SIDEZ In Depth

In 1993 the federal government announced the Empowerment Zone/Enterprise Community (EZEC) Program.  The program provided communities the opportunity to design strategies to overcome persistent and pervasive poverty and to compete for a $40 million award to implement their strategies over 10 years.  Businesses in the zone would receive federal tax credits.  USDA Rural Development would target EZEC communities to receive additional resources from a special pool of set-aside funds within their regular grant and loan programs.


The EZEC program was built on four guiding principles:


·         Strategic Vision for Change

·         Economic Opportunity

·         Sustainable Community Development

·         Community-Based Partnerships


Alexander County/Cairo and Pulaski County competed against each other for a Round I empowerment zone designation in 1994.  Neither application was successful.


In 1997, when the Round II EZEC application process was announced, Illinois USDA Rural Development officials encouraged communities in southern Illinois to work together and submit a joint application.  The empowerment zone regulations required each census tract included in the proposed zone to have a 20 percent or greater poverty rate (1990 Census), comprise less than 1,000 square miles and total less than 30,000 in population.  Six eligible census tracts in southernmost Illinois were identified—three in Alexander County, two in Pulaski County and one in Johnson County.  The census tracts included 12 municipalities, 449.1 square miles and 18,743 residents.


Local leaders representing diverse interests formed a steering committee to prepare the Round II EZEC application.  Lisa Thurston, Executive Director of Southern Five Regional Planning Commission and Development District, chaired the steering committee.  Subcommittees were formed, residents were surveyed and numerous public hearings were conducted to seek grassroots input on assets, needs and strategies for rejuvenating the area.  The Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs helped citizens develop a long term vision for the proposed empowerment zone and prioritized seven goal areas for inclusion in the strategic plan.  Numerous strategies were included within each goal area.


                VISION:  The Southernmost Illinois Delta Empowerment Zone will be noted for its scenic beauty, economic vitality and high quality of life that are a result of citizens working together to bring about positive change.




Goal #1                 Infrastructure

Goal #2                 Economic Development

Goal #3                 Tourism

Goal #4                 Stronger Unity/Sense of Community

Goal #5                 Education & Life-long Learning

Goal #6                 Housing

Goal #7                 Health Care


On January 13, 1999, Vice President Al Gore and Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman officially announced that SIDEZ had been awarded one of five rural empowerment zone designations from 160 applications.  Illinois USDA Rural Development State Director Wally Furrow and several local leaders attended the award ceremony in Washington DC.


Because of the unprecedented size and scope of the 10-year strategic plan, a new 501c3 not-for-profit corporation called the Southernmost Illinois Delta Empowerment Zone (SIDEZ) was formed to oversee plan implementation, manage EZ grant funds and ensure ongoing citizen input.  The 33-member board of directors included a low income representative from each census tract, representatives from regional public agencies and persons representing diverse interests--minority, business, county and municipal governments, youth, and farming.  


Robert Reichert, Vice President of First State Bank of Olmsted was elected as first president.  Donna Raynalds was hired as the Executive Director.  During the 11 years of zone designation, more than 75 individuals served on the SIDEZ board.  Raynalds and three board members—Mr. Reichert, Cheryl Vanderford of Shawnee Development Council and Willard Murrie, who represented low-income residents of Johnson County—served continuously for all 11 years.  In 2009 the SIDEZ board established the Willard Murrie Scholarship at Shawnee Community College to honor Mr. Murrie's record of community service and dedication to the empowerment zone.


While promised $4 million per year to implement the 10 year Strategic Plan, that amount was immediately cut to $2 million per year for the first two years.  Smaller appropriations were received in subsequent years.  As annual appropriations decreased it became more challenging to stretch funding meaningfully across all seven goal areas.  In 2006 the SIDEZ board recommended focusing any funds received in years 7-10 on community clean-up and economic development strategies. 


In 2009, SIDEZ received an unanticipated 11th year EZ appropriation.  The funds were invested in projects that created or retained jobs and that would generate a sustainable source of income for SIDEZ.  SIDEZ will receive income for 15 years from equipment leases, business loans and sales of a documentary DVD.


During the 11 years of zone designation, SIDEZ invested $17,685,569 EZ grant funds in community and economic development strategies.  From 1999 to 2009, 83 organizations in the SIDEZ area completed more than 600 individual projects benchmarked in the SIDEZ 10 Year Strategic Plan for community and economic revitalization.  For every $1 of EZ funds invested, another $5.62 was leveraged from other sources.

SIDEZ continues to work towards the seven goal areas and promote economic development in Alexander, Pulaski and Johnson counties.