Nominee: Jim McConoughey

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jim mcconoughey

Local Not for Profit: Heart of Illinois United Way

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The Midwestern way

Jim McConoughey energized by the values

he has found in his adopted community

To hear him tell it, Jim McConoughey’s move to Peoria more than a decade ago could read like a love story.

“We found each other,” he said recently when explaining how the dynamics of his job as CEO of the Heartland Partnership helped him to finally realize he could merge his development talents with a desire to serve the public.

Now if somebody would just stock some nearby stream with trout, central Illinois would truly be his utopia.

“I am absolutely doing what I want to do and this is where I want to do it. We intend to stay here permanently. We like it that much,” McConoughey said, also referring to his wife Gina, dean of business at Illinois Central College, and their two children.

Noting he once developed hotels in different cities, he added, “The hotel business gave me the opportunity to see the good and bad of a lot of cities. I like the way Midwesterners thing and do things, especially in Peoria.”

After more than 10 years here, he said he now considers himself a Peorian. “My kids are even more so, because they have grown up here. There is a tremendous amount of rootedness here and that is a good feeling,” he said.

McConoughey ran for Congress in 2008 and while he didn’t win the seat the decision to run, he said, says a lot about his love for Peoria and central Illinois. “I have that commitment to serving people’s needs. I wouldn’t have run for Congress if I didn’t feel that connection with Peoria and its residents.”

McConoughey grew up on a family farm in a rural area near Dayton, Ohio. He said he now sees many similarities between Dayton and Peoria. “It was very humbling to watch the decline of family farms, which was what was happening when I was growing up. Then the manufacturing base in Dayton went through bad times, like what happened in Peoria. That’s another reason I feel a connection here, I guess,” he said.

He went to college at Ohio Weslyan University to study business but he started getting interested in real estate development while in school. After college he went to work for a company that was in the business of building roadside motels, which were becoming increasingly popular at the time.

“It was a good fit, at the time. I was young, single and I loved to travel. Most of the travel was by car from small town to small town or by small plane, but that was great,” he said, referring to those years as his “go-go years.”

Along the way, however, he learned how to negotiate development deals, how to buy land and build things while being able to adapt to different towns with different environments.

Then came marriage to Gina, a native of Woodstock, Ill., and two children, teen-agers Elizabeth and Spencer. The next phase of his life had begun.

“Having kids really changed me. They grounded me,” he said.

He and Gina bought a large, historic bed-and-breakfast in Lakeside, Ohio, on Lake Erie. “It was different. It was fun. But there came a time when living where you work and having a bunch of people in your house all the time wasn’t a great situation, especially for the kids. It was time to move,” he said.

Next came a job in economic development in Elgin, one of Chicago’s western suburbs. “It was part of a growth area around Chicago. I’d cut my teeth in small towns but there I started getting volume deals because of the size of the area. The most fun part of that area was that most of the people there were transplants and so they were sort of their own pioneers. These were people building cities and with lofty ideals,” he said.

While in Elgin McConoughey became chairman of the Kane County Economic Development Commission, yet another experience “that added real value to what I am doing here.”

But he and Gina were looking for something different as their children grew, different from the hour long commute to and from work each day and yet someplace with much to offer. “I started looking into the dynamics of the job and of the area and saw some challenges I wanted to take on,” he said.

One of the challenges was to give definition to the Heartland Partnership, a blanket organization encompassing the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce, the Economic Development Council for Central Illinois, Peoria NEXT, the Port District and several other companies. It also included hiring the right people to bring about change and growth, something he said he’s proud to have accomplished.

“Every day I get up and come to the office, I get energized by the people here. We get them involved in their jobs, their tasks and in the community. They are making things happen in the community and they really get it done,” he said.

“Sometimes I tell the staff to look out our front window and look at the (Murray Baker) bridge right there. Nobody gives a second thought to how that bridge came to be, who built it or what went into getting it built. It’s just there. But it took people just like us to do it, people with the vision to get it done, to build things that aren’t there now. I look for people I know get it, yet with a diversity of backgrounds and personalities that bring a richness to the process,” McConoughey said.

He said most of the problems that land on the Heartland Partnership’s doorstep are problems that have existed for years but that nobody was able to fix. “We will try and figure it out, fix it and make it work,” he said.

