TO survive this recession, communities in trouble could study how Joliet rebounded from the last one. In 1983, unemployment in the town of 80,000 peaked at 26.5 percent, the worst in the nation. ``All of our industrial base was falling apart on us,'' recalls Frank Turk, who owns a furniture business there. Stories about Joliet in the Chicago press amounted to serialized obituaries for the collapsing steel town.
The Chamber of Commerce lacked the energy to launch a recovery initiative. Indeed, its economic development position had never been funded or filled. Other development groups in Will County, of which Joliet is the seat, produced all talk and no action.
Mr. Turk called together local businessmen who shared a do-or-die sense of mission. ``We had to find jobs for these people so they could support the people who [still] had jobs,'' recalls Robert Thornton, an accountant.
They formed what in 1986 became the Joliet/Will County Center for Economic Development. The CED is charged with marketing the county to new businesses, cutting red tape for existing ones, and sparking initiatives ranging from beautification to education - whatever it takes to get companies to come and stay.
The United States has 20,000 such organizations. But the CED has achieved such good results - measured in corporate relocations, employment, and program innovations - that it was just named one of the top 10 for the second straight year. The honor was bestowed by Site Selection, a magazine published by the Atlanta-based Industrial Development Research Council.
``They've done an excellent job,'' agrees Eric Canada, of the Illinois state chamber of commerce.
Unemployment hit an all-time low of 5.4 percent during 1988, though as new residents were attracted faster than jobs were created, the rate rose to an average 6.5 percent last year. Staff members say the CED has influenced 13,000 of the 20,000 jobs created in Will County since 1985.
``People are floating into this office from all over the Midwest, trying to find out what we're doing,'' says Turk, a CED boardmember.
One thing they did in 1985 was recruit Ruth Fitzgerald to fill the vacancy in what then was Greater Joliet Inc. The one-man operation had a scant $100,000 budget and few results since 1982, when the Joliet businessmen created it to lure companies out of Chicago. Its departing executive recommended Ms. Fitzgerald as his replacement.
Fitzgerald had logged 19 years of economic development efforts in South Carolina. After hearing her ideas, ``there was no question about who we needed, whether we could afford her or not,'' Turk says. He calls Fitzgerald ``dynamite - in a class by herself.''
Her first step was to turn Greater Joliet Inc. into the CED and arm it with a professional staff and big-league budget. A four-year drive to raise money exclusively from private sources netted $3.3 million, exceeding the goal by $800,000.
The CED retained a public relations agency to raise the county's profile to an international level. The move paid off when the agency alerted Chemical Business magazine to Will County's hospitality to that industry. The resulting feature article interested Crosfield Chemicals, a subsidiary of Unilever. It bought an existing plant in the county, then brought in its US headquarters. A $20 million expansion is under way.
Landing Coilplus-Illinois Inc. was trickier. The Mitsubishi subsidiary was considering 14 Midwest sites for a steel-related factory. When Coilplus insisted that Will County spend $300,000 to improve the road to a potential site, agreement was instantaneous. But when it sought school tax abatements from the town of Plainfield, Fitzgerald said no.
``I told them I didn't think it was appropriate [to] take that away from education,'' she says. The embarrassed company agreed. ``You really have to understand the Japanese'' to be able to reject a demand and still get their business, she says.
Coilplus opened in Plainfield in 1988. It employs 75, serves eight states, and has sales of $50 million. ``We haven't even begun to grow yet,'' says vice president Richard O'Brien. The company has also been ``a very involved corporate citizen,'' giving money to police for bulletproof vests and sponsoring Little League teams.
The CED also emphasizes retaining existing businesses. One company badly needed a curb cut on a state road, but the highway department told it in so many words to move to another state. The company easily could have, but contacted the CED instead. The needed permit came through within days.
In another case, Dywidag, a German maker of bridge components, was planning to expand and consolidate elsewhere and ``had just about packed their bags,'' Fitzgerald says. ``A lot of people would say, well, that's another one we lost. But that's not how we react.'' A CED trip to Germany resulted in Dywidag staying in Will County, and moving its US headquarters there from New Jersey.
The CED even prods local governments into action to ``improve the product'' by making the county more attractive. Joliet now diligently paints over gang graffiti on public property or private. Will County now has a judge assigned full time to building-code enforcement. Last year Joliet demolished 187 eyesores, some over objections of well-connected landowners.
A center for the homeless was moved a few blocks away from downtown, which will undergo a multimillion-dollar redevelopment to capitalize on the Des Plaines river waterfront and such architectural gems as the Rialto Square Theatre.
Turk thinks that the CED's success comes in part from its political independence. Newly elected politicians can change the staff at some economic development groups, but the CED never misses a beat. And since its funding is private, it can't be pressured to steer business to any part of the county.
The CED's overall goal is to attract a mix of business, Turk says, ``so next time we have a recession like we had, the whole place doesn't shut down.''
One of a series of occasional articles on life in the United States.