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A conversation with. Jack Lavin, Director, Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity

"We led the nation in monthly job growth in April and July 2006. Our unemployment at the end of the year was the lowest in Illinois' recorded history."

Apr/May 07
Q. How is Illinois' employment sector faring?
We led the nation in monthly job growth in April and July 2006. Our unemployment at the end of the year was the lowest in Illinois' recorded history. From January 2004 through 2006, Illinois has added almost 158,000 jobs, which is more new jobs than any Midwest state. Over the past four years, the state has invested nearly $63 million to advance the skills of nearly236,000 Illinois workers at almost 6,000 companies.

Q. What economic sectors are driving the economy?
Exports is one area of economic growth, with products including machinery and equipment, chemicals, and food processing. Exports were up 18.7 percent in 2005 and up 19 percent in 2006. Since 2002, growth was up by 64 percent. Illinois' total exports for 2005 represented a $5.6 billion increase from 2004, one of the largest increases by any state and the largest percent increase among the other states in the top eight.

Q. What about foreign investment in Illinois?
We have nine trade offices around the world, and have gone on 34 trade missions in the past four years, the most in Illinois' history. On our reverse-trade missions, we take trade representatives from the consulates in Chicago and bring them to different parts of the state to see our quality of life firsthand. We rank fifth in the nation in attracting foreign direct investment.

Q. What is one of your strongest growth targets?
Biotechnology industries, including agricultural biotechnology, biodiesel, food processing, ethanol and energy are strong. We hosted the BIO 2006 international life sciences conference and broke all attendance records, with 20,000 people attending from across the United States and 62 countries. Governor Rod R. Blagojevich has already announced that BIO 2010 will also take place in Chicago, which is important since the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau estimated that BIO 2006 had a direct economic impact of almost $28 million. The conference showcased our universities and research institutions like the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, Argonne National Laboratory, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's Institute for Genomic Biology, the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research, University Technology Park at Illinois Institute of Technology, and the Illinois Medical District. A $1 million investment in the 1.5 million-square-foot Illinois Science + Technology Park will commercialize scientific research in Skokie, create 3,250 new jobs onsite, and create more than 10,000 ripple-effect jobs.

Q. What's the news on alternative fuels?
Illinois is one of the top corn and soybean producers in the world, and we are close to the river for water, so the infrastructure is ideal for either ethanol or biodiesel. We are the first state to completely eliminate the state sales tax on E-85 and biodiesel blends of 11 percent and higher ("B11"), dramatically increasing E-85 sales and creating the largest biodisel market in the nation. Two biodiesel and three ethanol plants were started last year.

Q. How has legislation encouraged new development?
One piece of legislation in 2006 focused on River Edge Redevelopment Zones to help redevelop brownfields near rivers in cities such as Aurora, Rockford, and East St. Louis. When we declare a River Edge Zone, companies are eligible for tax credits, exemptions and $20 million in new grant funding to support cleanup, remediation, and redevelopment efforts that lead to brownfield revitalization. Typically, these areas had manufacturing, and now they want to expand their commercial, residential, and recreational projects. In the current 2007 session, which ends on May 31, we are fighting to get a first-of-its-kind coal-fired power plant that produces near zero emission, FutureGen, a national Department of Energy project. Finalists for the plant are Matoon and Tuscola in East Central Illinois. As home to one of the nation's largest supplies of high-energy bituminous coal, we represent one-quarter of the nation's bituminous coal reserves.

Q. What are your proudest economic development wins for 2006-2007?
United Airlines' new headquarters has located in downtown Chicago. The company is moving 350 management employees to Chicago, consolidating several suburban facilities and creating an operations center on its campus. Also, ProLogis, a global provider of distribution facilities, is overseeing the expansion of the Joliet Arsenal Enterprise Zone, a $300 million project that is expected to create 3,000 new jobs in Will County. The firm plans to build as much as 10 million square feet of industrial space at the park to accommodate regional and super-regional distribution centers. One of the most exciting announcements was the new headquarters of the Big Ten Network in Chicago, a new TV channel devoted to Big Ten sports.