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Southern Illinois is a diverse region, comprised of interstate cities, rural hamlets, forest villages, college towns, farming countrysides and river communities.

Each community has its own vision to improve the quality of life for its residents in a fashion uniquely distinctive to its own history, culture and environment.

But can these separate visions be joined together to create one Southern Illinois economy that speaks with one regional voice, acts with one regional mission and competes with other regions as one entity?

Some believe the answer may predict Southern Illinois’ economic future. One Region/One Vision must become a reality, not just a slogan.

"For us, I think it's a matter of survival," Du Quoin Mayor Rex Duncan said. "With the economic conditions of Illinois, there's not going to be any white knights with money coming from Springfield."

Unified voice

No one Southern Illinois city has the political and industrial muscle of a metropolis, with the region’s largest city -- Carbondale -- boasting only 25,900 residents.

By itself, Carbondale or Marion, or any of the region's largest communities, lacks a strong voice. But the united communities of Southern Illinois would have a voice of 350,000 strong, dwarfing the population of every Illinois city, except Chicago. 

"Reason dictates that we work together. We're at the end of the state where small population is. All the numbers are up north. Of course, this is shown in Springfield and how things operate in Springfield," Marion Mayor Bob Butler said.

"Consequently, it behooves the communities in our area, south of I-70, to be together and by and large, the various legislators do that very thing. They do cooperate and work together because they know if they don't, either we hang together or we hang separately."

One metropolitan area

Don Monty, Carbondale acting mayor, said the region is small enough geographically to function, in some respects, as one metropolitan area, with people traveling from one end of the region to another for work.

"The economies are intertwined as a practical matter," Monty said. "No one of the communities has enough strength in its own population, its own economic base, to be self-sufficient."

Kyle Harfst, executive director of Southern Illinois Research Park, said most economies have shifted to regional economies.

The U.S. Census Bureau reflected this shift in Southern Illinois, including the Carbondale/Marion corridor as one urban area in its most recent census data.

"It's a reality. And if you look at what's going on down the Route 13 corridor, you've got development in Marion and Carbondale, and all the way in between, except refuge property, you're seeing development occur," Monty said. "Why are they upgrading Route 13 to six lanes? That has to do with the flow of people back and forth."

Breakdown in cooperation

But regional economy notwithstanding, cooperation tends to give way to what's-in-it-for-me thinking, with mayors and city councils not being judged by voters based on regional jobs created or regional budgets.

"I'm not sure the politics of employment and economic development are always conducive to regional efforts that are more profitable and productive because it's hard to say I contributed to this even though it wasn't in my district," Duncan said.

The reality, though, is regional projects must prove a direct or indirect benefit to a community before towns will invest their tax base's dollars into it.

Interstate 57 is a project many Southern Illinois communities have embraced since U.S. Rep. Ken Gray first proposed it in the 1950s. It impacts almost every Southern Illinois town, even those without exits off the expressway.

"One that was a very good one was getting the I-57 corridor for six lanes from Mount Vernon to Marion," Mount Vernon Mayor Mary Jane Chesley said. "I know John Bradley (D-Marion) was helpful in getting that coordinated. When you get the mayors together, that adds strength for a project to become reality."

Connect SI, which was Glenn Poshard's vision to bring high-speed Internet to all of Southern Illinois, including its rural areas, is another example of how the region pulled together with one voice and mission.

“If you have high-speed Internet, you can do a lot of business virtually anywhere…That led to the creation of the Connect SI Foundation and so a number of activities have taken place through that,” Harfst said. 

School rivals

Sometimes the obstacles to cooperation have less to do with dollars and cents than pride and school spirit.

Natural rivalries, like Du Quoin and Pinckneyville and Carbondale and Marion, can prevent communities that probably have more in common with each other than with other communities in the region from cooperating together on projects.

"We define that relationship in a destructive manner and not in a constructive manner," Duncan said. "If there is a greater sense of shared success and a greater sense of shared loss, I think that would go a long way to those communities getting to the point where they can work together."

Du Quoin is seeking to be one of 22 Illinois cities to be approved for a medical marijuana cultivation plant. Pinckneyville is seeking the same thing. 

Duncan said while Du Quoin is competing against Pinckneyville, the plant going in either city will help the other.

"If the TUMS plant in Pinckneyville closes, that's a terrible thing for Pinckneyville, that's a terrible thing for Du Quoin," Duncan said. "If something opens in Pinckneyville, if a coal mine opens or a plant opens, that's good for all of us."

Butler said those geographical rivalries don't rear their head as often as they used to.

