By Herb Meeker
News Report Staff
Craig A. Nielson is finding Effingham County the right fit after just three months on the job with the Effingham Regional Growth Alliance.
Nielson started in September as CEO and President of the organization dedicated to enhancing and expanding local commercial development. He came to the heart of the country after working for Hart Corporation that specialized in matching businesses with the right communities. His work on one project in Iowa helped match him to Effingham and eventually the Alliance.
“I had some ties with Agracel with a building project in Iowa. The Alliance was looking for someone as CEO and I got an endorsement from Agracel. My impression of Effingham is the same one many people get when they drive east along I-70. You see the Patterson and Midland States buildings and the Legacy Harley Barn and now there is the Workman Sports Complex, as well as all the other business development. All that had an appeal to me,” Nielson said.
His work prior to taking the helm of the Alliance demonstrated to him the business community here ranks high on community support. Nelson is originally from Arizona, but his career in economic development brought him regularly to the Midwest.
“This business community is the most philanthropic and involved in community affairs in this part of the state. They have some real go-getters and doers,” Nielson said of the Alliance members he works with.
Nielson’s Alliance office is on the second floor of the Effingham County Chamber of Commerce on Keller Drive. Soon after he arrived, he found out he was working on the top floor of the best Chamber of Commerce in Illinois. Being in the same building with Chamber CEO Norma Lansing and her staff is a great benefit.
“They work very hard and they are really exceeding expectations. Norma and I collaborate and have a monthly luncheon meeting to discuss ideas,” Nelson said.
When he arrived on the job, Nielson was introduced throughout the community by Dan Woods, who had headed the Alliance when it first started a few years ago in Effingham.
“Dan did a great job of laying the foundation for the Alliance. He helped me meet people and showed me how to work in this community. So I inherited a great base,” Nielson said. “I have been welcomed with open arms in every community.”
The two months have been a flurry of meetings and discussions on how to capitalize on Effingham’s placement at the nation’s transportation crossroads with the interstates and major railroads passing through the county.
His experience with Hart Corporation demonstrated that logistics help, but the human resources of a community are vital to drawing new businesses or convincing existing ones to invest in major expansion.
“That is how a small population can be a positive as long as the person coming in here can find the employment mix that is needed without upsetting the balance for industry here. You don’t want one company stealing away employees from others. You don’t rob Peter to pay Paul. That is not growth,” Nielson explained.
Quality of life is important for laying the ground work for economic development. Right now, housing is an issue, he said.
“Our apartment complexes are full. It is difficult to find new housing here. I’m working with developers to see what can be done. I’ve looked over the housing work they have done in Dieterich, too.” Nielson explained.
Millennials are the target group for community growth, whether they are newcomers or past residents coming back after surviving metro areas. They want the comfort of a small town, but something to do as well. That is where the Sports Complex, the Effingham Performance Center, the community festivals and other community projects come into play.
“We need to provide a lifestyle they want,” he said. “That’s why I tell people to please embrace change so we can grow in population and bring more jobs here.”
But Alliance’s goal is to preserve the small-town charm of Effingham County. That sits well with Nielson.
“When I worked with Hart, I fell in love with small town America,” he said.