Champaign named third fastest-growing city in Illinois

By Abrar Al-Heeti

Champaign is the third fastest-growing city in Illinois, according to a report published by Nerd Wallet finance.

Rankings for the fastest growing cities were determined based on data regarding income growth, employment growth and population growth between 2009 and 2012 from the 2012 U.S. Census American Community Survey 3-year estimate for Illinois.

Median income in Champaign grew by 32.2 percent between those years, employment grew by 1.9 percent and the working-age population grew by 4 percent, according to the report.

Champaign Mayor Don Gerard said this growth can be attributed to how well the city manages its resources.

“The City of Champaign has always had a history of being really fiscally conservative,” he said.

Gerard said during the recession, Champaign made some “very difficult cuts.” But those tough decisions ended up paying off in the end, since the city can now afford appropriate staffing.

“As we transition into when I was elected — and we since have a new city manager — we’ve also put a premium upon creating revenue,” he said. “There’s a basic equation for having a good, healthy economy, and that is: have a fiscally conservative government that creates revenue to pay for itself.”

Such revenue has been generated through measures such as the passage of a gas tax and a quarter cent sales tax, which have created funds for services such as roads, public safety and the Champaign Public Library.

“We’ve negotiated all of our contracts, we’re putting extra money towards our pensions, extra money towards our roads and our infrastructure is all being built up,” Gerard said. “We’re extraordinarily fortunate to have all of our bills paid.”

Also contributing to the city’s rapid growth are the corporations and establishments that have chosen Champaign as their home. From Kraft, whose Champaign plant is the largest manufacturing plant in their chain, to Yahoo, which is expanding its offices at the University Research Park, such companies have played a major role in creating jobs and revenue for the community.

Yahoo Champaign Site Director Cathy Singer said being in Champaign-Urbana and having a team on campus is great because of the opportunity to interact and work with both students and faculty at the University.

“We cannot stress enough the strength of the student talent pool at Champaign-Urbana,” Singer said. “Yahoo is committed to attracting and retaining the best talent. Being so close to a top computer science and engineering institution makes that easier.”

While the University provides talent for the company, Yahoo provides employment opportunities for those in the community. About two-thirds of employees at Yahoo Champaign are University graduates. The company offers student internships and also looks to hire University student interns for full-time work.

Hiring interns to become full time workers has been an invaluable asset throughout the Research Park and for the community, since students may decide to stay in Champaign and continue to work for the companies they intern for after graduation.

“The ability to have companies employ interns we found to be the best way to get the students engaged with the company and excited about job opportunities with those companies,” said Research Park Director Laura Frerichs. “Otherwise students don’t generally think about employment opportunities in Champaign-Urbana — they think about this as an educational setting, not necessarily a future location for their jobs.”

Singer said Yahoo employees in Champaign have the advantage of living in a place where they have a good balance between work and life, which isn’t easy to come by in the software and tech industry, but can be found in a town like Champaign-Urbana.

“It’s an ideal opportunity for many who wish to work for a major tech company while still staying close to family and friends in an affordable, academically oriented town,” she said.

Startup business incubator EnterpriseWorks at the Research Park also plays a role in supporting business and economic growth in the area as it launches early stage tech firms.

“We’re able to not only seed these companies but also retain them in our community,” said Frerichs.

With all the success Champaign has had in recent years, Gerard said it’s important to keep working towards further improvement and growth.

“We’re a model of fiscal responsibility, in a state that’s thought of as anything but,” Gerard said. “I think this is just the start. I think that we’re going to be seeing a lot more. We’ve had talks about the possibility of making Champaign the hub for high speed rail in the Midwest, which is a very real possibility.”

These developments lend themselves to the reasons Gerard believes Champaign is an attractive environment to live in with potential for immense population and economic growth.

“Luck is when opportunity meets preparation,” Gerard said. “And the city was prepared, the opportunity came, so to the rest of the world we look like the luckiest city in Illinois.”

Abrar can be reached at [email protected]