Economic Growth For Clinton Means More Than Keeping A Nuclear Plant Open
This is a report on the economy of a little town with a big power plant. The nuclear power plant located near the small town of Clinton (population 7,225) will be around for at least another decade. Governor Bruce Rauner signed legislation Wednesday that subsidizes Exelon’s nuclear facilities, and prevents the Clinton and Quad-Cities nuclear plants from closing. Exelon says its Clinton plant has been a money-loser for some time. But it’s been a big part of the economy in Clinton and DeWitt County ever since initial construction began in the 1970s.
You can’t see the Clinton nuclear plant from Clinton. It’s located nine miles out of town. But Clinton felt the impact when Exelon said the plant might close.
They felt it at The Shack, a Clinton diner that’s been serving up hamburgers and hand-packed milkshakes for nearly a century. Shannon Williamson, part of the family that owns The Shack, says that when Exelon announced last summer that it would shut the plant down in a year’s time, she saw neighbors who worked there putting up "For Sale" signs.
"We've had friends actually move away already because of it," said Williamson. "With the scare of the closing, I’ve had four or five families that have moved away. They didn’t wait for anything, and they’re already in Indiana working.”
Marian Brisard says she saw those “For Sale” signs go up, too. The executive director of the Clinton Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau says maybe some of those workers will return, now that Exelon has dropped its plans to close the nuclear plant. And she says she hopes the Exelon plant stays open for longer than the ten years guaranteed by the legislation that Governor Rauner signed this week. But she says Clinton and DeWitt County have to make plans for life without a nuclear plant.
“No, we’re not going to sit back and think, ‘oh, we’re on Easy Street’ now,’" said Brisard. "We’re not. You have to always be prepared. You have to always be ready for change. This just shook us up, I think, and made us think, ‘this is not going to happen forever.’"
Finding something --- or several things --- to take the place that the Clinton nuclear plant occupies in the local economy won’t be easy. The plant makes up more than half the property tax base in mostly rural DeWitt County, and it has 700 employees. The last employer in Clinton with that many workers was the old Revere Copper and Brass plant, which made Revere Ware pots and pans for half a century before closing down in 1999. Today, Clinton still has manufacturing plants but not as many of tham as half-a-century ago, and none of them employing as many people as Revere did. Good news on the town’s business front is often smaller, like the new Save-A-Lot supermarket that opened in downtown Clinton last week.
Clinton has only two full-service supermarkets, the IGA Foodliner store on the east side of town, and the Save-A-Lot store that's been in downtown Clinton for the past 17 years. Store owner Dave Jackson is proud of his new building, which is 60% larger than the old one. He worked for five years to get the new building up and running. And when Exelon announced it was starting the shutdown process at the nuclear plant, he was a little worried.
"It did give me pause, certainly, and some concern," said Jackson. "But I was going to move forward with this project, regardless. You know, I think we would have been successful if it had closed, but certainly I’m elated that it’s going to stay open."
Jackson says he’s bullish on Clinton, and hopes the nuclear plant will stay for a long time, and perhaps even add a second reactor. Tim Followell, Clinton’s longtime city administrator, would like that, too. But he’s not as optimistic. And Followell doesn’t think that Clinton can regrow its manufacturing base, now that nearby urban areas have better transportation infrastructure. Instead, he thinks the key to the Clinton’s business growth could be in retail, to serve people he thinks might see the town as their new suburban home.
"We are the hub in a wagon wheel surrounded by Champaign-Urbana, Decatur, Springfield and Bloomington-Normal," said Followell. "As we know, people graduate from the larger communities to more of a bedroom-type community. Clinton is that spot that we want to promote, because now you can live here, and with one hour, you can be at any one of those four venues and have anything you want – and come home to a quiet little town.”
Implementing any economic strategy for Clinton will come with challenges. One of them will be reviving the area’s economic development organization. The DeWitt County Development Council laid off its paid staff over the summer, due to cuts in funding from local governments, squeezed by the state budget impasse. The Development Council's board, which includes the Clinton Area Chamber of Commerce's Marian Brisard, is trying to raise $25,000 by year's end to meet terms of a matching grant from State Farm, which would allow them to reopen their office. With these sort of challenges facing the community, the continued presence of a nuclear power plant provides Clinton with a lot of economic comfort.