25 years later, ‘East County’ didn’t last, but area’s development focus continues

By DENNIS GRUBAUGH

Published in the Illinois Business Journal

Twenty-five years ago, a group of Southwestern Illinois supporters pursued a novel idea. Wanting to draw attention to the area as a destination to live, work and do business, they came up with a marketing campaign that essentially adopted a new name for the Metro East.

Their slogan was: “East County … If You Only Knew.”

The backlash was fairly immediate. Land of Lincoln locals who didn’t want to be associated with St. Louis and its West, South and North counties, had little use for such an idea. And the St. Louis business community and news media remained skeptical.

Eventually, the effort was abandoned, a victim of lack of interest, more important events and historic tides. “East County” rode in with the Great Flood of ’93. And eventually ebbed back into the landscape.

Still, two and a half decades later, many people remember the campaign and believe it helped bring attention to Metro East at an important time. The area, supporters say, has enjoyed some of its most robust growth in the period since the campaign sank. Highways were built, business parks boomed, an air base was rescued. The population represented by Madison, St. Clair and Monroe counties increased from 534,512 in 1990 to an estimated 562,004 in 2017. Many people and companies from the St. Louis side have been attracted by the wide, open spaces on this side of the river.

Some say growth was bound to happen; others say the campaign sped things along by planting the idea that Metro East was open for business.
Even before it had an official name, the idea for a campaign was first advanced by public relations professional James Grandone, an Alton native who said he had grown tired of trying to explain his Illinois roots to less-than-interested St. Louisans, many of them his work colleagues.

“There were a half million people over here and it was like nobody noticed across the river,” said Grandone, who today lives and works in Edwardsville.

In 1991, he began contacting Southwestern Illinois business, education and civic leaders to discuss what he felt was the urgent need to create a positive image and to change mistaken perceptions.

“The urgency was partly due to my own embarrassment in people's reaction when I told them where I lived, as well as the clear opportunity to make money turning a negative into a positive. Mostly, it was due to my good fortune in being very familiar with both sides of the Mississippi River,” Grandone wrote years later, in a reflection piece about the events.

He had lived in St. Louis for years and knew many prominent businessmen there from various campaigns he’d worked. Most people, he said, knew nothing about Southwestern Illinois or based their idea on crime reports they’d seen on television. Nothing, he said, served as a “counterbalance” to the negative image.

Seeking some backing for his idea, Grandone began meeting with a who’s who of local leaders to get their opinions. Part of the long list included Ralph Korte of Korte Construction, Al Kerth with Civic Progress, and Gary Berkley, the publisher of the Belleville News-Democrat. Businessmen, real estate agents, organizational representatives, the university chancellor — all of them thought a comprehensive marketing effort for Southwestern Illinois targeting St. Louis and St. Louis County was needed.

“Every one of them recognized that Illinois had as much if not more to offer to businesses and developers” than St. Louis, he wrote. Metro East was “underdeveloped given its proximity to a major city and its amenities.”

The problem was money — or lack of same. A good marketing campaign was probably going to be expensive, and the economy at the time — President Clinton’s first year in office — wasn’t all that great.

An avenue to advance the idea opened for Grandone, who at the time was general manager of Marketing Mix in Clayton, Mo., when he wrote an unsolicited letter about a campaign to Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois, a nonprofit economic development corporation representing primarily Madison and St. Clair counties.

He found an advocate in Leadership Council’s then-Executive Director James Pennekamp, who had spent years in a variety of business-oriented roles.

“At the time you couldn’t even get a map that had both sides of the river,” Pennekamp said. That’s how isolated Metro East seemed from its bigger neighbor.

The next year was spent trying to convince the group’s members — heads of many Illinois businesses — that they should invest in their future. Coming from a marketing guy based in St. Louis, the message was a challenge, Grandone said.

He proposed a $3 million campaign, and Pennekamp immediately balked.

“I remember what I told him. ‘I don’t have a budget’,” Pennekamp recalled. “But as any good salesman would say, he said, ‘Don’t worry about the money’.”

