December 03, 2022


Jim Nowlan: Illinois doesn’t know where it’s going

Jim Nowlan

I spoke recently to an audience of attorneys and financial planners about the future of Illinois. I asked for a show of hands as to who thought our state would reverse the almost 1% decline in population we experienced in the past decade. Only 1 of 30 thought it was likely.

Why, I asked: high taxes; climate; business climate; corruption and lack of state pride were responses from this highly educated group.

Yes, I agreed, Illinois has obvious shortcomings, yet the state has incredible strengths as well, which would make Illinois an economic powerhouse otherwise. And the problems are fixable, though politically daunting.

Now let’s look at the positive side of the ledger, which is strikingly bright, in ways I rarely hear trumpeted. Former state commerce director Jim Schultz of Effingham sums it up succinctly: In each of the five critical Rs – roads, rails, runways, rivers and routers – Illinois is among the top three states in the nation. I called Jim and told him he should add a six R: research. A recent ranking of graduate research universities found the universities of Chicago, Northwestern and Illinois to be among the top 20 in the world – 3 of 20, not just in the nation, but in the world.

I could go through each of the Rs in detail, but space limits me: Yet, look at a highway map of the U.S.. See the density of interstate highways crisscrossing Illinois – thicker than for just about any state. We have more miles, 2,200, of interstate highways than any states in the nation other than California and Texas. And, our state is located smack dab in the middle of the world’s largest market.

Our strengths would be the envy of most other states, if I weren’t for our weaknesses. Yet, the weaknesses can be addressed. Other states have done so.

I contend the biggest problem for Illinois is that the state doesn’t know where it is going. That is, there is no roadmap to where we want the state to be in 10 years, and of what it would take to get us there.

I continue to be confounded that the state has never – never – done any long-term thinking. The closest we have is the 6,000 disparate bills introduced into the legislature every two years. Crazy.

The singular piece of forward thinking in Illinois history was the Burnham Plan for Chicago of the early 1900s, led by the architect Daniel Burnham and commissioned by the Commercial Club of Chicago. The effort followed on the heels of the stupendous Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, visited by 27 million folks from around the world. So, the City of Big Shoulders, as Sandburg described the city, knew it could do big things.

After much work, the plan was presented to the Chicago City Council, which also labored over the plan, ultimately adopting about half the recommendations. But what marvelous results: A magnificent lakefront reserved, not for private property owners, but for the public. Wide boulevards and a spectacular park system, and more. Chicagoans and visitors have benefited every day since its adoption in 1909.

Texans think big. Their business leadership has been developing a Texas 2036 plan, for where they want Texas to be on the 200th anniversary of their nationhood. They have a Can-Do attitude.

Illinoisans are so down in the mouth about our future that we have a Can’t-Do frame of mind. There are, people think, too many political and interest group obstacles in our way. Elon Musk would be appalled at such thinking.

The business leadership of the 19th Century, such as Marshall Field, Potter Palmer, Bertha Honore Palmer, Julius Rosenwald (who built Sears), focused on the city they loved and built. Chicago’s big-time CEOs today at such behemoths as McDonald’s, Boeing, Caterpillar, United Airlines are up their eyeballs in alligators heading global companies; they don’t have much time (to) for Illinois, even though if (were) a nation, the Illinois economy would be one of the top 20 in the world.

I have an idea of how to tap into an incredible underutilized resource. Former governor Jim Edgar’s greatest legacy may prove to be his Edgar Fellows Program. Each summer for a decade now, Jim gathers 40 of the state’s young leaders, including many lawmakers, from all walks of life, political persuasion and geography. For a week, the Fellows are sequestered at the U. of I. in Urbana, where they learn about our state and its government from experts and national leaders. Over bourbon and branch water at night, they bond, and come to appreciate one another.

But then they leave town, and fail to build on their relationships and any aspirations for a state they call home.

I propose that the 400 Edgar Fellows, rather than simply feel good about themselves, take on the task of creating a vision for Illinois, one they could then implement, as they are tomorrow’s leaders. This could be done outside the hurly burly of politics, after which they would take their vision into that hurly arena, where it would have to be wrestled with, and just maybe, ultimately adopted. We need to know where we’re going.

Why not, Elon Musk would say.

• Jim Nowlan is a former Illinois legislator, state agency director, aide to three unindicted Illinois governors, professor and author of a 2019 essay of the future of Illinois, done for the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. Jim invites you to visit his new, interactive website at

Jim Nowlan

Jim Nowlan

Jim Nowlan is a retired professor and former Illinois legislator and state agency director. He has worked for three unindicted Illinois governors.