Rauner tours C-U to make amends, discusses high-speed rail

Rauner tours C-U to make amends, discusses high-speed rail

CHAMPAIGN — While local officials played nice Tuesday with Gov. Bruce Rauner, they did everything they could to remind him that his dismissive comments about the area last month were wrong.

Champaign-Urbana has "no convenient transportation," he said in an interview last month with WGN.

So Rauner rode an MTD bus with local officials Tuesday to three different businesses.

"It's very hard to keep a company of more than six people here," he said then.

So Rauner visited Wolfram Research, which has about 400 employees here; Granular, which has about 50; and A&R Mechanical, which has more than 100.

There's "not much of a workforce" here, he told WGN.

So Rauner heard from employees at the companies and why they chose to move to or stay in Champaign-Urbana.

Wolfram "decided to stick around in Champaign, Illinois, because there's a low-cost, highly educated workforce right here in our backyard. It's much easier to get someone on a startup salary if you're not in Silicon Valley," said Danielle Rommel, the company's director of communications. "We've never had trouble finding employees."

At the end of the tour, Rauner reiterated an apology he made to community leaders last week when they were both in Washington, D.C.

"This doesn't make up for it," he said. But "I apologize because I didn't choose my words well. I was talking very in-artfully about the challenges smaller communities have sometimes relative to large."

And he made some promises.

Since the Illinois General Assembly approved a $38.5 billion budget with $500 million for the University of Illinois' Discovery Partners Institute in Chicago, local officials have been wondering how much of that will stay here.

Rauner said that's up to UI officials, but said "there's going to be a significant amount of that initial capital that will be invested in Champaign-Urbana. It will also be invested in other communities around the state. That was the whole point and the goal, but a significant amount will be here."

As for transportation, Rauner said he'd put pressure on United officials to bring back flights to Willard Airport, a day after the company said they'd be canceling those flights come September.

"Believe me, I will be on United about this. I think we can get those flights restored," Rauner said.

And he said he'd begin discussions on bringing privately funded, high-speed rail to Champaign-Urbana.

"I know there's been some discussions about that already, but I want to get the state involved," he said. "Now, there's the possibility of getting 100 percent private financing for these types of rail developments. That takes a lot of the concern off the table."

He cited similar projects in Texas and Florida that will use private financing.

So did the visit make up for his remarks?

Laura Weis, the CEO and President of the Champaign County Chamber of Commerce, declined to go there.

"This is an opportunity for our community to make its point without pointing fingers," Weis said diplomatically after the tour. "It happened, and we need to move forward. We had to make sure those words weren't left hanging out there."

Champaign Mayor Deb Feinen said Rauner asked good questions when talking with officials on the MTD bus.

"He's definitely tuning into our community, so that's a good thing," she said.

"I think we need to accept his apology and his willingness to continue to work with our community," she added.

Asked whether his apology was satisfactory, Urbana Mayor Diane Marlin said: "It was an apology."

As for the promise of a significant portion of DPI funding, Marlin said she won't forget that.

"We need to hold him to his word," she said. "He's said that multiple times now, and I expect him to keep his word on that."

She's still confused about Rauner's initial remarks.

"He pointed out that he's been to Champaign-Urbana many times, and he was very familiar with the University of Illinois, which made his comments last week even more unexplainable," she said. His comments were "completely inaccurate, not true, and the trip today was proof of that."

But she said the visit was a success.

"We, as a community, decided to make lemonade out of that lemon and really showcase what we have going for us, and I think we did," Marlin said.

On the bus with Rauner, Savoy Village President Joan Dykstra said the conversations were great, much improved from last week in D.C.

"We were quite frank and forthright with him ... about why his comments, however he meant them, were not helpful to Champaign County," she said of last week's meeting.

"I'm gratified that he was so responsive," she said. By visiting Champaign County, he showed he "is absolutely committed to the university and to the county. I'm convinced of that."