Tumultuous Economy Can’t Stop Boone County

Rural in the north, industrial in the south and booming wherever you look, this slice of land between Rockford and Chicagoland is making good progress, in spite of a pandemic.

Its wide-open spaces and major thoroughfares have long made Boone County a natural pass-through amidst heavy development in Rockford and the Chicago area. But make no mistake: This county of 53,450 people is a mighty player in the northern Illinois economy. With its combination of industry and agriculture, this county’s major employers have capitalized on the Rockford area’s manufacturing and logistical strengths. At the same time, it’s a place of choice for families who live, work and play within its borders.

Despite the uncertainties that plague our nation’s economy right now, Boone County is posting plenty of good news lately. To find out what’s driving these positive turns, we met up with leaders from Growth Dimensions, Boone County’s nonprofit economic development council. Heather Wick, business enterprise manager, and John Wolf, board president, are not only passionate about their hometowns but they’re also ardent supporters of this region’s potential.

What are some of Boone County’s competitive advantages for business?

Wick: Belvidere is on U.S. Highway 20, and Interstate 90 runs right through our county, so there’s easy access for anybody who needs to transport goods. We’re so close to the Chicago Rockford International Airport, and we’re within an hour-and-a-half of three major airports: Chicago O’Hare, Midway and General Mitchell, in Milwaukee. We also have a Union Pacific rail that cuts through Belvidere.

Wolf: Boone County has a tradition of stable employment, hardworking people and multigenerational business ownership. Look at the Manley family, the Wolf family, and the Funderburg family. There are an awful lot of other second and third generations that have worked very hard to make Boone County a good place to live, work and do business.

Wick: There’s a very different feel here. It’s a little less chaotic than the major metropolitan areas. We have a low crime rate. Taxes are lower than a lot of other places, and we have two good school systems with solid graduation rates.

Wolf: And consider your proximity to three colleges: Rock Valley College, Rockford University and Northern Illinois University.

What strengths are there in the rural north?

Wick: The southern part of the county is more industrial and the north is busy agriculturally. They support each other very well.

Wolf: This is one of the most productive and fertile land masses in northern Illinois. It’s tremendous for corn, soybeans and winter wheat. Dairy is not as strong as it once was, but we also have a thriving dairy community.

Wick: I would even go further to say that some of our farmland is the best in the world. You get a little farther south into DeKalb County, and they truly have the best in the world. We have tremendous crop yields.

Wolf: And don’t forget about Garden Prairie Grain, Central Grain and The DeLong Co. These grain handlers are a very important part of the Boone County economy and our farms.

It’s been a challenging year for all kinds of businesses, so what would you say is the current state of Boone County’s economy?

Wick: We’re seeing a lot of good things. We have a General Mills plant that has seen huge increases in their production line and capital investments over the past year. They’re starting to produce Fruit by the Foot here in Belvidere. They’re adding a sugar silo. So, that’s been a huge contributor to the city and the county. We also have Dairy Farmers of America, which used to be called Dean Foods, and we continue to see increases in their production lines. During this pandemic, everyone’s been hit so hard, but we’re encouraged to look at the northern part of the county and the sheer amount of visitors we get at places like Edwards Apple Orchard and the Lindberg Pumpkin Patch.

Wolf: Housing starts are up. Talking to the county treasurer and the assessor, I’ve heard property values have gone up roughly 10% over the past year or so, and along with that the tax base is growing – which is a good thing. We have been very active with Growth Dimensions and the Northern Illinois Land Bank to get properties back on the tax base. There are plats that were abandoned after the 2008 downturn, and those are getting filled. That’s a wonderful thing.

Wick: We saw unemployment pretty high during the pandemic, and I believe we were somewhere around the 16% mark, but we have gone down since then to 7.2%. That’s a positive thing.

Wolf: We’ve also seen infrastructure projects. That’s important not only for business but because a big part of our workforce comes from outlying counties. When you have employers like Stellantis, General Mills, Atlas Cold Storage, and many of the producers you find out on Newburg Road, you’re going to need people from the outside.

