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Madison County plots new economic direction

The industrial park in Illinois covers 2,300 acres. Developers say it is within 1,500 miles of 90 percent of the people in North America.
File Photo / Wayne Pratt
St. Louis Public Radio

Leaders in a Metro East County are taking a proactive approach to anticipated changes by the new administration in Washington, D.C. Massive infrastructure investments and re-working international trade deals are key parts of President Donald Trump’s blueprint and Madison County officials are trying position the area for growth under the potential new economic realities.

Although much of the overall plan is still short on specifics, Madison County is bringing together decision-makers, government officials, business executives and union leaders next month for the Model Innovative County, or M.I.C. Summit.

It is expected to have a key role in plotting the county’s direction.

“If this is our new future of American economics, then we will be the model innovative county,” said Kristen Poshard, chief deputy director of Madison County Community Development.

“We are going to not just look at trends, but we're going to look at long-term innovation."

She’s hoping for ideas on job creation, retention, affordable housing, keeping college graduates in the area and possibly becoming a technology hub. That would build on the area’s economy that has a history in manufacturing and logistics – which is the business of transporting good to customers.

A vital part of that sector is just off I-270 in Madison County. The Gateway Commerce Center is an industrial park with distribution warehouses for several big companies including Hershey, Amazon and Procter and Gamble.

“We have, I believe, over 55-hundred employees in Gateway Commerce Center,” Michael Towerman, a principal at Tristar Companies, which is the main developer of the park.

“We've been kind of down in the American Bottoms area developing Gateway, other people have been doing substantial development in other cities in Madison County."    

The approximate location of the Gateway Commerce Center in Illinois. It's about 15 miles from downtown St. Louis.
Credit Mapbox, OpenStreetMap
The approximate location of the Gateway Commerce Center in Illinois. It's about 15 miles from downtown St. Louis.

As the development continues, workers for a key player in another economic sector in Madison County wait for a rebound. The main operations at the U.S. Steel plant in Granite City have been idle for more than a year and hundreds of employees still face an uncertain future.

That is one of the reasons Poshard gives for organizing next month’s summit. She also wants to make sure the county’s overall economy will be ready for growth if many of President Trump’s plans become reality.

“What we have seen so far is he's not afraid to do some of the things that he said he's going to do,” she told St. Louis Public Radio.

“And when it comes to these trade agreements and these infrastructure dollars, our people in D.C. are saying it's going to happen.”

President Trump has been non-tradition since launching his successful and campaign and moving into the White House. So Madison County appears to be essentially placing an economic bet on a leader many consider to be unpredictable.

Poshard believes it’s worth the risk.

“If you're not aggressive and willing to take that risk, then you will have no reward for your county. In other words, no job creation,” she said.

Poshard became chief deputy director of  Madison County Community Development Chief in late 2016.
Credit Kristen Poshad | Madison County
Poshard became chief deputy director of Madison County Community Development Chief in late 2016.

“You have to take a risk. You have to believe somebody.”

That risk is one the minds of community and company leaders throughout the country as they figure out how they can move forward, but some observers say that should not prevent decisions from being made.

“The idea that you should just ignore it and just go ahead and wait until everything is resolved and then make decision is probably the wrong answer,” said Washington University Olin School of Business Senior Lecturer John Horn.

He closely links international trade and infrastructure when it comes to economic development planning.
But the decision-makers need to be careful. Horn has several questions they should consider address before moving ahead under new international trade structures, including:

  • Do you have the infrastructure in place to actually allow you to produce those goods and ship them all over the United States?
  • Do you have the educational infrastructure to create the human capital, the workers that can actually execute those?
  • Do you have the businesspeople who want to start those companies there? 
  • Do you have the knowledge to actually understand how to make those products and services?

Dealing with those questions will be among the issues Madison County leaders will hope to address when they hold the M.I.C. Summit April 6th and 7th in Edwardsville.

Follow Wayne on Twitter: @WayneRadio

Wayne Pratt is the Broadcast Operations Manager and former morning newscaster at St. Louis Public Radio.