Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Invisible Hand Plays in Peoria

Well, Peoria, you had a good run.  Face it, there's really no reason that your city should exist.  Somehow, you managed to attract a major manufacturer, which led to a nice long streak of moderate success with a minor league affiliate, a mid-tier university, and a high school boys basketball powerhouse.  As Peorias go, Peoria, Illinois is a solid #2 in the country. But there's no organic reason for Peoria to exist in the 21st Century.

Sure, Peoria, back in the 19th Century, using water resources for milling grains was needed. Plus, being near the farms where grain was grown so it could be processed was also a good idea.  Not needed so much anymore.  And, if Wikipedia is accurate, then that high quality Illinois River water would be a boom to the distilling industry, until Chicago reversed the course of the Chicago River, dug a canal, and started shipping its sewage your way.

Really, you got lucky that farm equipment was expensive to ship when everything was transported to farms by horses.  It made sense to manufacture equipment close to where they would be used when the supply chain is so slow.  So, again, kudos!  Caterpillar got lucky, especially when they realized they could make money by modifying farm equipment into construction equipment to build roads, right when Federal funds for road construction became more widely available.  Peoria hit a boom!

But with the boom, there comes the bust.  Of course, the bust occurred much slower than the boom. When the roads were built, then replaced with Interstates, and the supply chain became faster and more global, then why build things in Peoria?  Especially when the demand for construction equipment is higher in developing countries than in a country that is already developed?  What makes you special?

Maybe if Cat had really invested in its people, things would be different. Maybe if executives started as front-line managers, worked their way through the the company, and then joined the C-Suite after 30-40 years of service, then maybe attracting executives wouldn't necessitate a move to Chicago.  And, I know, it's got to bother you that billionaires look at you and say, Nope, not Peoria. You could have tried to cultivate a business community that included more than one company, but you never really did, and no one was going to move to you, not with major universities in other cities - those same universities where the best and brightest of your high school grads went, and the then never came back. In this negative feedback loop where anyone who can leave leaves, how much longer was it before Caterpillar left for Chicago?  What makes you special?

This is a tough love post, I know, but if you can't answer that question of what makes you special, then the free market is not going to give out jobs and favors to you. You have to have an advantage. Chicago has these advantages, sure, in the number of other large companies nearby so Caterpillar can poach talent as needed, and executives can look at them and breathe a sign of relief that they aren't moving to Flint, Michigan (water still undrinkable). There's still a reason that Chicago exists - mostly through fresh water, world-class schools, research hospitals, and the logistics of having to move things around the Great Lakes means roads and railroads needing to hit the southern edge of Lake Michigan. Not you. Not Peoria.  As the economy moves into a new, global world, what makes you special?  And, your manufacturing jobs - the people who hold them - what makes them special?  What can they do that can't be done in any small city anywhere in the world.

No one is guaranteed the right to have a corporate HQ in your town. And, as Caterpillar continues its move out of Peoria, and property values fall as more people move out than move in, you better answer the question of what makes you special, or else there may be no Peoria left.

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