Grandone laughed upon being reminded of the conversation.

After more than a year of discussions and a competitive bidding process, Leadership Council eventually recognized the need and embarked on an unprecedented fund-raising effort.

Part of the Marketing Mix proposal consisted of conducting professional survey research. East County supporters needed to identify perceptions of Metro East among business decision-makers in St. Louis in order to address those perceptions in their message. An SIUE polling group queried people in the Central West Corridor, which generally consisted of a geographic area that started in the city's Central West End and ran west into St. Louis County.

The results of that research surprised everyone. It showed that opinion leaders and residents in the St. Louis city and county portions of the metropolitan area had little or no understanding of what Illinois had to offer.

“We were acting under the assumption the impression of Illinois was negative,” Pennekamp said. “What we found out was very interesting. It wasn’t negative, it was zero; they had no perception. Which was better for us. We didn’t have to overcome the negative, we just had to tell our story.”

The campaign's original message consisted of two major elements. The first was targeted to reach St. Louis business and civic leaders in the Central West Corridor. “East County...If You Only Knew,” became the agreed upon message. The second message targeting Metro East residents never really got off the ground.

The campaign was launched in 1993, and even its most ardent supporters didn’t know how it would go. Nor could they predict how future incidents might affect their plans.

For more than a year, Grandone and Pennekamp wrote letters, made calls and met with people. Some who heard the idea were polite but dismissive. Others were openly scornful. The media reaction was a mixed bag.

Grandone remembered a radio interview in which a producer asked if the east side was having an “identity crisis.”

Most media was about as friendly.

“This went on for a while,” Pennekamp said. “But if we were going to promote Southwestern Illinois we were going to have to take some risks. And we did.”

The campaign was introduced in a series of press conferences at strategic locations — the Clark Bridge in Alton, the Jackie Joyner-Kersee stadium at SIUE, Scott Air Force Base and Union Station in St. Louis.

“It had an impact, it was an introduction, which is all we wanted,” Pennekamp said.

Illinois was getting attention, negative or not, and it was being talked about. Still, the police scanner held more interest than economic development for most news outlets.

There were some good stories along the way, though.

“In addition to the announcements sent to St. Louis and local Illinois media, we slowly began to expand the reach of the campaign to include trade publications in the Midwest and nationally,” Grandone said. Positive publicity found its way into regional and national economic development media, such as Midwest Real Estate News, Illinois Real Estate, Plants, Sites & Parks, and others. One of the publications used the phrase “hot spot” to describe Southwestern Illinois and its new development.

“The accomplishment of getting the regional and national press attention was very significant in that previously many of those same publications considered Illinois as beginning in Chicago and ending at Springfield,” Grandone wrote.

The campaign might have gotten more attention in its initial stages if everyone’s attention hadn’t been diverted by one of the greatest natural disasters in these parts.

“The campaign was launched in 1993 at the height of the Mississippi River's worst flood in history with the media's complete attention focused on that,” Grandone said.

Still, the cadre of supporters, which included Bruce Holland, the Southwestern Illinois builder and then-chairman of the Leadership Council, dutifully made the rounds.

It was all beginning to gain ground when, in 1995, the federal government announced that it was seriously considering closing Scott Air Force Base in St. Clair County and the Charles Melvin Price Support Center in Granite City as part of the Base Realignment Closing Commission process. Suddenly, a simple marketing effort took a back seat to a much more important and singular focus.

Holland and Pennekamp were invited to a meeting in Collinsville in which Congressman Jerry Costello told them the Leadership Council should take over the local organizing effort to keep the bases open.

“We were in a perfect position to do it, and there was no question we were going to do it,” Pennekamp said. “And actually, the East County thing had teed us up to be able to put in motion what was necessary in the Scott AFB and Mel Price retention efforts.”

Its ability to generate a campaign to save some of the local military operations helped bolster the Leadership Council reputation as an effective organization. In the end Scott Air Force Base became stronger, but the Price Support Center closed and was later redeveloped as part of America’s Central Port.

