In the last six months, Jason Anderson has completed three requests for proposals from site locators asking about the availability of properties of 1,000 acres or more.
“They never tell you what the companies are,” explained Rochelle’s economic development director.
“They asked me everything from soup to nuts, about rail access, road access, water, sewer, electricity,” he said. Because the city was prepared, “we could check off all the boxes.”
Anderson hadn’t heard anything further until Monday when he got a call from a newspaper reporter in Chicago.
“The reporter said we are one of the sites in Illinois in the running for a Toyota/Mazda plant.” The reporter told him the other city is DeKalb.
Toyota and Mazda announced Aug. 4 that they are partnering in a joint venture to build a $1.6 billion auto assembly factory somewhere in the U.S. They are considering sites in 11 states, including Illinois. The plant will assemble 300,000 Toyota Corollas and Mazda crossover vehicles a year.
It’s not just Rochelle and DeKalb that are in the hunt for the car plant, though. Rockford is, too, said Nathan Bryant, president and CEO of Rockford Area Economic Development Council.
Bryant said the council is touting a 1,000-acre site near the short line railroad that runs alongside Falcon Road from Rockford to Flagg Center, where it connects to the BNSF Railroad.
Rockford has developed Rockford Global Trade Park near the short line and Chicago Rockford International Airport. I’m not certain the site for the proposed factory is in the trade park, but I’m pretty sure it’s in that general area.
Rockford also offers a workforce that is skilled in machining technology. Many components and parts for the auto industry are built in the immediate Rockford area and have been for decades. The airport is next door to the site, and shipping auto parts to assembly plants by air is becoming increasingly common among auto companies. RFD Director Mike Dunn said the airport is handling cargo flights with parts bound for the Fiat Chrysler plant in Belvidere.
Meanwhile, back in Rochelle, “We have everything Toyota/Mazda wants, access to mainlines of two class one railroads, two interstate highways, plus our (city-owned) short line that connects to both the BNSF and Union Pacific railroads, the Global III intermodal (truck to train) terminal, and the Rockford airport is 20 minutes away.” Anderson also touted Rockford’s skilled workforce as an asset beneficial to the region.
In 2016, Rochelle took out an option on a 1,000-acre site along its municipal railroad just south of the CHS ethanol plant on Steward Road. “We’ve already had the drainage study done, it’s just a matter of getting the proper permits,” Anderson said. “There’s also a 500-acre site south of the 1,000 acres that’s available.”
In preparation for attracting industries along its city railroad, the city has built a 2 million gallon water tower. Rochelle owns its electric company and has installed the electric capacity to power more factories.
The city is extending its 12-mile municipal railroad another 3 miles around the perimeter of the 1,000-acre site, with the ability to install spurs wherever industries want them.
This brings me to the question, what is regionalism? It’s all the rage to talk about working together in pursuit of common goals. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t creative competition within a region, though.
Bryant is paid to promote job growth in Rockford and Winnebago County. Anderson is paid to do the same thing in the Rochelle area, as are economic development directors in other parts of our region.
Bryant believes some level of competition within a region can be good for all. He explained it in terms of the software competition between Apple and Microsoft.
“Microsoft and Apple competed to see who could develop the better software. Because of that competition, both are far better companies today, and the software user ultimately benefits,” Bryant said.
“I’m working to bring something that benefits the region, and Jason is doing the same thing,” Bryant said. “Right now, I look at this situation as the region being in a national competition involving many states. Is Rochelle our partner? Yes. They’re in competition with us sometimes, but we’re both far more in competition with other states than with each other.”
Here’s what I think. If, and it’s a big if, Toyota/Mazda picks a site in northern Illinois as a finalist, then we all need to vigorously work to promote the site, be it in Rockford, Rochelle or DeKalb.
Chuck Sweeny: 815-987-1366; firstname.lastname@example.org; @chucksweeny