Metropolitan Chicago can thrive only to the extent that businesses operating here compete successfully in global and national markets. Businesses base their strategies on state and local conditions, which determine access to high quality inputs like talent, capital, infrastructure, and research. Economic development programs therefore seek to improve the region’s business environment and foster sophisticated ways of competing. Given limited public resources, communities are looking for strategies that can make a significant impact on their growth and prosperity.
The State of Illinois and many local governments offer financial incentives to subsidize revenue-generating development and attract or retain specific businesses. These incentives can take many forms like tax preferences, abatements, and credits; non-tax cash grants and loans; or other subsidies like infrastructure investments, training and education subsidies, fee waivers, and land write-downs. Businesses can capitalize on competition among neighboring states and localities while drawing on the same labor pool, supply chain, natural resources, and other assets that actually underpin their profitability. As a result, poorly coordinated or targeted economic development incentives result in public expenditures for limited economic gain. Direct investment and financial incentives remain the prevailing way that many state and local governments seek to attract businesses. Yet this strategy is no match for the complex demands of economic growth and resilience, which depend on the formation and expansion of businesses native to the region.
[GRAPHIC TO COME: An illustrated graphic will show the variety of factors that contribute to local economic development.]
Traditional economic development tactics are under more scrutiny as stakeholders explore enhancing the assets that represent our region's competitive advantage. Strengthening the state and region’s human capital, infrastructure, fiscal conditions, and regulatory or tax systems could provide broader benefits to our business environment and resilience.
Performance-based approaches can help make the best use of limited resources by using data and stakeholder feedback to improve decision making. However, the State of Illinois and many local governments provide incentives without adequately monitoring their performance relative to planning and economic goals. Moreover, governments often structure these incentives as tax expenditures -- special exclusions, exemptions, deductions, or credits that may appear to lower tax revenues rather than increase spending. As a result, incentives often fall outside the scrutiny of a regular appropriations or budgeting process, where governments can otherwise weigh trade-offs and make transparent decisions to extend, improve, or terminate a particular incentive.
The state and local governments should prioritize public investments toward policies and programs that contribute meaningfully to the region’s economic competitiveness. Communities can make development decisions and investments that support regional and local goals, and research provides further insight into targeting how, where, and when to apply incentives effectively. Such instances may include projects that increase higher-wage employment, reinvest in infill sites, leverage existing infrastructure assets, remediate brownfields, or encourage mixed-use development. Improving the use of economic development incentives will require the State of Illinois to take a stronger leadership role in aligning resources to ensure strategic planning and rigorous analysis.
The following describes strategies and associated actions to implement this recommendation.