CHAMPAIGN — In one of his first public events with a campaign team in tow, Mayor Don Gerard on Tuesday touted growth in Champaign during the last three years as evidence that the city is a leader in job development.
Positioned in the brand-new Hyatt Place hotel in downtown Champaign behind a placard that read "creating jobs in the city of Champaign" in all caps, Gerard said Champaign is a regional jobs leader and it took "tough political will" to do it.
His comments Tuesday came as the mayoral campaigning starts to get off the ground in advance of the April 2015 election. Gerard faces a growing field of contenders for his job: Council members Karen Foster and Deborah Frank Feinen and Champaign park board president Joe Petry have all said they are interested and have begun raising campaign funds.
And while job growth in Champaign might not be as pronounced as the numbers Gerard cited on Tuesday, he brought anecdotal evidence to back up his claims: Managers and owners from The Whip Hair Design, Wolfram Alpha, DS Volition and Maize restaurant all said they are growing, and they have the quality of life and support from the city of Champaign to thank for it.
"We always have more work to do. I'll be the first to say that," Gerard said. "But we've come a long way."
At 5.6 percent in April, unemployment in Champaign dipped to its lowest rate since Gerard took office in May 2011, although preliminary numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show it likely rose again last month. The April numbers Gerard cited on Tuesday painted a bit rosier picture than what the preliminary numbers for May show, but unemployment in Champaign is nonetheless trending generally downward.
Unemployment has fluctuated a bit in Champaign since June 2009 but stayed between about 7 and 10 percent for that period of time. It peaked at 10.3 percent in January 2010.
In April, it dropped below 6 percent since for the first time since 2008, but rose a bit again in May to 6.3 percent — that would match the national average but put Champaign below the statewide average of 7.5 percent.
Gerard also cited Illinois Department of Employment Security numbers which show the Champaign-Urbana metro area added 8,500 jobs since July 2011 — up to a total 109,800 nonfarm jobs today.
Those numbers may be a bit bloated, too, depending on which statistician you believe: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said the metropolitan area had 105,000 total nonfarm jobs in July 2011 and 107,100 last month. Meanwhile, Champaign County added an estimated 3,816 residents from 2010 to 2013.
Craig Rost, the new executive director of the Champaign County Economic Development Corporation, said context is important as communities across the state are looking to establish themselves as the regional job centers.
"This is what we're all about here," Rost said. "And if we're going to grow in the state of Illinois, we have to have good regional job growth, job development. And that is the entire county and beyond."
In recent comments to the media and during city council meetings, Gerard has continually returned to talking about a quarter-cent sales tax increase — which the city council approved last year and went into effect in January — as a boon for the city's economy. He went there again on Tuesday, holding it up as a catalyst to improve the quality of life in Champaign and make it a place where workers want to live.
"We've created an environment where we've hired back," Gerard said. "We have a full police staff, a full fire staff. We're not browning out a fire station. We put an extra $1 million on top of what we had hoped into our roads."
He also pointed to a developing skyline: As the city quickly adds student housing along Green Street, construction activity in Champaign is rebounding toward where it was before the housing market bust.
Unemployment in Champaign dipped to its lowest point in more than five years in April, but preliminary numbers show it rose again a bit in May. It is right around the national average and is beating the statewide unemployment rate.
SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics