Investing in education and infrastructure is the key to economic growth in Cook County, coupled with a focus on the region and not just Chicago, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said Tuesday during a business luncheon in Palatine.
The event was attended by about 70 members of the Barrington Area, Hoffman Estates, Palatine Area, Rolling Meadows, Wheeling/Prospect Heights, Des Plaines and Hanover Park chambers of commerce and the Schaumburg Business Association.
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Preckwinkle was introduced by Cook County Commissioner Gregg Goslin, who described her as "business, and I mean all business." He said she has helped create a respectful, collegial, productive relationship among board members and that together they are "reinventing" Cook County.
Preckwinkle said in recent years there have been some "good steps forward" in terms of economic development, but there are still plenty of improvements to be made.
"If we're going to be competitive in Cook County we have to figure out how we can use the resources ... and the assets that we have to our advantage," she said, specifically pointing to tax incentive programs that can help attract and retain businesses.
She said the county's tax incentives have created more than 2,200 jobs since she took office in late 2010.
Of the nearly 11 million people living in the Chicago region -- which Preckwinkle said includes southeast Wisconsin and northwest Indiana -- almost half live in Cook County. She said, however, the county needs to focus on the opportunities the entire region offers.
"We're at the core of the region," she said. "Our goal has to be to figure out how we can support economic development and growth in the region as a whole."
For example, she said, the county is determining how it can complement the work that the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce and World Business Chicago are doing, and then take leadership in areas where the two organizations leave a gap.
She added that while she doesn't discourage anyone from pursing higher education, the workforce also needs more people who specialize in businesses that are on the rise in the region.
"We need lots of people who have technical educations," she said. "We need welders, we need people who can do computer-assisted manufacturing and computer-assisted design."
Preckwinkle also touched on the state's pension crisis -- which she believes should be blamed on political leadership and not workers -- and partnerships the county hopes to make with facilities in the suburbs to provide health care to low-income patients.
She also noted accomplishments Cook County has made under her leadership, including the partial sales tax rollback, making the county workforce smaller and more efficient, and getting tax bills mailed out on time -- which she said will likely happen again this year.
Mindy Phillips, director of the Palatine Chamber of Commerce, said Preckwinkle's visit reminds suburban businesses that although they are outside of Chicago they still play a role in Cook County's economic development.
"It's important for them to hear from her," Phillips said, adding that she felt some of Preckwinkle's initiatives are in line with what many suburban businesses are looking for, such as tax relief and a specially trained workforce. "It's good to hear (the county is) working on some of the issues we hear about."
Cheri Sisson, executive director of the Hoffman Estates Chamber of Commerce, said she likes seeing Preckwinkle attend local events because suburban business owners can ask questions pertinent to their needs.
"I think that she's making it so they're more in touch, not so removed like they used to be," Sisson said. "She has more of a hands-on approach and I like that a lot."