In the 10 years he’s been in Peoria, McConoughey has witnessed some of the region’s diversification from being chiefly a manufacturing area. Much of that diversification had occurred before he came, “but the need to diversify comes around again and again and our job is to be ready for it and help make it happen so we have a place that is strong and is an attractive place to live and work. Local patriotism is great but you need a lot of creative energy to make good things happen.”

McConoughey said there have been many good things happen in his tenure that he has been proud to lead or be part of. Asked which he’s most proud of he started with the “formation and acceleration of Peoria NEXT and helping, through that organization, some really good businesses get started.”

The Heartland Partnership built and owns the Peoria NEXT Innovation Center, basically an incubator for start-up businesses. He recalls taking his children to watch the demolition of the building that stood at Main and Orange streets before the Innovation Center was constructed. “I thought it was important they see it because it was emblematic of what we were trying to do for the region. That, I think, really was a watershed moment for the Heartland Partnership,” he said.

He credited Drs. Dick Lister and Donald Rager for the idea of Peoria NEXT, the Innovation Center and helping bring the CEOs of area business together to push forward the idea that start-up small business needed a diverse base from which to grow. “We give the backbone to Peoria NEXT and we put together the way to run the organization, but it works because of the partner organizations involved,” McConoughey said. “That was important because this was new. We had no benchmark. We had to justify the return on the investment.”

Those organizations include area colleges and universities, hospitals, the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria, the National Center for Agricultural Research and Caterpillar Inc.

Another accomplishment of which he’s proud is the role he played in getting the new Cancer Research Center built at the College of Medicine. “The idea had been kicking around for a while but nothing much was getting done. So we took a risk. The Heartland Partnership bought the land and donated it to the University of Illinois, but it took teamwork from people like Ray LaHood (then a congressman, now U.S. Secretary of Transportation) to bring people together, impassioned people to raise the funds to get it built. It took a lot of balance and teamwork and now we have the beginning of how cancer research can really be done,” he said.

His involvement in both of those projects truly brought to the forefront what he does. As he explained, “If I am doing my job well, I’m a change agent. A lot of times that isn’t easy to understand but it means having the wisdom to decide the best way to go and then having the courage to move forward with it. It requires a lot of trust from people, from the community, and I believe I have that trust.”

Community service also is important to McConoughey. Sometimes he can combine it with the job, such as helping the local CEO Roundtable be involved with reading and tutoring programs for District 150, the Build the Block campaign that resulted in the new Riverfront Museum and Caterpillar Visitors Center, both of which are now under construction, and the Quest Charter Academy that aims to bring students world-class education in math, science and technology.

He has served on many boards through the region and has done volunteer work for Easter Seals, the Boy Scouts, Wildlife Prairie State Park and others.

In 2009 Jim and Gina McConoughey co-chaired the Heart of Illinois United Way Annual Campaign.

There will be more such activity in the future, McConoughey said. And one of his chief jobs will be to continue bringing in talented people, and grooming them for leadership. “I want to build a great leadership base for this community, for the entire region, so that it never lacks for leadership,” he said.

Further excursions into politics “probably aren’t in the cards for me. I would rather explore how to prepare our future leaders.”

Heart of Illinois United Way

Jim McConoughey got up close and personal with the work done by the Heart of Illinois United Way when he and his wife Gina co-chaired the organization’s 2009 Annual Campaign, during which more than $8 million was raised.

“It was a tremendous experience for both of us. It was during the deepest part of the recession yet people still came forward to help others who were more in need than they were. Peoria is a generous community. It was very rewarding,” McConoughey said.

That is why he has chosen the Heart of Illinois United Way to receive the $10,000 award from The Peorian should he be selected winner of the inaugural The Peorian of the Year Award.

The mission of the organization is “to increase the organized capacity of the people in Central Illinois to care for one another.”

It does that by bringing together business, labor, government, health and human services “to make a real difference in our community,” the organization says on its website, www.hoiunitedway.org. It collaborates with 45 partner agencies to fund programs that focus on issues affecting youth, families, self-reliance and health and it allocates funds to address a broad range of community needs.

For more information about the Heart of Illinois United Way, including a listing of its partner agencies, ways to give and to volunteer go to the website at www.hoiunitedway.org.