BLOOMINGTON — Under the banner of “BN Advantage,” community leaders are working together to diversify the Bloomington-Normal economy and get the word out about the advantages of living, working and doing business in the Twin Cities.
Those advantages include the community's central location along major transportation routes, a well-educated workforce and a robust quality of life, including its universities and health care system, say those behind the initiative.
“How do we continue to build on these pillars?” asked Colleen Kannaday, president of Advocate BroMenn Medical Center and Advocate Eureka Hospital.
Rather than an actual entity, “BN Advantage is a strategy to advance growth and economic diversity,” explained Kannaday, who has been part of the leadership council since its inception.
It's made up of “a broad group of diverse leaders that are very committed to the community,” she said.
That such a diverse group — representing the public and private sectors, nonprofits, education from K-12 through post-secondary, government and business — can be brought together for a single cause is another “advantage," say leaders.
It's rare to have all the players working together as they do here, said Zach Dietmeier, director of marketing and communications for the Economic Development Council.
“Other communities don't always have that,” he said.
Charlie Moore, McLean County Chamber of Commerce president and CEO, said, “How do we diversify our economy? That's the biggest overarching goal.”
But attracting new business is only part of that goal. Retaining businesses and retaining talent is another part.
Each year, about 4,500 college graduates get their degrees here — then most leave town, noted Mike O'Grady, interim director of the EDC.
“They would be less likely to live somewhere else if they had a job available here,” said O'Grady.
Efforts are underway to capture the entrepreneurial spirit of those recent graduates and others.
“A lot of college grads today are entrepreneurs,” noted Kannaday.
Five working groups are tackling different parts of the strategy: marketing, quality of life and place, entrepreneurship, workforce development and indicators/metrics.
The opening of the Small Business Development Center at Illinois Wesleyan University is part of the effort.
“The work that they're doing daily has been very impressive,” said Moore. “How do we allow them to grow?”
In addition to looking for ways to expand the capacity of the Small Business Development Center, O'Grady said, “We're working with both universities to try to start a business incubator.”
Also under discussion is partnering with Peoria, which has a successful network of angel investors, to expand its investor network into Bloomington-Normal.
Moore said, “Bloomington-Normal has been successful for so long, we take things for granted. … We have to be proactive rather than reactive.”
He added, “That's how it all ties together with a big red bow.”
Kannaday said, “We try to be focused on creating our own destiny in Bloomington-Normal and McLean County and not leaving it to chance.”
One way those involved are creating the community's destiny is by identifying gaps in essential skills sought by employers and trying to fill those gaps.
Moore said employer involvement is needed not only to identify skills gaps, but also to provide mentorships, internships and on-site experiences.
An online mentorship program aimed at seventh- to 12th-graders is under consideration to help them understand career options and opportunities as well as what kinds of classes they should be taking, said Moore.
The STEM initiative to get students interested in careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics also is aimed at addressing those gaps.
A program development and alignment committee is focused on creating pathways that would start in junior high and lead to jobs in industries that will grow in the Bloomington-Normal area. The first such pathway is expected to be in the information technology area.
One purpose of collaboration among a variety of organizations is to avoid duplication of effort, said Kannaday.
Another aspect is building the "BN brand" that includes sharing positive stories about the community, added Moore.
Many of these stories about the people, businesses and community are posted at www.bnadvantage.com. Subjects include the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, businesses such as Beer Nuts and Destihl brewery, the community's ties to historic Route 66 and the ease of commuting.
The next steps include compiling statistics and economic indicators for the area, gathering financial and human resources and “telling the positive stories of what's going on in our community,” said Kannaday.
“Everybody has a stake in this whether they know it or not,” said Dietmeier.