in some counties exceeds that of Appalachia. The most adversely affected counties are those that border the Ohio River — Gallatin, Hardin, Pope, Massac, Alexander and Pulaski.
“In that area you have the worst rural poverty in the state, without question,” said Christopher Merrett, director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University.
That assessment doesn’t leave a lot of room for argument.
Admittedly a bit wobbly in the knees, Southern Illinois is still standing. Southern Illinoisans have proven time and again we are a resilient lot.
“This part of Illinois has too much potential to wither into oblivion,” said Rhonda Belford, president of the Ohio River Scenic Byway in Illinois.
We agree. But, it is time for the region to quit wringing its hands. The region can no longer wait for the state and federal government to assist. There is a need for a real grassroots movement, a movement that is blind to Republican, Democrat, liberal and conservative labels, a movement that is oblivious to parochial measures. This is a small region. What is good for one of us is good for all of us. A movement whose only ideology is the survival of Southern Illinois.
It is time to quit hoping that extraction industries will pull the region out of the cycle of poverty. Leaders of school districts, communities and counties must make their voices heard, formulate an outline for economic growth.
Belford is right. Southern Illinois has too much potential to wither away. The people are one of the major resources. There is a ready and able labor pool for businesses that choose to locate here. Figures show there is plenty of real estate available. And, most of Southern Illinois is easily accessible by interstate highways.
The key to our success as a region is from bottom up, not from top down.