After the BRAC effort, Grandone continued with his marketing push to bring attention to Southwestern Illinois until around 2000. He managed to generate several of the positive stories mentioned earlier. In a blog he compiled for the 10th anniversary of launching the East County campaign, he praised the cooperation of local leaders, noting their vision helped lure billions of dollars in new private and public development, and that thousands of new families had moved in.

The modern-day view

For Ronda Sauget, the executive director of the Leadership Council since 2015, there is no question that Illinois is noticed more today by St. Louis than ever.

“We’ve had tremendous outreach from Missouri, for us to present and be part of meetings that we’d never been part of before. For instance, we see the St. Louis Municipal League reaching out to us. We see organizations like the Regional Business Council and others partnering with us in a major way. A lot of them see the Metro East and all the things we have — the jobs and industry and also the available, affordable land and all the transportation assets. That’s a huge plus.”

So how much did the East County initiative play a role? Would the area have grown regardless?

“That’s hard to say,” Sauget said. “I think we had to get to a point where Southwestern Illinois became a valued asset to the region as a whole, and I think that’s what you’re seeing. And it’s a wonderful thing to happen.”

The area, with 215,000 jobs and $19 billion in revenue, cannot be ignored, she said, quoting numbers from a study of the area done a few years ago when local leaders began a massive campaign to justify updating levees along the Mississippi River.

“Those type of seeds make a big difference,” she said.

Businessman Rich Sauget named his company, East County Enterprises in the town of Sauget, after the campaign, she said.

Leadership Council itself has seen a surge in interest during the 25 years since it pushed East County. It now has almost 250 members.

“Just over seven or eight years ago we were at a little over 150 members,” Sauget said. “A lot of the ones we’re getting in are very large firms, and they see the advantage of having the participation by a lot of companies. One company doesn’t have a big voice. Two hundred and fifty of the largest, prominent companies have a big voice. I would say a third of our businesses have ties with both states.”

Companies today are more regional than ever.

“They don’t see that river being a great wall,” she said. “I’m very optimistic about where the future could go.”

Marketing Southwestern Illinois: A Case Study

James M. Grandone

By J. M. Grandone

grandone.james@gmail.com

The multi-year comprehensive effort to market Southwestern Illinois was, in large part, the result of my experiences with people’s misperceptions of the area.  For 10 years, I worked in downtown St. Louis and Clayton, Mo.  The people I worked with on the 1980s and early 1990s either knew nothing about Southwestern Illinois or had the wrong ideas about what it was like. Many of them knew only what they had seen on television or read in the paper about East St. Louis:  crime, corruption and urban decay.  Almost all the news from there was negative, particularly about East St. Louis because the media covers crime as important news and so crimes, especially major crimes, are routinely reported.  For 50 years, news coming out of East St. Louis had not been positive and there was nothing to counterbalance that negative image until the 1990s.

As a result of the attitudes about Southwestern Illinois that I encountered I recognized that a marketing opportunity existed for the area.  In 1992, I began contacting Southwestern Illinois business, education and civic leaders to discuss the urgent need for a marketing effort to create a positive image and to change mistaken perceptions.  The urgency was partly due to my own embarrassment in people’s reaction when I told them where I lived, as well as the clear opportunity to make money turning a negative into a positive.  Mostly, it was due to my good fortune in being very familiar with both sides of the Mississippi River.  I had lived in Soulard in the City of St. Louis for several years and was involved with the Soulard Restoration Group then.  While working in St. Louis and Clayton, I was fortunate to be able to provide public relations services to major St. Louis companies and their subsidiaries, such as Anheuser-Busch and Ralston.  I also worked closely with civic organizations, such as Civic Entrepreneurs Organization (CEO), Sold on St. Louis, the City of St. Louis Community Development Agency, and managed the media campaign that lead to the incorporation of the City of Chesterfield, Mo.

My Illinois credentials included growing up in Alton, working in the Illinois General Assembly as a Legislative Aide, several political campaigns, including Carter-Mondale Presidential campaign staff for Southern Illinois, and service as a student member of the Southern Illinois University Board of Trustees.

The marketing campaign that I conceptualized began during meetings in 1991 with recognized leaders whom I knew personally or had read about in the newspapers.  I wanted to talk to people who had a broader perspective than just their community.  So I met with individuals such as Ralph Korte of Korte Construction, Al Kerth with Civic Progress, Gary Berkley, publisher Belleville News-Democrat, Ron Capek of Illinois Bell (now SBC), Joe Millard, then with Mark Twain Bank, Earl Lazerson, then chancellor of SIUE, Jim Pennekamp of the Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois, Alan Ortbals then executive director of the SWIDA, a representative of Illinois Power (now AmerenUE), executive directors of the three metro east Realtors associations, Mark Westhoff of the Southwestern Illinois Convention and Tourism Bureau, Bill Koman Sr. of the Koman Group and many others with related regional interests.  I also talked with friends and associates who lived in Illinois and worked in Missouri to get their input.

Everyone I met with thought a comprehensive marketing/image effort for Southwestern Illinois targeting St. Louis and St. Louis County was needed.  Every one of them recognized that Illinois had as much if not more to offer to businesses and developers, homebuyers and retailers as St. Louis and St. Louis County offered.  They clearly understood that Metro East was underdeveloped given its proximity to a major city and its amenities.

There was, however, a problem that each of them noted.  There was no money and no organization was structured to implement it.  The economy was the major issue in the presidential campaign that year, which subsequently drove an incumbent president out of office.  So, the money would not be easy to raise from businesses and organizations.

At this time I was General Manager of Public Relations for Marketing Mix, a Clayton-based integrated marketing company that also was getting hit by the sagging local economy.  We were looking for new business, so I wrote an unsolicited marketing proposal and submitted it to the Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois in 1992. 

As with any new idea in a bad economy, the leadership of that organization was reluctant to consider embarking on a sweeping campaign that was unsolicited and unfunded from a Missouri company that was relatively unknown.  The bias clearly pervaded both sides of the river.  I was telling them they had an image problem and had to raise money for me to fix it with no guarantee of success.  It was a classic public relations dilemma.

After more than a year of discussions and a bidding process that invited competitive bids, the Leadership Council eventually recognized the need was greater than the risk and embarked on an unprecedented fund-raising effort to support it. 

The original proposal included a substantial advertising budget, including radio, print and outdoor (billboard) advertising.  The public relations budget primarily consisted of funding a media relations effort.  Due to limited resources, the advertising element, which included print, radio and outdoor advertising (billboards), was dropped.

As part of a compromise that required an Illinois local motivation element to the campaign, a loosely knit group of graphic designers, IllinoisFirst, was awarded a contract to motivate Metro East residents to support and promote living and doing business in Illinois.  That element of the campaign was never fully implemented.

Part of the Marketing Mix proposal consisted of conducting professional survey research.  We needed to identify perceptions of Metro East among business decision-makers in order to address those perceptions in the message development phase of the marketing campaign.  Business decision-makers in St. Louis at the time lived, primarily in the Central West Corridor, which generally consisted of a geographic area that started in the city’s Central West End and ran west into St. Louis County.

The research contradicted the widely held assumption that Metro East was perceived negatively among the target audience.  In fact, the original drafts of creative (advertising) elements of the campaign (which was created by St. Louis County residents at Marketing Mix) directly addressed negative perceptions and was designed to change them from negative to positive.  Changing attitudes from negative to positive is one of the most difficult challenges in any public relations or advertising effort. 

The results of that research surprised everyone. It showed that opinion leaders and residents in the St. Louis city and county portions of the metropolitan area had little or no understanding of what Illinois had to offer.  So while the operating assumption was that we had to change people’s attitudes toward Illinois, the new challenge was to create an image where none had previously existed.

That created an entirely new approach to marketing Metro East because creating an image among business decision-makers and civic leaders allowed for a much more positive message to be communicated.  Essentially, the research showed that Missouri business leaders didn’t think Metro East was bad, they didn’t think about Metro East at all!