Wick: The latest numbers show that, within about a 45-miute drive time there are about 780,000 people in the workforce. That’s a huge pool.

What other metrics are you watching, and what do they say about Boone County?

Wick: Our sales tax revenue continues to increase. The second thing we look at is property tax rates and the equalized assessed value (EAV) – the value of your home. The EAVs of homes have increased 10%, but the tax rate is staying relatively the same. We also look at capital investments. How much are businesses spending to start up, to remodel, to expand? And then we track what dollar amount that produces for our sales tax and property tax. Our most recent report showed improvements have produced about $1.2 million in new property taxes in the last five years.

Wolf: When I was a car dealer, I looked at building permits, housing starts and sales taxes all the time. In a county as small as Boone, the big-ticket purchases like cars and trucks make a huge difference on sales taxes. When that’s on the upswing, everyone is doing better.

What are some of the big developments happening right now, and what’s in the pipeline over the next 12 months or so?

Wick: I would say the biggest, most exciting thing that’s happening is the Rock Valley College Advanced Technology Center (ATC). Everybody in Boone County is excited. It’s our chance to shine and show everyone what Boone County is made of. We’ll be welcoming people from throughout the region to learn skills and trades. It was scheduled to open in January, but with the supply chain interruption we’re still waiting to see when it officially opens.

Wolf: We’ve also been active with foodservice companies. Logistics makes such a difference, and there’s an awful lot of land available for development along our major corridors. Every day we have planes flying overhead from Amazon. That’s growing, and it’s a big employer in the area. A lot of people in Boone County work at Amazon and the airport. I know AAR just landed a huge contract to service planes for United Airlines. It’s going to have more employment opportunities for Boone County.

Just to refresh readers, what is Rock Valley’s ATC and what is its main goal?

Wolf: It means Advanced Technology Center, and it is a community-based education center that’s especially aimed at manufacturing. Graduates will be able to walk into most any business and start working right away.

Wick: Programs starting out will be CNC machining, welding, mechatronics and industrial maintenance. Down the line we hope they’ll also bring the truck driving school. Our society has been so focused on the idea that college is where you need to be, and you’ve got to get a bachelor’s degree. But now the workforce is feeling pain because you have lots of people with a bachelor’s degree but they’re not qualified to do something like fix your plumbing. So, the ATC will produce people who can do skilled and trade jobs where only a little training or certification is needed. There are so many places that are looking for skilled labor right now. The ATC is meant to help produce those candidates. The facility will also help businesses to upskill their employees. That’s a positive.

Employment is always a concern, and right now Boone County has an unemployment rate around 6.8%. Yet we’re also seeing employment shortages. What’s going on?

Wolf: I think we all wish we had the answer. Whether it’s furniture stores, fast food restaurants, or any of our producers like R&D Thiel, Atlas Cold Storage, everyone on Newburg Road, they all have help wanted signs. I hope it will help having the Advanced Technology Center. Not every child coming out of high school has to go to a four-year college. The debt that’s incurred is hard on a lot of young people. We have a tremendous asset in Rock Valley College.

Wick: And this last year, Boone County became what’s known as a 60 by 25 Network community. That means our goal as a county is to have 60% of our high school graduates obtain a bachelor’s degree, an associate degree or a certification by 2025. We’re working with the school districts to help seniors get internships at local businesses. If we can do a grow-your-own approach and keep our kids here, I think that’s fantastic. We’re seeking manufacturers that want to help.

Have you heard of any solutions that are attracting people to work?

Wick: It’s important to consider not just attracting but also retaining workers. We’ve seen companies trying hard not to overwork their staff. So, they’re accommodating people’s hours, later starts or days off, because the last thing they want to do is burn out an employee. Those adjustments help to retain people but they also make the business more attractive for new people.

