Shrinking Springfield: Our once-vibrant city is losing people, jobs, and opportunity at an alarming rate
WICS News Channel 20: Springfield is 5th fastest shrinking mid-sized city in the country
WMBD News: Wells Fargo eliminates 140 positions in Springfield in January 2023
Illinois Business Journal: Unemployment rate in Springfield higher than national average
Springfield was once a beacon of jobs and opportunity in the Midwest, but as Illinois has lost population and jobs to pro-growth states in recent years, Springfield has seen alarming population and job declines.
According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Springfield’s population in the latest census decreased by 1.6% (or 1,856 people) to 114,394, which is down from 116,250 in 2010.
At the time the census numbers were released in mid-2021, some local leaders chalked the population losses in the city up to movement to the nearby suburbs of Chatham, Sherman, and Williamsville. While some of these cities grew, their growth cannot explain the city’s population decline entirely because Sangamon County’s population dropped overall.
Other leaders simply ignored the population losses uncovered by the census and said Springfield’s population would grow over the next 10 years simply because District 186 began a multimillion dollar construction program in 2020. But it’s telling that some think about job growth in such a regional way - that is, Springfield should only draw population from neighboring towns, rather than bringing jobs and opportunity into the region.
The truth is that Springfield’s population is declining because there are fewer and fewer employment opportunities in the metro area, and city leaders have done little to attract new business opportunities to replace the jobs lost.
In recent years, we have become immune to the steady stream of headlines of businesses leaving. Wells Fargo recently announced they were cutting 140 positions in Springfield. The global bank is not eliminating those positions; they are just being moved out of Springfield.
Simply put, Wells Fargo has chosen to grow elsewhere.
Family Video is another example like this. The once-enormous video rental company founded by Springfield’s own Hoogland family shuttered all its Springfield locations in 2021, along with all their other stores. That’s not a surprise for a video rental company in the digital-streaming world of Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. But that’s only part of the story.
According to a Forbes profile from 2017, the Hoogland family wisely diversified its company years ago to managing real estate and leasing space to sister companies, restaurants, fitness centers, and even animal clinics. In fact, Keith Hoogland told Forbes that the company did this while its competitors, most notably Blockbuster, were making bad business decisions.
Hoogland said, “[Family Video] competitors weren’t very well-run businesses … They made a lot of poor decisions.”
Family Video survived by making smart business decisions in a changing consumer landscape where DVD rental was becoming obsolete. Because of the company’s smart investment, they survived where others failed.
Well, Family Video chose to move its global headquarters from Springfield to Glenview, a Chicago suburb, years before they shuttered the doors of their other stores. It does not take the expertise of an economic development professional to question what that says about the company’s faith in the future growth potential of Springfield.
Family Video’s parent company, Highland Ventures, has since thrived in the last twenty years by diversifying its portfolio and expanding all over the country. While the company still operates in Springfield (most notably at Marco’s Pizza on the west side where a Family Video location once sat), it’s telling that such a successful company that had yearly revenue of $400 million, according to the Forbes profile, has chosen to grow elsewhere and not in Springfield where it all started.
The challenge for Springfield is to show that investment in our city is a smart business decision for successful small companies like Family Video. But we also must prove to the Wells Fargos of the world that their global corporations should expand positions in Springfield, not move them elsewhere. We have to show them that Springfield is a place where they can thrive and grow their businesses in the global economy.
Springfield is not unique. Many small and mid-sized cities have faced population and job losses, particularly in the Midwest. In fact, no Illinois city is listed among the top 50 fastest growing cities in the country, while Texas has 14. Yes, Texas has 28% of the top 50 fastest growing mid-sized cities in the entire country.
But Springfield has clearly struggled more than other cities and has been unable to keep pace in recent years. As of mid last year, Springfield still had not recovered job losses from pre COVID-19 numbers while most cities across the country had. And prior to the start of the pandemic, the city had already been experiencing dramatic job losses, including 2017 and 2018 where job losses were considered the worst in years. That clearly explains why Springfield has a higher unemployment rate than the national average.
To turn this tide around, we first must be willing to admit the problem and realize that the loss of quality jobs have had clearly detrimental effects on our community, and we must find solutions to bring business, jobs, and opportunity back to Springfield again.
When a Springfield High School student or recent UIS grad have an idea to start the 2023 version of Family Video that will grow throughout the country, we want those students to stay and grow their business in Springfield.
Time will tell if we will do that.