Mason County named to poverty warning list
When in 2004 the Intermet plant in Havana closed, company officials said the plant could reopen when business conditions justified it.
That never happened.
Now the plant lies dormant and the workers who lost their jobs have moved on — many driving 90 miles or more for employment to support their families.
“I would say there’s no place to go to work,” said Mason County Board Chairman James Griffin. “When the Intermet factory closed a few years ago, 200 people lost their jobs.
“That trickled down to other businesses. We haven’t seen anything new — a couple of jobs here and a couple of jobs there, but a lot of people have had to go other places to work. My son drives 90 miles to Decatur a day. A lot of people are driving to Springfield and Bloomington. The remainder of our businesses are mainly service industries and restaurants — and there aren’t many restaurants anymore.”
Mason County was named to the 2009 Heartland Alliance Mid-America Institute on Poverty warning list for poverty last week — a fact that doesn’t shock Griffin. He said Mason County is mainly an agricultural community and its high u snem s ployment rate would naturally mean it would be on the list.
Mason County was on the alliance watch list in 2007 and 2008. It was moved to the warning list this year. The Alliance has been doing its report for nine years.
According to the Heartland Alliance report, Mason County had a 12.5 poverty rating in 2008, which was up 0.3 percent from 2007. The county’s population was 16,038 in the last census. The county has a 9.4 percent unemployment rate, up 1.9 percent from last year. According to the report, 1,867 Mason County residents live in poverty.
Havana Economic Development Coordinator Terry Svob said Havana is the largest city in the county and as such takes the lead in economic development for all areas of the county. He said the city and the county have a great working relationship and that both are working toward improved economic health.
The city has developed a 125-acre shovel ready business park, has a downtown tax increment finance district and has established a new TIF district on the city’s south. Officials are working toward an Enterprise Zone, have established revolving loans and grants for new and expanding businesses, and are focusing on tourism under the National Scenic Byways that were designated as such two years ago. These are all ways, he said, to expand opportunities for economic growth.
The city also installed a public access port on the Illinois River for shipping commercial products.
The city, should it get any federal stimulus package money, would like to focus on a new water tower in the business park for businesses that would need large supplies.
The efforts could be paying off.
“I’ve been with the county for eight years and the interest now from local, area and out-of-state business is greater for me than any other time since I’ve been here,” said Svob. “Even in the worst of times people are still doing things, projects are still happening. Hopefully we can take full advantage of these inquiries.
“We have positioned ourselves to be very competitive and to make the short list for some of these companies looking to expand or relocate. We have never had this many tools to attract and retain business.”
Tazewell County fared better in the report — it is on neither the watch list nor the warning list. The Tazewell County poverty rate in 2008 was 8.percent, down .8 percent from 2007. The unemployment rate in Tazewell County in 2008 was 6.2 percent, down 1.3 percent from 2007. The population of the county at the time of the study was 128,485.
Tazewell County is more diversified. While a great portion of the county is used for agricultural purposes, it also has a large retail, industrial and commercial base, said Tazewell County Administrator David Jones.
That, said Jones, does not mean the county can sit on the sidelines and let the economy take its course. He said that local units of government have dealt well with the national economy and the struggles of the state and federal government when it comes to funding, among other things.
“What makes Tazewell County a little more insulated to some of the shifts and swings of the economy is the conservative nature of city and county government,” said Jones. “The county also has the availability of affordable housing, which helps Tazewell County and the region.
“And I don’t think a lot of banks in this area got into the risky loans like in other areas. So people are in a better position if they do lose their jobs — they’re not paying too much housing. We have had felt some things here as well. We’ve not escaped layoffs, unemployment or foreclosures.”
Jones said that in past years area officials have made a “concerted effort” at diversifying the business base in the county and the cities. While everybody cringes with the news of 1,000 layoffs, the economy holds up because there is no one employer that dominates the area.
Tazewell County has a revolving loan program to help businesses expand and locate, as do many of the municipalities in Tazewell County. The county also works with the Economic Development Council of Central Illinois.
“We’re blessed here — there’s no doubt about it,” said Jones. “But this is the time to work hard because it’s a tough economy out there.”
The report states that more than 400,000 more Illinois residents are expected to fall into poverty as a result of the recession — a 27 percent increase in the number of poor Illinois residents over the past two years. The increase was estimated on the expectation that the national unemployment rate will reach 9 percent. The Illinois unemployment rate has already reached 9 percent, according to the alliance report.
Nearly 1.5 million Illinoisans, almost 12 percent of the state’s population, were in poverty in 2007— before the recession began—the most recent year for which poverty data are available.
More than 667,000 Illinois residents lived in extreme poverty on an annual income below $11,000 a year. An additional 16.2 percent, or more than 2 million people, were on shaky financial ground with incomes between the poverty line and twice the poverty line, according to the study.
A total of 24 counties were placed on the report’s poverty warning list, indicating it as having alarming poverty trends; and 46 counties on the poverty watch list, which accounts for counties where poverty indicators need to be monitored closely. The list was based on four factors: High school graduation rates, teen birth rates, unemployment rates and poverty rates.
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