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Business Voice: Loss of Office Depot headquarters sign of state’s bigger problems

Office Max headquarters at 263 Shuman Boulevard in Naperville on Thursday, February 21, 2013. Office Max and Office Depot are merging.  | Steven Buyansky~Sun-Times Media

Office Max headquarters at 263 Shuman Boulevard in Naperville on Thursday, February 21, 2013. Office Max and Office Depot are merging. | Steven Buyansky~Sun-Times Media

This last week, citizens, elected officials and business leaders from across our region and state learned that Naperville and Illinois lost out on the competition to host Office Depot Inc.’s new corporate headquarters. This loss is an unfortunate setback for our local and state economy.

A successful business is focused on the future, and we can’t fault them for that. Company officials weighed a variety of factors, including costs, tax implications and economic incentives, future space needs, and the impact on the workers they need to run their company that operates 2,200 stores in 59 countries.

It is important to remember that, while Naperville won’t be the company’s corporate headquarters, Office Depot Inc. will maintain a presence in our community and state. After the integration ends, they will have stores and distribution facilities in the area. Groups like the Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce will still partner with them on great programs like our job fairs for people with disabilities and discount programs for our membership. Still, the sense of disappointment hangs in the air.

The chamber believes the relocation decision says a lot more about our state’s overall business climate and inconsistent messages to business owners, than it does about whether our community is a great place to locate and grow a business.

If losing a great company like Office Depot doesn’t serve as a wake-up call to the elected leadership and professional staff at all levels of government, we don’t know what will. We’ve tried to sound the alarm for years through our Legislative Committee meetings.

To ignore the state’s business climate is the same as voting for policies that hold back investment, growth and job creation. Our state’s unaffordable workers’ compensation system hurts businesses and employees. Ever-rising taxes of all sorts siphon away reinvestment — just to name a few examples.

Illinois’ unemployment rate of 8.9 percent is higher than the national average, and it has been since December 2010. No amount of artful rhetoric can hide the conclusion in the data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics: Illinois lags the underperforming national economy in creating jobs.

There are also important lingering questions about whether the state did everything it could to keep a major employer. It was clear that Florida officials were courting the company.

Ahead of the fall veto session, the Naperville chamber worked with other chambers from across the state, from McLean County to Rockford, to encourage the General Assembly to take up several requests from companies to make the state’s flagship economic development program accessible to their business. We urged, “Now is not the time to impose a self-inflicted wound on our state economy.”

Businesses were willing to make long-term commitments to create jobs in exchange for credits against a variety of taxes they generate by operating and employing individuals in Illinois. After all, if they leave, they don’t generate any form of taxes for the government. While the Senate voted in an overwhelmingly bipartisan basis to make this happen, it came too late in the process. What prevented action?

There were Republicans, Democrats, policy “experts” and interest groups who attacked the idea of offering economic development incentives. Some used harsh rhetoric to describe the requests of the companies. Others played politics, suggesting it was an illicit request for help creating jobs. Some policy groups publicly lambasted the proposals.

Other officials simply missed the point that we’re trying to market Illinois as a good place to do business. During a hearing on the economic development program, one senator made the mistake to switch topics to and quiz executives on what they thought of raising Illinois’ minimum wage.

No one outside of the boardroom can articulate whether an incentive package would have kept thousands of jobs here. But it sure would have been nice if Illinois had put an official offer on the table.

The General Assembly should learn from this, and immediately pass the common sense economic development and job creation bills pending for other companies. Illinois cannot climb out of its fiscal disaster without private sector companies investing in our communities and creating jobs for citizens.

When legislators return to Springfield in January, we ask them to get the job done so other towns don’t have to deal with the indignity of losing great businesses. We also suggest getting to work on fixing the fiscal and regulatory mess holding our state back from performing at the national average.

With your continued involvement, the chamber will continue our work to improve the business climate, grow the economy and help local job creators.

Katie Wood is the acting chief executive officer of the Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce, a 1,500-member organization. She can be reached at kwood@naperville.net or 630-355-4141.

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