DuPage business leaders told they can influence recovery

 
By Richard R. Klicki
rklicki@dailyherald.com
Updated 5/2/2012 2:59 PM
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  • Keynote speaker Diane Swonk, chief economist and senior managing director of Mesirow Financial, addresses the third annual DuPage County Regional Business Outlook at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace.

      Keynote speaker Diane Swonk, chief economist and senior managing director of Mesirow Financial, addresses the third annual DuPage County Regional Business Outlook at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace. Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Keynote speaker Diane Swonk, chief economist and senior managing director of Mesirow Financial, addresses the third annual DuPage County Regional Business Outlook at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace.

      Keynote speaker Diane Swonk, chief economist and senior managing director of Mesirow Financial, addresses the third annual DuPage County Regional Business Outlook at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace. Daniel White | Staff Photographer

As the world continues to struggle with recession and economic instability, the catalyst for changing the future can come from the local level, a group of experts told DuPage County business and government leaders.

About 600 business and government leaders were part of the discussion at the third annual DuPage County Regional Business Outlook Wednesday at the Drury Lane Conference Center in Oakbrook Terrace. The event was sponsored by Choose DuPage Economic Development Alliance, Ice Miller LLP legal counsel and Mesirow Financial.

Keynote speaker Diane Swonk, chief economist and senior managing director for Mesirow Financial, told the group that the traditional cyclical cycles that have driven the economy in the past are being disrupted by structural change. As a result, traditional economic cycles -- such as lower interest rates driving people to buy homes -- are no longer automatic. Swonk outlined a number of changes, from government deficits to high unemployment and a gap in workforce education, that have had an impact on the cycles.

But amid the negatives, she noted, as business leaders, they can help institute change.

"The outcome is inevitable, but there are places along the road that we can intervene and get onto a better path, and our future will not be doomed," Swonk said.

As an example, she noted community colleges have been working to bridge the education and skills gap by partnering with local businesses to provide education and training for a workforce that benefits both business and the economy.

"We are not an economy of the smartest people, but one of smart people applying themselves in a specific way," she said.

Benedictine University President William Carroll echoed that statement, noting the Lisle institution has enacted new programs not only to education and train people, but to make it affordable. For example, Carroll said, the university can provide a free education to workers who have been unemployed for more than 18 months.

Another burden is high corporate taxes and compliance regulations. Scott Hodge of The Tax Foundation called Illinois "the Neiman Marcus tax state," with the third-highest corporate tax in the nation.

McDonald's Corp. Executive Vice President and CFO Peter Bensen added while the Oak Brook-based company at the corporate level can handle the tax climate, "we are a federation of small businesses" who are hurt more directly by the additional burden.

"When the business' tax rate goes up and people's discretionary income goes down, you discover that's not a great combination, especially in retail," he said.

Steve Don, president and CEO of Edward Don & Co., added competition from Internet-based companies, who aren't required to collect sales taxes, has added to the struggles for local small and medium sized businesses.

Despite the gloomy picture, Swonk and Adolfo Laurenti, deputy chief economist at Mesirow Financial, said advances in technology and changes in the global marketplace will provide new opportunities for local businesses to innovate and expand.

Likewise, the group agreed DuPage County remains a good place for business. DuPage County Chairman Dan Cronin said the county still enjoys a AAA bond rating as it looks for ways to make government more efficient. He added that the county is getting help from Gov. Pat Quinn and federal lawmakers to secure funding for the Elgin-O'Hare Expressway western access route through the county, which "will bring hundred of millions of dollars in economic potential to the county."

Choose DuPage President and CEO Greg Bedalov best summed up the panel's sentiment.

"The good news is, we're DuPage County," Bedalov said. "The bad news is, we're DuPage County, Illinois."

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