January 28, 2015 – Kathleen Repass, Project Manager for the Henry-Rural Rock Island-Mercer County Economic Development Consortium, provided an update on the Rural Jobs Accelerator Grant Initiative (RJAGI), which covers Henry and Mercer Counties and rural portions of Rock Island County.  The three-year grant period began January 2013 and goes through September 2015.  Grant funds provided for 1.75 staff to increase economic development capacity.

The project is jointly funded by Economic Development Administration (EDA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Grant for $193,500, which was matched locally with another $193,500.  The EDA portion of the project funded the Rural Economic Development Plancluster analysis, a business needs assessment, and a Rock Island Arsenal connectivity assessment.  The USDA portion of the grant funded efforts to expand the local foods network, coordination of entrepreneur engagement, and rural tourism assessments.

The first year of the grant involved data gathering, analysis, and identification of the four key industry clusters in the project area, which were agriculture, transportation, manufacturing, and tourism.  A Henry County fact sheet was also created along with the first-year draft of the Rural Economic Development Plan.  The business needs assessment included compiling a major employer inventory in the four industries and conducting interviews using a customized survey tool.  Results were shared with public and private officials in the area.

A Rock Island Arsenal (RIA) connectivity assessment identified key business partners at the RIA and compiled a database of numbers of employees and salary ranges in the project area employed at the RIA.  During the business needs assessment interviews, business opportunities to those interested in RIA contracts were communicated.

In 2014, a Cluster Analysis Steering Committee and five smaller task forces were created that identified objectives to support job retention foster partnerships to increase development.  Also in 2014, outreach presentations continued to gather input to the economic development planning effort.  The need to maintain an enterprise zone designation in the planning area was also identified.  Interviews to expand the business needs assessment were also continued.

Work on the local foods network involved developing a database of growers and determining a market for their products.  Partnership possibilities with the Quad City Food Hub were identified, as well as the need for a refrigerated food truck to gather the product.  Training in USDA Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certification will also be considered along with local grocery store collaboration in joint purchasing.

To encourage rural entrepreneurs, a “Fast Pitch” competition was held with a monetary prize.  The 2013 and 2014 winners were:

  • Save a Heart — AED devices (Colona)
  • One Stop Shooting Range (Toulon)
  • 360 e-Cycle — recycle electronic devices (Kewanee)
  • Paxton Poultry (Annawan)
  • Designs on the Boulevard (Geneseo)
  • Jim Langdon — athletic  equipment, patent work (Stark County)

For the Rural Tourism Community Assessment, a Phase I consultant study of tourism opportunities, issues, and challenges in Henry, Mercer, and rural Rock Island Counties was conducted by Hargrove and Young.  A Phase II report developed a tourism asset map of the project are and was prepared by Place Dynamics.  Results of both studies will be utilized to strengthen tourism activities and marketing in the area.

In the final year of the grant, business interviews will continue, and the Cluster Analysis/Economic Development Plan will be finalized.  The Rock Island Arsenal connectivity assessment will be updated with the most recent employment and contract information, and the Rock Island Arsenal Development Group will explore partnership options with local businesses officials.  Potential activities with the Quad City Food Hub will also be explored.  The final year of the Fast Pitch competition will be held, and high schools students will be invited to participate.