Economic development is a team sport

Do you dragon-boat race? Well, I did last Saturday on the Ashley River in Charleston, S.C.

If you are unfamiliar with a dragon boat, let me give you a little perspective. The boat hold 20 rowers – 10 people on each side. There’s a small seat in front of the boat for the drummer and then someone to steer stands on the back. The boat is long and narrow, stable if you are sitting correctly with your hip against the side wall. Shifting weight from one side to the other can cause instability and into the water your team goes.

According to our team captain, the key to our success was synchronizing our strokes and listening to the drummer. Brute strength would not win the race.

It was the first heat of the day. It was about 65 degrees, overcast, with strong winds, but we were ready to go. We loaded the boat and paddled to the starting line. The horn sounded and we were off!

Well, while we had the best of intentions, in the heat of the race, my team lost all synchronization – even with our best rowing efforts, we finished last in our heat and 67 out of 70 teams. Our time was worse than a team of 60- and 70-year-old women and we had six male paddlers on our boat.

The moral of this dragon-boat story is that teamwork, trust, communication and a common vision (synchronization) is critical to success.

Here in McHenry County, there are a number of foundation-building projects moving forward through the collaboration and synchronization of efforts by the McHenry County Economic Development Corp., McHenry County College, McHenry County Workforce Network, McHenry County government, our municipalities and private companies.

In 2010, the county, the McHenry County Council of Governments and MCEDC joined together to engage Northern Illinois University to develop a countywide fiber network plan. This study interviewed both public and private entities to understand the needs of our county. Since that time, our group has grown to include MCC, specific municipalities, our K-12 education partners, Centegra Health System and many others. As the Illinois Century Network brings fiber to MCC, our plan is to springboard off that fiber to build a solid network that connects other partners. The common vision of our team is driving this “fiber highway of the future.”

There have been a great many articles on the importance of a vibrant advanced manufacturing industry sector to our American economy. In February, the federal government announced a Make It in America grant opportunity. We met with our collaborative partners, MCC and the Workforce Network to discuss the possibility of applying for this grant, especially since we have almost 600 local manufacturers. Our decision was to expand our collaboration and partnerships and to build a team to include the eight counties in Northern Illinois, the Rockford area workforce board, economic development professionals, community colleges and NIU. We have been meeting to complete the grant process and submit our application which would help fund manufacturing training.

This is another example of how successful dragon-boat paddling – everyone working together with the same goal – can make this region stronger and more productive for our businesses, educational institutions and residents.

Our team of collaborative partners also are working on the development of education and training programs in the areas of plastics and overall manufacturing. This is critical to the future of McHenry County for two reasons: Historically, manufacturing comprises more than 25 percent of the county’s economic wealth; and, according to the county’s labor report, 49 percent of the workforce in manufacturing is between the ages of 45 and 64. To remain strong, we need to develop that future workforce.

Economic development is a team sport. Having that common vision, rowing in the same direction, communicating and trusting our partners is critical to a continued strong McHenry County.

• Pam Cumpata is president of the McHenry County Economic Development Corp. For more information, call 815-893-0895, or visit


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