Williamson County enjoys growth in businesses

Monday, December 23, 2002

MARION, Ill. -- Violent labor disputes at local coal mines in the 1920s left the area surrounding this Southern Illinois city with the nickname Bloody Williamson County.

These days, long after most of the mines shut down, multimillion-dollar industrial buildings sprout from the Williamson prairie, bringing jobs at a pace unusual for the poorest part of the state, according to the Illinois Department of Employment Security.

"We're on a shooting-star trajectory," said Michael Vessell, an economist for IDES who has tracked labor trends in Southern Illinois for 35 years. "We're seeing a boom here," he said.

Williamson, whose jobless rate has for nearly 30 years topped statewide averages, gained 800 non-farm jobs from October 2001 to October 2002, by far the most among the state's 102 counties, according to IDES data. Only 11 counties saw any net gain over the period, and most saw net losses.

Low jobless rate

The new jobs helped lower the county's latest jobless rate to an unprecedented 4.7 percent, Williamson's lowest since as far back as data specific to counties started being recorded in 1975, according to the agency. The statewide jobless rate is today 6.7 percent.

The good fortune is attributable to a collection of companies enticed to move here or expand due to cheap land, tax breaks and the promise of available workers, according to Tom Wimberly, executive director of a local economic-development group.

The companies -- including Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois, Japanese manufacturer Aisin USA and Medicaid processor Wisconsin Physicians Group, among several others -- have built in the last 18 months sprawling complexes where land had stood unused for generations.

"'Boom' is the word for it," said Wimberly. "We're trading land for jobs."

Wimberly's group, Regional Economic Development Corp., or REDCO, borrowed $2.7 million from the U.S. Agriculture Department and the Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs last year to buy 289 acres of land to sell or give away to lure employers, he said.

REDCO officials plan to pay back the debt by selling at market rates parcels that it doesn't give away, he said.

Aisin bought the 43 acres it needed for its spacious factory from REDCO for $1 an acre, optioned 30 acres more, and enjoyed tax breaks and other state grants and loans, Wimberly said.

A spokeswoman for Aisin did not return a telephone call from The Associated Press.

The Aisin factory, which produces parts for automakers, employs about 100 people now and is hiring more, Wimberly said.

Successful businesses

Success breeds success. Across the street from Aisin, the new, $43 million Heartland Regional Medical Center prepares to take its first patients.

Down the road, The Home Depot is marking its first month in business.

A short drive to the east, Williamson County Airport is spending $4 million to lengthen its runway to accommodate its growing air-cargo business.

Around Interstate 57, property values soared from $25,000 to $30,000 an acre two years ago to around $100,000 an acre today, said Doug Bradley, a commercial-property developer.

"I think it's obvious," said Russ Bejmovicz of Carterville, Ill., as he waited recently for his lunch to be served at the new, stand-alone Golden Corral restaurant. "Things are getting better."

Trading land for jobs is particularly easy in an area whose major employers have closed in recent years, leaving scores of people looking for work, Vessell said.

The state's Southern Illinois-based coal industry, which employed more than 18,000 people a decade ago, employs fewer than 4,000 today.

The mine closings left something companies look for when relocating: unemployed, available workers.

That was a factor when Blue Cross decided to build a $15 million, 75,000-square-foot building in Williamson County, said Robert Kieckhefer, a company spokesman.

Now if only coal companies would re-enter the Illinois market, "we'd be sitting pretty," said Vessell.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: