It’s a new era for Freeport and Stephenson County: The Greater Freeport Partnership is underway!

This is a bold experiment in regional cooperation that is not often seen in Illinois, which has nearly 7,000 local governments that feud and fight among themselves for an ever smaller share of the tax pie.

The partnership combines into one organization the Northwest Illinois Development Alliance, the Freeport/Stephenson County Convention and Visitors Burueau, the Freeport Area Chamber of Commerce and the Freeport Downtown Development Foundation.

Putting this new group together took blood, sweat and yes, some tears. But it has the potential to unite the city and county in a common approach to community and economic development, workforce training and tourism development.

I talked last week with Rebecca Motley, the new executive director of the Greater Freeport Partnership, who was excited to get started at this job. She’s originally from the northwest suburbs but for the past two decades has been in Champaign-Urbana. Her most recent job was consultant in economic development for Rantoul.

“One of the things that attracted me to this job is that I can feel the energy that put this partnership together. It’s unusual and quite innovative,” Motley said. “Stephenson County is really beautiful. We have a huge opportunity to increase tourism.”

Motely said she intends to live in downtown Freeport. “The place I’m going to live in is being remodeled. I’m staying right now at the Hampton,” she said.

“People are coming downtown to start businesses. I think it’s a perfect time to invest. Things are reasonably priced and I think it’s only going to go up from here.”

Motley will manage a staff of seven, acknowledging that it’s a challenge to assemble an entirely new structure.

“It’s hard to go from ‘silos’ to people working together. I wouldn’t have taken the job, though, if it hadn’t been structured like this,” she said.

The partnership has a broad range of responsibilities “and it’s challenging to manage all of that. It isn’t something that’s done much in this area of the country. For the size of our community it makes sense to get people to live, work and play here.”

Stephenson County has about 46,000 people. Its population has been declining.

The partnership will develop a comprehensive plan for the region that will include training workers for jobs that will be needed in the future, with the help of Freeport High School and Highland Community College, Motley said.

Expanding tourism opportunities and attractions is also part of the partnership’s charge.

“We will also do a significant number of events that Freeport.org has been doing. Those events have been really positive. Cruise Night, now in its 48th year, attracts 15,000 people.”

The Greater Freeport Partnership has a budget of nearly $1 million, Motley said. “The city of Freeport is providing about half our funding. The county has been at $25,000 and the board has voted to ramp up their spending gradually to $100,000.”

Motley believes that people in Illinois “tend to be humble. We need to get out and tell people what we’ve got here.”

Governor’s race update

A key prognosticator on American elections is Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, published by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. It posted a new set of predictions Friday, which moved the Illinois governor’s race from “leans Democrat” to “likely Democrat,” meaning the center’s analysis indicates Democratic candidate J.B. Pritzker is likely to defeat Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner in November.

Crystal Ball said “the Illinois gubernatorial contest appears increasingly uncompetitive. Gov. Bruce Rauner began the 2018 cycle as the most endangered incumbent Republican in the country and his position has really only worsened since then. Rauner only narrowly won renomination in the March primary against state Rep. Jeanne Ives, R-Wheaton, indicating the GOP base’s frustration with the incumbent.”

After the primary Crystal Ball shifted Illinois from “toss-up” to “leans Democrat,” noting that in the second quarter of 2018, the campaign of Pritzker, a multibillionaire, outspent multimillionaire Rauner’s campaign $20.1 million to $7.8 million.

Rauner, who tried to govern as a fiscal conservative and social liberal who recently officiated a gay wedding, also faces competition from the right. State Sen. Sam McCann, R-Plainview, entered the race for governor as a Conservative Party candidate.

Originally published in the Journal Standard.