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*Originally published in Crain’s Chicago Business

Illinois has a plan to boost economic development, and it’s working

Historically, Illinois hasn’t had a great economic reputation. What changed?

The business community turned its nose up at Illinois for years, and rightly so. That’s because on nearly every fiscal metric, Illinois was nothing short of abysmal. But our economic ecosystem today is hardly recognizable from years past. Now, our bill backlog and all short-term debts are eliminated. Illinois has received nine credit rating upgrades in a row and the state is operating under its fifth balanced budget with consistent surpluses. With Illinois now on strong financial footing, we are able to prioritize an economic development strategy in a way we never could before. It’s time to reintroduce Illinois and set the record straight on why this is the place businesses want to be.

Are businesses taking notice of this momentum?

Absolutely. More and more companies are making pro-Illinois decisions, evidenced by the increase in business expansion or relocation projects from 487 in 2022 to 552 in 2023, according to Site Selection. We ranked #2 in the nation for corporate expansions and relocations for the second year in a row.

Businesses also understand value — that you get what you pay for. Illinois offers a large, skilled workforce of over six million people, half with bachelor’s degrees or higher. Illinois’ astounding 244 higher education institutions are among the best in the world. Beyond that, our community college system is the third largest in the nation. That means Illinois is providing customized training to students of all ages to ensure they gain the skills that are most in demand now. Put all of this together, and you have an extremely robust pipeline of talent at the ready to support this growth.

Beyond the strength of the workforce, what else makes Illinois attractive as a business destination?

There are a host of factors that businesses consider, both for their bottom line and what matters most to their employees. For one, Illinois is at the center of it all: we are the only state where all the Class I railroads meet in two locations, O’Hare airport is one of the most globally connected airports in the world, we have the third largest interstate highway system in the U.S. and inland waterways that connect to the Great Lakes, the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. This matters because PWC estimates that, for many companies, logistics makes up around 10% of revenue. We also have quality sites, competitive incentives and a commitment from the top down to advocate for Illinois companies.

Plus, in CNBC’s Best States for Business rankings, Illinois moved from No. 6 to No. 2 for education and from No. 20 to No. 9 in the nation for cost of living. According to Axios, Chicago placed sixth for most desirable metro areas for college graduates. When it comes to quality of life for employees, Illinois is a great place to be.

How is Illinois staying competitive when it comes to new and emerging industries?

There is a lot of “quiet work” being done behind the scenes to ensure Illinois remains at the forefront of innovation. For example, thanks to strategic investments from the Governor back in 2019, Illinois is now home to four of the nation’s 10 quantum centers, the most of any state. Ranking second in the nation for producing Ph.D. graduates in quantum-related fields, we are poised to fulfill our promise as the quantum capital of the country and be at the forefront of a technology with enormous potential for solving real-world problems.

Electric vehicles are another example. Most recently, support from the state convinced Rivian, an American electric vehicle manufacturer, to pivot from Georgia and invest $1.5 billion in its operations here, creating hundreds of jobs when bringing their midsize SUV, R2, to market. Rivian chose to be in Illinois because of our ongoing partnership and commitment to building a future-ready workforce. We know that electric vehicles are here to stay, which is why the state is funding a new training academy co-located at Rivian’s facility that will offer a manufacturing apprenticeship program to local high schools.

The pipeline of projects we’re seeing today looks different from years past, which is a testament to the collaboration of our economic development partners in building infrastructure, making strategic investments, supporting workforce development and creating incentives that make our state attractive to CEOs across advanced manufacturing, life sciences, electric vehicles and beyond.

Who are some of the key players contributing to these positive trends?

Governor J.B. Pritzker’s administration has invested heavily in building what we call Team Illinois, an economic development ecosystem that includes the Governor’s Office, Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO), and Intersect Illinois, plus entities like the Illinois Board of Higher Education , which is doing great work building the workforce of the future. We also have fantastic partners in this space across the state — including World Business Chicago, P33 Chicago, the Illinois Manufacturers Association, our network of private sector companies, utility partners and others — working in lockstep with local economic development organizations across Illinois to aggressively pursue new business. Our leadership and legislative partners in the Illinois House and Senate also play pivotal roles in this work and are providing the support we need to make this work possible. Companies want to know that states are making intentional, coordinated and strategic efforts at the highest levels to constantly improve their business climate, and that’s exactly what Team Illinois does day in and day out.

Illinois’ economic journey is characterized by resilience, innovation and ongoing transformation. But if one thing is clear, it’s the Illinois naysayers and doomsday predictors are increasingly out of step with the reality here on the ground. Illinois is back and open for business.