Wolf: I’m a baby boomer, and I’ve seen an awful lot of people retiring around 65. Then again, there are also some people who are 70 years old and still working. This baby boomer generation is not disappearing, but it’s apparent that there are changes coming. At the same time, we’re seeing more work-from-home. I have a good friend who works in northern Wisconsin three weeks out of the month and comes back here one week a month. Instead of sitting at a terminal in Boone County, she can do her work and be here when she’s needed. We’re all adapting. The thing that worries me about this adaptation, though, is that more people are buying products online, rather than local retailers. That means there are tax dollars that aren’t staying here.

Where do you see growth opportunities next year?

Wick: Growth Dimensions has been focused on what’s called onshoring. That’s the idea of bringing producers onto U.S. soil who are currently manufacturing overseas. Not only will that help with efficiency and timelines, but it helps to avoid supply chain issues like you have right now. Thousands of cargo ships are sitting off the coast, waiting for things to come in – like microchips – and that’s impacting so many things, including car production. So, we want to help alleviate those pain points.

Wolf: I think electrical vehicles will be a bigger part of our economy in the future, and my understanding is the battery makers, the solar power panel makers, and other producers have been looking to expand in the Midwest. Logistically, we are a central place for shipping things.

Wick: We talk about what sectors are our biggest focus. Automotive, obviously, is one. And not just Stellantis (formerly known as Chrysler) but also all of its suppliers. The other is food processing. And we’re eyeing distribution/logistics-type businesses as well. With all of these initiatives, it takes time, resources and funds to see things come to fruition. We hope to see continued increases in investments into Growth Dimensions, which will allow us the ability to market and grow Boone County, its businesses and its economic vitality.

This is a challenging time for the economy. What do you see as Boone County’s biggest challenges?

Wick: The chip shortage is really affecting Stellantis. That’s had an impact on their production and their employment. The good news is they don’t think this current situation will affect future investments. It’s truly a matter of them needing components. Of course, vaccine mandates have employers nervous about their workforce, and workers nervous about their employment. And there’s also the worker shortage. They’re calling it ‘the great resignation.’ People are looking for something better or they want to start their own business.

Wolf: I would say there’s also a volunteer shortage. Generationally, you have a large group of people who are retiring or are soon to retire. Our community has lost several leaders who were involved for many, many years. I think one of the real challenges is getting this next generation and their children involved. Organizations are having a harder time recruiting members.

That’s a trend that’s been recognized for several decades now. How do we encourage more community service?

Wolf: It’s going to take younger people stepping up. My family has always stepped in when there’s a need. But my family has sold the car dealerships. The Funderburgs, who sold Alpine Bank, aren’t here the same way they used to be. I hope this next generation learns to step up and be more active, even just in their churches. I know church involvement is also down.

Wick: My kids get sick of hearing it, but I always tell them, ‘Don’t be part of the problem; be part of the solution.’ There are so many things my kids get volun-told to do. So, I think it really starts with having good mentors. I think sometimes they don’t realize the impact they can make, so sometimes you have to take the kids out and show them this is the positive change you made, and then maybe it’ll sink in that they want to keep doing this.

Wolf: I’ll give you a quote, and I had it in my office at the dealership for years. It’s by John Hope Bryant: ‘Yougain more by giving; you get more by building.’ I’ve tried to live that way for a long, long time.

Earlier, you mentioned Stellantis’ struggles with supply chains and shutdowns over the past two years. How is the plant complicating things in Boone County?

Wick: We’re all staying optimistic that production will gear up once the chip shortage and supply chains even out. For now, I think our biggest concern is for the employees and their families. They have the option to work at a different plant, so we see the potential for some people to leave our area. We hate to see that, but we understand.

Wolf: I always look at things regionally, because you have anywhere from 2,500 to 7,500 employees who are making a living and spending money in our community. They’re getting gas, they’re buying groceries, they’re going to the pharmacy. I can tell you from my time at the car dealerships that Chrysler employees buy vehicles at a discounted price. It was a huge part of our family’s dealership, as well as the dealerships owned by the Andersons in Rockford and the Brydens in Beloit. You have a great amount of sales tax that’s collected when those vehicles are sold.

