CHAMPAIGN — Keeping startup companies in town, touting national expertise in agricultural technology and “med tech,” and offering living costs and amenities to attract suburban Chicago retirees to Champaign-Urbana.
Those are some of the strategies envisioned by an economic development group advising Chancellor Robert Jones on how to promote development in one of the state’s fastest-growing communities.
“We’re all in this together. We need to be very thoughtful about how that growth takes place,” Jones told a campus Academic Senate group Monday.
Jones convened the Chancellor’s Economic Development Council in spring 2018 and said it meets regularly, most recently last week. It’s led by Susan Martinis, vice chancellor for research, who oversees the UI Research Park, along with park Director Laura Frerichs and Pradeep Khanna, associate vice chancellor for corporate relations and economic development.
Regulars on the council from the community include executives from both Carle Health System and OSF Health Care, Parkland College, local economic development agencies, and representatives from the business and minority communities, he said. They in turn have created subcommittees to work with broader groups on specific issues.
Jones said the council will continue working through this academic year but is already developing plans to make Champaign-Urbana “the epicenter of ag tech.”
That effort will focus on leveraging the assets of the UI Research Park, with tenants such as San Francisco-based Granular, an agricultural software firm, and Cargill, which opened an innovation lab there last week to move digital ideas to “test mode.” Jones, a crop scientist in his earlier life, personally visited Cargill to help seal that deal.
The Chancellor’s Economic Development Council is also looking at how to support new startups so they stay in the community; develop a “transformative” medical technology sector by building on the new Carle Illinois School of Medicine and cancer center; and leverage the UI’s data analytics expertise, he said.
It will also involve “thinking about what is the built environment that we’d need to support all of that big-idea growth,” he said, from housing to school systems.
The C-U pitch
Jones said the council will be coming out with a “pretty aggressive plan that addresses everything from working with community development agencies, working on issues of K-12 education, and trying to create more opportunities to get our young people interested in STEM careers, and ways to really talk about and brand this community in a different way.”
It’s working with the UI’s new chief marketing officer, Eric Minor, about how to make Champaign-Urbana attractive not only to students but also retirees, and overcome outdated notions that “there’s nothing to do here.”
“How do we turn that around to talk about the positives, in terms of a safe place to raise a family, you can get anywhere within 15 minutes, the assets of the university providing seamless entertainment, and engagement opportunities with the university,” Jones said.
“People that may be tired of the traffic in one of the outlying suburbs of Chicago can come here and have a quality of life that they haven’t even imagined,” he said.
Jones sees the effort as part of the UI’s land-grant mission, which also extends to Chicago and statewide, especially in “this urban age,” he said. He cited the campus’ role in the new Discovery Partners Institute in Chicago and a strategic plan to revamp UI Extension.
He told members of the Senate Executive Committee they will be hearing more this year about how the campus can be more visible in Chicago and how Extension can be used “to think differently about how to deliver health care,” though he offered no details.
The largest concentration of Illinois alumni — more than 200,000 strong — is in the Chicago area, he said. And the campus has always had a presence there, led mostly by individual faculty members or colleges.
But Jones said he’d like to coordinate existing connections through the College of Law, School of Social Work, College of Education and others and strengthen partnerships with “key leaders” in the city.
The campus already partners with the University of Chicago on several research efforts, “everything from quantum to community,” Jones said, and they will be working together to address issues identified by residents of Chicago’s south side.
The UI also rolled out a new event this year to boost its presence in the Windy City — the first-ever “Illini Fest” on July 18. The outdoor festival at Millennium Park, featuring representatives from 40 academic units as well as top UI athletes and head coaches, drew at least 5,000 people on a stormy Chicago day, he said.
“We saw a different type of alum showing up at this event that doesn’t show up at some of our other long-standing alumni events,” Jones said, adding that it likely will become an annual event.
Despite the interest in Chicago, he told the senate group, “I don’t want you to think for one moment that we have forgotten about our long-standing and core commitment to serve every part of this state. We’re a land-grant university. That’s our mission. We’re not giving that up to anybody else.
“I can assure you that this institution is anchored here in this great community,” he said.