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Our View: Time to create a new enterprise zone

If the goal is to bring more manufacturing and industrial jobs to DeKalb County, creating a new enterprise zone here is a good idea.

But it will require a committed effort from local officials, and even then, there are no guarantees of success.

The DeKalb County Board has been through this process once before on a more limited scale. In 2009, County Board members voted to expand an existing zone in Mendota to include the Monsanto operation in Waterman. That effort came at a cost of an estimated $25,000 a year in state utility taxes for eight years, but also spurred Monsanto to invest $20 million to update and expand its operation.

The contentious debate at the time was thought to have been less about enterprise zones and more about hard feelings toward Monsanto.

There are almost 100 enterprise zones in Illinois, but aside from the island that serves Monsanto, there is not one in DeKalb County.

That means that there are several areas around the state that have a competitive edge on our area when it comes to attracting new industry, or encouraging businesses to expand their operations. Enterprise zones are designated by the state of Illinois in collaboration with local governments. They make new and existing businesses eligible for tax incentives that encourage creation of new jobs and retention of existing jobs.

Some criticize the use of these zones as another form of corporate welfare, facilitating more givebacks to big business. Illinois’ fiscal disaster is well documented, and some would say that there’s no need to extend even more tax breaks to businesses.

The response is that government should see payback in the form of job creation and retention and more stable, healthier communities. That’s a trade-off worth accepting.

To put DeKalb County on a level playing field with competing communities around the state and the country, local economic development officials plan this year to create an application for a new local enterprise zone. They have hired a consulting firm to help in the development of a plan and representatives of local governments will meet today with DeKalb County Economic Development Corp. officials to talk about what a proposal might look like.

Creating zone boundaries will be a challenge. Communities from Kingston to Sandwich no doubt would like a shot at benefiting from the incentive program. There will have to be cooperation and collaboration on drawing boundaries that are not only fair but also will pass the requirements of state regulators.

There are many vacant industrial sites available in DeKalb County. The critical question is, which areas should be targeted to benefit the county’s workforce as a whole?

Applications for new enterprise zones are due by Dec. 31. After that, they will be reviewed by the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, and then selections will be made by a panel appointed by the governor.

If DeKalb County is awarded a new enterprise zone, it will have to appoint someone to manage it and keep records, so that the public can see the results over time.

There are no guarantees of approval or of new development.

Bringing new jobs to the area should be the goal of people at every level of government, however, and they should work collaboratively on this project, which could further that goal.

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