The campaign’s original message consisted of two major elements.  The first was targeted to reach St. Louis business and civic leaders in the Central West Corridor.  East County...If You Only Knew, became the agreed upon message.  It specifically was aimed at promoting jobs and economic growth through business expansion and new business locations.  The second would have been a message targeting Metro East residents and, as mentioned above, never really got off the ground. 

The campaign was launched in 1993 at the height of the Mississippi River’s worst flood in history with the media’s complete attention focused on that.  It entailed an full day of three press conferences; each at a location designed to emphasize Southwestern Illinois assets.  They were held at the site of the new Clark at Alton, the site of MidAmerica Airport, and the site of Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville’s new Korte Stadium.  All three locations were sources of community pride and were geographically convenient to various news media outlets in Illinois and Missouri.

In retrospect, one of the missteps in the campaign was the use of the East County name as part of the local motivation effort.  Residents of Metro East did not like it at all.  Although there was no follow-up survey taken in Missouri or Illinois, the general sense that one got from reading newspaper stories was that Illinois residents in Metro East were loyal to their community.  In fact, there was a sense that there was not cohesiveness whatsoever among people whom lived in disparate communities, such as Alton and East St. Louis.  Yet the news media and advertisers continued to clump them all together into the term Metro East as if those communities considered themselves part of that imaginary area.

Initially, East County was received with skepticism by the St. Louis business community and news media. There also was scattered resistance to the theme of the campaign by Illinois residents who either did not have even want to be associated with St. Louis, or who were proud of their individual community’s identity and wished to protect it.

A major part of the Missouri campaign was to directly interface with business and civic leaders of all sectors of the economy.  One-on-one meetings were held with editors and news directors of all major news media in St. Louis and Illinois to help them understand the purpose behind the effort.  These meetings built understanding and paved the way for more positive reception of subsequent communications.

In addition, meetings were held with St. Louis leaders in a variety of areas.  We met with the Realtor’s Association of Metropolitan St. Louis, leaders of various commercial real estate development organizations, the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission, the St. Louis Regional Commerce and Growth Association (RCGA), representatives of Civic Progress, the St. Louis Mayor’s office and other local and regional economic development officials.  Surprisingly, we learned that such meetings had never been initiated nor taken place before and were welcome.  This reinforced the research message that knowledge and understanding of the Illinois portion of St. Louis metropolitan region was very limited. 

Following the launch of the Southwestern Illinois marketing campaign, the thrust of the marketing effort in Missouri continued to be reaching opinion leaders and decision makers through the news media.  A constant barrage of news releases were sent to editors and news directors announcing new developments, groundbreakings, grand openings, updating projects under construction, press conferences, presidential and gubernatorial visits, etc.  The result of this continuous creation of positive news generated a sense among residents in the entire region that Southwestern Illinois was growing. 

In addition to the announcements sent to St. Louis and local Illinois media, we slowly began to expand the reach of the campaign to include trade publications in the Midwest and nationally.

Constant positive publicity resulted in the various regional and national economic development media, such as Midwest Real Estate News, Illinois Real Estate, Plants, Sites & Parks, and others, began to have a domino effect.  The economic development media began describing Southwestern Illinois as a “hot spot” for new development.  Local media reported on the national media because we sent press releases about the national media coverage to the local media.  The accomplishment of getting the regional and national press attention was very significant in that previously many of those same publications considered Illinois as beginning in Chicago and ending at Springfield (or worse at Joliet).  This despite the fact that Southwestern Illinois was the largest urban area south of Chicago with a population in excess of 500,000 people.  Again, it was a case where the trade media just didn’t know about the region and nobody had ever promoted it before.

In 1995, just as the marketing effort was gathering strength and getting noticed in St. Louis, Southwestern Illinois got some very disturbing news.  The area’s two military bases – Scott Air Force Base and the Army’s Charles Melvin Price Support Center were vulnerable to closure as part of the Defense Base Realignment and Closure process. In St. Louis, ATCOM was at risk.