Wick: I have to add that Growth Dimensions, the City of Belvidere, Boone County and a lot of state officials have been working on how to make Illinois more competitive, and how to attract and retain businesses. We’ve worked with Rep. Dave Vella and Sen. Steve Stadelman to push the newly signed Reimagining Electric Vehicles Act (REV). It will give more incentives to manufacturers that focus on electric vehicles. Hopefully, that will entice Stellantis to stay and invest here. I know our executive director, Pam Lopez-Fettes, put a lot of time and effort into that bill. We’re really excited the bill got passed and look forward to having more conversations with Stellantis.

Growth Dimensions spends a lot of time talking with business leaders and site selectors. From the people you talk with, what do they think Boone County needs most?

Wick: I think one of the main things that comes up is the availability of fast, reliable internet. We have locations that are great for build, but they don’t have fiber optic cable. Residents struggle, too. I have a very hard time working from home, not just because of my kids, but because my home in southern Boone County does not have reliable internet. The pain point that we want to overcome is to ensure that those people who want to work from home have the reliable internet they need. And it’s not just internet. It’s also about access to public water and sewer. That’s something we’ve been working with Four Rivers Reclamation District to improve in locations that border Winnebago and Boone counties. If you don’t already have utilities in place, businesses won’t pay to install them. They want utilities there already.

Wolf: You’ll have to add electricity to that list. We added the Irene Road interchange at the tollway, and that’sbeen a tremendous asset. Stellantis asked for that for years. But it’s not been developed much. That’s because, to get water, sewer and power from Belvidere or Winnebago County is a challenge we’ll have to overcome.

Wick: I live south of I-90, and to be able to run some fiber out there is extremely difficult. The problem is with the construction as you put utilities underneath the interstate. It holds up traffic. And, fiber’s not cheap.

Wolf: I live a mile off State Street, toward the western edge of Boone County, and we’ve had very unreliable internet there. We were relying on satellite.

Wick: We also need to look at disadvantaged areas and how we can bring reliable and affordable internet there, as well. There are so many students who couldn’t get it during the pandemic because their families couldn’t afford it.

Let’s look into our crystal ball. What do you see one year from now?

Wick: Wouldn’t we just love to say the pandemic is over? I don’t see the pandemic going away in the next year, but the county is coming together nonetheless. I hope to see more development along the Route 20/Irene Road corridor. We’d like to see some food distribution and logistics firms, and thanks to the REV bill Stellantis can ramp up production. I’d love to see continued attention on the Edwards Apple Orchards and the Pumpkin Patches, as well.

Wolf: I would say one of the real keys is continued excellence in education. The more we can grow our future leaders and workers, the more we can impact the employment rate. We need more people to give back to the community. People bring their kids here to be educated. They build a home, and an awful lot of people work here or commute to the suburbs. Look at the big buildings that have been built around Huntley, Ill., on the tollway. Weber grill, Wolf/Sub-Zero appliances, Amazon – there’s an awful lot that’s happening. Boone and Winnebago counties offer a lot for not nearly the cost of Chicago and the collar counties.

Wick: We’re both very passionate about Boone County. My kids are fifth-generation. My family came over here in the ’20s from Sweden and bought a farm, and we still have that farm. We have been really happy to see things change. We have 25% Hispanic population in the county, and 30-some percent in the city. It’s great to see those cultures intermix.

Wolf: We’re both glass-half-full people. You hear so many doom-and-gloom stories, but we try to talk about the facts of what’s really going on. We look at the things we can influence, as opposed to the things that are out of our control. I’m proud of Growth Dimensions and how we’ve been advocates for Boone County. We’re going to continue growing, and I hope to see the next generation come on board and make us even stronger.