All over Bloomington-Normal, no one is talking about the worst kept secret. It seems almost everyone knows, but no one is talking. State Farm is planning to downsize, likely before year-end. This is no secret. In fact, it’s echoing throughout the halls of the insurance giant, as well as the local business community and the governments of both Bloomington and Normal. Yet, there is no public conversation. Why?! Well, because to do so would require admitting the weaknesses and flaws in our local economy and the failed actions (or inactions) of the gilded business and political class of Bloomington-Normal.
Indeed, the Chamber of Commerce, EDC, and business community narrative is one of positivity. “Let’s focus on our wins,” they say. “Per capita, Bloomington-Normal has the largest number of restaurants,” they say. Worst still, the attention seems to have focused on government-led projects like a new multi-million dollar sports complex, rec center, hotel (with views of the courthouse), and bike paths, as well as the newest fast food chain coming to town. Not one conversation about attracting and nurturing the growth of new non-retail businesses to help offset the decline of the bread-and-butter of our economy, State Farm. This is not a critique of State Farm, nor its antiquated business model – that’s well documented in “The End of Bloomington/Normal as We Know It”. In fact, State Farm has been relatively upfront about its desire not to grow in Bloomington-Normal and, internally, its pursuit of “flattening” the org chart and acting “leaner and meaner”. We all wish them luck. But luck is never enough. And it certainly won’t save Bloomington-Normal.
The problem I speak of is the lack of openness, transparency, and dialog between business and political elites and the residents of Bloomington-Normal about our new economic reality. It’s hard to talk solutions if we aren’t talking at all! Let’s be honest with each other and start having conversations now, as uncomfortable as they may be. Waiting until the date and time of announcement with a carefully scripted statement might make for safer politics, but it’s selfish and will only postpone the repairing efforts and any potential regrowth within our local economy. How much longer can Renner, Koos, and friends pretend they don’t know what’s coming? Let’s not let them off the hook. It’s time they admit the truth. After all, what good is “quality of life” if no one lives here to enjoy it?