The marketing efforts shifted from job attraction to local job retention as it became overtaken by the threat of the Defense Base Realignment and Closure Commission’s (BRAC) review of U.S. military facilities, including Scott Air Force Base and the Army’s Charles Melvin Price Support Center.  While St. Louis lost ATCOM, Southwestern Illinois’ surprisingly successful efforts to retain the jobs at the Army’s CMPSC, despite the opposition of BRAC and the Department of Defense were perceived as a major victory, and further contributed to the efforts to create a positive public impression of Southwestern Illinois in the St. Louis region.  It also buoyed the reputation of the Leadership Council among regional leaders.

After BRAC, the marketing effort resumed in St. Louis but was expanded to include regional and national commercial and industrial real estate, as well as economic development publications throughout the U.S.  Such major publications as Midwest Real Estate News, Plants, Sites & Parks, Area Development and Site Selection magazines were pitched and eventually ran stories about the unprecedented growth in Southwestern Illinois.  The expansion unquestionably achieved its objective of generating numerous positive news stories about Southwestern Illinois, including new tenants at GatewayCommerce Center, the extension of Interstate 255, Gateway Raceway, and expansion of MidAmerica Airport.  Those stories reached key decision makers and influencers outside the St. Louis area, as well as reinforcing among St. Louis decision makers the perception that Southwestern Illinois should be seriously considered as a highly desirable location for relocation or expansion.  Suddenly, as one real-estate magazine said on its cover after an announcement of new business developments, “Southwestern Illinois is Hot!”

Efforts also included promoting news about redevelopment and renewal in the area.  For example, a story placed in the New York Times enumerating private and public investment in East St. Louiscaught the attention of then Commerce Secretary William Daley.  At that time, his office was planning a national tour of exemplary inner-city redevelopment sites. The Commerce Secretary’s staff noticed the NYT article and contacted the Leadership Council to help coordinate a visit to the new Walgreen’s in the city’s State Street Shopping Center by President Bill Clinton and Daley.

The expanded marketing effort also included the creation of a comprehensive Web site by the Leadership Council (www.siteselection-il.com) showing the region’s assets and including multiple regional links.  The effort also included a targeted, three-piece direct mail marketing campaign to site selection and commercial/industrial real estate professionals.  The mailings focused on the attributes of Southwestern Illinois in terms of convenient location, transportation infrastructure and other benefits of doing business here.  The mailings also directed recipients to visit the Web site for more information.  In addition to providing general information about Southwestern Illinois and development opportunities in the area, the Web site included links to local economic development organizations, the former Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs (renamed the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity) the RCGA and related sites provided by the State of Illinois.

Because my direct involvement in marketing Southwestern Illinois ended in 2000, I am not aware of activities have been undertaken since then.  Many unexplored opportunities may exist to promote the area as an excellent location to locate or expand a variety of businesses and enhance Southwestern Illinois’ reputation in the region. 

I hope this overview is helpful in understanding the dramatic impact a single idea along with persistence, innovation and the support of leaders with vision can accomplish.  It only represents my perspective on the effort as the person who conceived and implemented the marketing effort.  It is, however, obvious that the Southwestern Illinois of 2003 doesn’t bear much resemblance to that same region just ten years ago.

Results:


  • Billions of dollars in new private and public development continues to pour into Southwestern Illinois. 
  • Southwestern Illinois is considered an important partner in the growth of the St. Louis region by leadership in both states.
  • Scott Air Force Base survived unscathed in the 2005 round of BRAC, it remains “Pentagon West” with more than four, four-star generals at headquarters there. 
  • Residential development continues to break previous year’s records as thousands of new families make Southwestern Illinois home.
  • Residential property tax rates are projected to decline in Edwardsville due to economic development in that community.

For more information, contact

Jim Grandone

Grandone Public Relations

403 Jefferson Road

Edwardsville, IL 62025

(618) 692-1892    

grandone.james@gmail.com

www.grandone.com