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A word of advice for Gov. Bruce Rauner: You may want to avoid disparaging Champaign-Urbana when you're talking tech.
The governor apologized to Champaign County business and civic leaders Tuesday for comments he made about the home of the state's flagship research university during a Chicago radio interview last week.
Rauner's assertion that Champaign-Urbana has "no convenient transportation" and "not much of a workforce" to retain top technology firms touched a nerve in this tech-heavy community, prompting a backlash on social media and even from members of his own party.
The governor met with about two dozen members of the Champaign County First delegation Tuesday evening and apologized during the group's annual lobbying visit to Washington, D.C. Rauner is also in Washington this week.
Rauner told the delegation that his words were taken out of context and that "he is committed to growing the economy in Champaign-Urbana," said Champaign Mayor Deb Feinen. He told them what he meant to say was that "it's a challenge for all small and mid-sized communities to attract and retain employees," but he shouldn't have used Champaign-Urbana as the example, Feinen said.
"Governor Rauner apologized for and clarified his recent remarks about the disadvantages small communities face in competing with large, urban centers. And the governor clarified his firm belief that Champaign-Urbana is doing an outstanding job in economic development by utilizing and promoting its many attributes," campaign spokesman Will Allison said in an email Tuesday night.
Rauner also promised to come to Champaign-Urbana to apologize to the community in person and celebrate its success as the state's fastest-growing city, Feinen said.
"We thought that was the most important part of the conversation," said Urbana Mayor Diane Marlin.
The Champaign County First delegation had issued a statement in response to Rauner's remarks, touting the community's economic growth and asking Rauner to "join us in our success."
In his interview Friday with WGN, Rauner talked about the need to invest in tech in Illinois to keep more startups in the state instead of Silicon Valley.
"The tragedy for us in Illinois is, the University of Illinois is here, one of the great research universities in the world," he said. "Their students have started some of the greatest companies in the world. Oracle, PayPal, Tesla Motors, iTunes. It's stunning. None of them are in Illinois," he said.
He went on: "There's several reasons, but part of the reason is, Champaign-Urbana is wonderful, but it's very hard to keep a company of more than six people there. There's no convenient transportation, not much of a workforce. It's very hard. We can start some companies there, but what we need to do is help the University of Illinois expand in Chicago, expand in Rockford and Peoria that have large economic systems and great companies already."
A WCIA reporter questioned the comments online, and Twitter was off and running.
Many tweets pointed out that large tech companies with hundreds of employees have been operating in Champaign-Urbana for years, including Wolfram Research, Volition and Yahoo. One Twitter user noted that Rauner visited one in March: Frasca International.
"Perhaps @GovRauner would like to take a tour of the Research Park to see just how tech companies here help propel the rest of the country forward with many more than 6 employees," the UI Research Park tweeted.
"Champaign is the fastest-growing city in the State of Illinois @GovRauner and tech companies have been growing because it’s a knowledge city with brains and engineers, thanks @Yahoo @WolframResearch @DSVolition @CaterpillarInc @Amdocs @GranularAg," wrote Research Park Director Laura Frerichs.
Frerichs said later she merely wanted to point out the community's strong tech sector. Silicon Valley companies such as Yahoo placed engineering and computer-science jobs in Champaign because of its tech workforce, she said, and the community has attracted foreign investment in firms such as Amdocs and Syngenta.
It's a sensitive issue for Champaign-Urbana, where some business leaders and legislators fear the new UI-led Discovery Partners Institute in Chicago, backed by Rauner and supported by $500 million in state funding, will draw resources away from the Urbana campus. UI officials insist DPI is merely the home base for a statewide innovation network that includes Urbana.
On Tuesday, Rauner promised the Champaign County first group that a "significant amount of the funding for the DPI would stay in Urbana-Champaign and that we wouldn't be losing jobs or people," Marlin said.
That was welcome news to state Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, who had issued a statement earlier Tuesday calling on the governor to apologize. He was happy to hear Rauner had done that face-to-face.
"Cook County could only dream of having consistently lower unemployment rates like Champaign County has seen over the past several years," Rose's statement said. "And, it's easy to see why: three interstate highways, a conveniently located airport, and the University of Illinois make it a great place to live and work, not to mention that our local workforce powers some pretty serious manufacturing too. Oh, and did I mention that we have no traffic."
State Rep. Carol Ammons, D-Champaign, posted a series of tweets highlighting the entrepreneurs produced by the UI and the 100-plus companies at the UI Research Park. She also listed Champaign-Urbana's high rankings on public transportation (MTD was ranked the seventh-best transit system in the country by FiveThirtyEight), its population growth (fastest-growing city in Illinois since 2010, according to Census data) and its strong workforce.
The Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District revised its Twitter bio, saying it provides "millions of convenient transportations" instead of "rides" for Champaign, Urbana and Savoy, tweeting: "There, we fixed it."
"We were trying to tweak the governor and keep it light," said MTD Director Karl Gnadt.
The Champaign County First statement said Champaign County has been "a shining star of economic growth" in the state, touting the UI and employers like Wolfram, Heinz Kraft, Carle, Christie Clinic, FedEx, Parkland College and Busey as well as the UI Research Park, with its 2,000-plus employees.
The statement noted that Champaign-Urbana together is the sixth-largest city in the state, ahead of Springfield and Peoria; the county has a low unemployment rate (3.5 percent); Champaign has added nearly 2,600 jobs in the last five years; and the community gets high national ratings for being bike-friendly, family friendly and a top college town.
"We're very proud of the companies that have chosen Champaign-Urbana and Champaign County as their home, and we continue to strive to grow and attract new students every year and new businesses. And so the perception about our community that makes it sound as though we're a nothing in a cornfield ... we are not that community," Feinen said.
Laura Weis, CEO of the Champaign County Chamber of Commerce, told the governor that "not many communities can say that the things that are done in their communities can change the world, but we can," Feinen said.