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Rural and Resilient - Northwest Illinois Remains Optimistic

May 11, 2021

Whiteside County, IL (May 10, 2021) - 2020 was a life-changing year. The COVID-19 Pandemic killed over 1.8 million people globally, and created worldwide social, political and health related havoc. Some suggest we will never get back to ‘normal’, while others suggest it will take years to get back to ‘normal’ or perhaps ‘near normal’.

For some regions in the United States, there were reasons to be cautiously optimistic. Here, in Northwest Illinois, we have seen evidence that we’re on the mend. This does not mean that we were not touched by COVID-19’s death, sickness, and disruption – we were, but we have seen our community respond to the crisis, and make strides to regain ‘normalcy’.  Northwest Illinois has shown its resiliency and innovative nature to meet the challenges of COVID-19 head on, and has made giant strides in returning to normalcy. 

Unemployment as of October, 2020, came in at 4.4%, down from April 2020’s 15.8%. Many of the region’s economic based employers were and are still hiring. Manufacturers, like Fulton Illinois’ Timken Drives are hosting job fairs, as they have openings and a backlog of business.  Others in the region, including Wahl Clipper, Raynor, Frantz Manufacturing, HALO Branded Solutions and the Walmart Distribution Center are also in hiring mode.

HALO Branded Solutions, which initially furloughed several employees, pivoted their business during the pandemic, working with its supply chain to manufacture and distribute Personal Protection Equipment (PPE). The pivot allowed HALO to recall its furloughed workers, establish a remote worker program, add a third shift to its warehouse, and post an 8% gain in sales for the year. Terry McGuire, HALO’s SVP of Marketing, said, “We were able to move quickly and work with our suppliers to be able to provide masks, gowns, gloves, visors and sanitizers to our existing customers, and new customers, through our distribution channels. Our associates stepped up to the challenge, and we were able to get Personal Protection Equipment to those who really needed it quickly and efficiently. Our people made a difference in fighting COVID-19, and I am very proud of them.” 

HALO wasn’t the only business to move quickly and join the battle against COVID-19. Wahl Clipper Corporation, a fourth-generation family-owned business that makes hair clippers, trimmers, and shavers for professional and personal use, also joined the battle against COVID-19 early. Based in Whiteside County (Sterling), the company’s approach to manufacturing allowed them to pivot very simply and quickly. The injection molding equipment in their Sterling factory was quickly reengineered to make face shields, plastic barriers that fit over a face mask, covering a healthcare worker’s faces from forehead to below the chin. These protective shields reduce the likelihood of spreading the infection and help extend the life of N95 and other masks.

The company moved from zero at April 2020’s start to over 100,000 face shields by mid-April, and it distributed them to hospitals quickly. It continued its face shield production, as well as its personal grooming equipment, which also experienced strong demand, as people weren’t able to get to their barbers and hairdressers as they could pre COVID.

The Walmart Distribution Center located in Sterling, IL, which distributes food products to Walmarts in the Midwest, also found it itself in the COVID-19 battle, as the pandemic disrupted food deliveries throughout the nation. Walmarts were able to fill the needs of many who saw their regular vendors experience strained supply chain because their Distribution Centers stepped up and met the demand in very difficult times.

Gary Camarano, Whiteside County’s Economic Development Director, said, “Our businesses really stepped up during COVID-19. They all looked for ways to contribute to the fight, and to stay open while making sure their employees were in a safe environment.” Camarano acknowledges, “Not all businesses have fared well. Like many communities in the nation, our small ‘mom-and-pop’ businesses were really hit hard, especially small retailers, hospitality and restaurants. Many saw their inside dining closed, customer service limits imposed, and outright closures. Many of these businesses will not be around when we get back to ‘normal’, even with the aid made available through federal, state and local programs.”

Camarano said, “Overall we are cautiously optimistic. Our Whiteside Carroll Enterprise Zone experienced significant investment in 2020.  We started 2020 approving three projects in the first quarter. As COVID grew in intensity, I thought activity was going to come to a screeching halt. However, as the year progressed, we added more projects to the approved list, and by year-end 2020, we had 18 projects approved with $40.8 million invested in the Enterprise Zone. This surpassed 2019’s total investment in the Enterprise Zone by $2.2. Million. It also equates to new jobs created and existing jobs retained. 2021 has also started out strong with nine projects approved in the first four months, well ahead of last year’s pace.”

Bill Wescott, Mayor of Rock Falls, IL, said, “The reasons for our region’s strength in these difficult times can be seen in the mix of manufacturing (metal fabrication, heavy machinery, and electronics), agribusiness and logistics businesses; the high location quotients indicating a strong and trained workforce; the transportation infrastructure; affordable sites; and the proximity to several major markets. We’ve seen an increase in businesses looking to locate here, and they emphasize that their search process identifies the region as having several advantages over our competition. We’ve felt the pain of COVID-19, but see a return to ‘normal’ on the horizon. It doesn’t negate the death we’ve seen of family and friends, but we will get back to ‘normal’.” 

Camarano ended with, “There has been a lot of finger pointing, ‘dropped balls’, and miscommunication. At the local level, we try work on what we can control, and I think we’re doing well. Our local business, civic and governmental partners are working well together, and we focus on what we can control. We’ve had our hits, and have felt the pain, but we remain optimistic. We’re rural strong, rural on purpose.” 

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