Lee County: Business group not doing enough

Association defends record of attracting jobs

DIXON – Most phone messages get thrown out, but Lee County’s top economic development official frames a couple of them in his office.

One is from May 3, 2002, when John Thompson got information on the “done deal” with Rayovac.

The other is from March 24, 2006, about Raflatac coming to town.

Both manufacturers are in the Lee County Industrial Park, which the Lee County Industrial Development Association played a key role in setting up.

The two companies provided a combined 300 jobs for residents around the area, not just in Dixon, said Thompson, the association’s CEO since 1998.

But some Lee County officials say the group is focusing on Dixon at the expense of the rest of the county.

Lee County gives $10,000 a year to the association. Dixon contributes $26,000, while other towns pitch in a few thousand dollars combined.

The group administers a federally designated Enterprise Zone, which provides tax incentives to incoming businesses.

At a recent county committee meeting, County Board Chairman Jim Seeberg, R-Ashton, complained that the association does nothing for the county. Another board member, John Ferrone, R-Dixon, said it seemed as if Thompson came around only once a year to collect the $10,000.

That money isn’t scheduled to arrive at any particular time. In the past couple of years, Seeberg has been reluctant to approve the $10,000, even though it’s in the budget, said Rick Ketchum, chairman of the County Board’s Finance Committee.

“Jim keeps saying he’s not going to pay it,” Ketchum said.

Seeberg said the board decides whether to give the $10,000. As long as it’s in the budget, he said, the association will get it.

Asked when the group would get its money, he said, “I don’t know.”

The county’s budget year ends Nov. 30.

Ketchum, D-Amboy, said he supports paying the money because the county needs to follow through on its promise. But he said the association appears to focus on Dixon.

“We hear about the stuff that happens in Dixon,” Ketchum said. “But we don’t know what he [Thompson] is trying to do in the county that didn’t work out.”

Ketchum said he’d like to see Thompson get 10 minutes a month to speak to the County Board about what he’s working on.

“I’d like to give the guy a chance,” he said.

For now, Ketchum said, paying the development association for economic development services is better than doing nothing.

“If we come up with a better idea, plan or person, I would be in favor of jumping to that,” he said.

Thompson said the association “constantly” submits information to prospective companies, many of which are referred by the state.

In general, economic developers have low success rates because companies look at many places, Thompson said.

Companies will naturally go to areas with transportation and utility infrastructure that meet their needs, he said. In Lee County, that’s often Dixon, he said.

The Lee County Industrial Park is near Dixon’s interchange with Interstate 88. Thanks to $3 million in government investments, the park now has adequate water pressure for big companies, Thompson said.

“Yes, things happen at the interchange more than they would somewhere else,” Thompson said. “We don’t make decisions about where a project goes.”

He acknowledged that Dixon benefits more in the long term than outlying towns because workers eventually move closer to their jobs.

Seeberg is a member of the development association’s board, but he hasn’t been to a meeting in a while. Seeberg said Ketchum and the county’s zoning officer, Chris Henkel, will attend the meetings.

Years ago, the association got $20,000 a year from the county. But the county reduced that amount to $10,000 about 10 years ago because it advanced $68,000 to help with the development of the Lee County Industrial Park, Thompson said.

Accounting for the reduced amount, Thompson said, the association has more than paid back its debt to the county. But the county has yet to increase its annual allocation.

Thompson said he would like the county to increase its allocation back to $20,000.

“People can’t say that we’re doing anything but a stellar job administering the Enterprise Zone,” he said.

Ferrone, the County Board member who criticizes the association, said the county hasn’t seen any projects or extra dollars as a result of the group’s efforts.

Asked whether $10,000 for the association was worth it, Ferrone laughed.

“Say I laughed in the paper,” he said.