"I think, fortunately, most of the communities now recognize their best efforts should be made to cooperate and work together," Butler said. "I don't consider we are in competition with other communities in our area. We have to be in competition with Paducah, Evansville, Cape Girardeau and St. Louis communities."

Often times, a business moving into a community not only helps the tax base of that community, but it provides jobs to people living in neighboring communities.

"If you can bring an expansion of Aisin to Marion, that's good for not just Marion, but for Williamson County, and I would argue for all of Southern Illinois because if you look and see where the people at Aisin live, they might live in Marion, Carbondale and perhaps Mount Vernon," Harfst said.

As an example, Continental Tire, which employs more than 3,000, has a regional impact extending far beyond its location in Mount Vernon. Chesley said Continental employs people from 110 zip codes. She said the interstate makes this possible, making many residents of Southern Illinois not as isolated as they used to be.

STAR bonds

Mount Vernon and Marion sparred with each other in 2010 over Marion's designation as a STAR bond district. Mount Vernon argued the incentives offered to Marion created an uneven playing field for other Southern Illinois cities.

"I think STAR bonds was a learning lesson for me especially," Chesley said. "I learned to take a better look at our community -- how we can become a more viable area for increased industry."

Butler claimed the STAR bonds created unfounded fear in Mount Vernon officials.

"They were convinced if the STAR bond project were to take off in Marion, for some reason it would be detrimental to Mount Vernon," Butler said. "This was spurious thinking, if there was any thinking at all."

The spat hasn't left any lingering effects, with both Chesley and Butler cooperating together in the Southern Illinois Mayoral Association.

"There's no animosity," Butler said. "I can applaud her for her efforts, and I think she respects us for our efforts. Even though Mount Vernon is 42 miles away, I don't consider that we're in competition with them."

Economic engine of SIU   

SIU is uniquely positioned to be an economic engine for the region, providing jobs, expertise and spending money throughout the region, President Randy Dunn said.

Dunn recognizes not only SIU’s potential, but the school’s responsibility to the region.

“If you look around the nation, the greatest state universities in the country are those that are closely aligned to the place that they serve,” Dunn said. “You don’t find many institutions in our sector that achieve success without becoming stewards of place.”

Dunn, who is in his fifth month as president, is quietly connecting with individuals and groups to “build up his knowledge base” on potential regional work and any role the university can play.

Dunn said he has been visiting with community colleges in the area to lay the groundwork for a regional agreement on educational attainment.

“At the heart of being able to do so much of this is having relationships established with other people, with other entities, and that takes time,” Dunn said.

“It takes an investment of your time and the building of trust before anything can happen, and the university is needing to invest in some of that right now, so that’s why I’m hitting the road and talking to a lot of people about what is the right plan for the region. It can’t come from one person.”

Butler looks forward to a spirit of cooperation, hoping his community and others can work with SIU as equal partners.

“It will never work if the university would say we’ve got intelligence, experience and we’re going to tell you how to do things,” Butler said. “That dog won’t hunt. We can sit down together and explore what we have together. As far as I’m aware, President Dunn is amenable to that.”

Economic organizations

Several organizations have been created to bolster economic cooperation among communities, including the Regional Economic Development Corporation, the Carbondale Economic Development Center, the Southern Illinois Mayoral Association and the Southern Illinois Metropolitan Planning Organization.

But even these groups have struggled to garner cooperation. When the Regional Economic Development Center was developed, agreement could not be made with Carbondale to join the group that includes mostly Williamson County communities.

“Whoever was among the powers that be wanted Carbondale to be the big dog on the block, wanted more or less to run the show and, of course, that wasn’t going to happen, so they did not become part of the organization,” Butler said. “We have no problem cooperating with anybody -- Carbondale, Mount Vernon or the devil himself -- if it’s going to be for the benefit of the community or area.”

While cooperation makes sense in theory, it can become messy in application. Developing a regional mindset would help the region complete greater and more significant projects than any one community can do separately.

But ongoing cooperation does not just happen because a few people like how it sounds in theory.

It requires purposeful leadership with a regional vision that can be communicated in a way that communities in Pope County and Perry County and Jackson County and Jefferson County and all points in between can embrace, seeing how it benefits not just the region, but its own residents.

"If you think of something like Rend Lake, how many different communities had to come together around that because they're getting water off the conservancy district and because of the economic development that came from that," Dunn said.

"Without the spark plug of the funding on the front end, we've got to ignite that same kind of passion and willingness to sit down and think about some big things. If we can do that, then we've got a story to tell and maybe that can give us an opening to get some from various quarters when there's an opportunity."



Chris Hottensen is the entertainment and features reporter for The Southern Illinoisan.

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