Family ties played a role in bringing Paul Rumler back to the Quad-Cities as president and CEO of the Quad-Cities Chamber.
So did having worked at the chamber for 12 years in various roles: talent attraction and retention, community development, public policy and economic development.
The Moline native and Black Hawk College grad left the area to earn a degree at Georgia State University. He returned to make a difference.
"I always want to make an impact in my hometown," Rumler said in a conversation at the chamber’s Davenport office.
"Growing up in the ‘80s, it was not the best of times," he said. "So I was always driven to see what I could do to make that impact."
In March 2016, Mr. Rumler left his hometown to join the chamber in Grand Rapids, Michigan, as its chief economic development officer and executive vice president. In July 2017, former chamber CEO Tara Barney resigned and became president/CEO of the Southwest Indiana Chamber in Evansville, Indiana.
So, for a second time, Rumler returned to the Quad-Cities for what he sees as an opportunity to lead an organization he knows and believes in. He said it was the chamber's regional vision — the integrated economic development and the two sides of the community, Iowa and Illinois, working well together — that played a major role in his return.
"I talk to people and they say that business is as good as it has ever been, and they are so optimistic about the next five to 10 years," Rumler said. "Everybody had that genuine optimism that the best is yet to come."
During his two years in Grand Rapids, he was the chief strategy officer at a chamber with more than 2,350 members serving an area of 1.3 million people. The Quad-Cities Chamber has around 1,800 members serving a total population of 471,000.
Rumler took over the chamber on April 16, spending his first three weeks meeting and listening with members. He also made time for a wide-ranging conversation on several topics, including Amtrak, parochialism and the Quad-Cities' greatest strengths.
What have you learned from local chamber members?
Rumler: A lot has changed in the last two years. There’s a lot of positive momentum in terms of new development.
If you look at Sterilite and Kraft (in Davenport), those are really big projects that don’t typically come around every year. I am excited to see progress around our downtowns and our riverfronts. What I am learning is that everybody is excited, just in their own way they want to contribute.
(With) the Big Table experience, which was my first week, you had people who had never been asked for their opinion or felt like they had a way to contribute. They finally had a way to do it.
What did you learn from Grand Rapids?
Rumler: Grand Rapids is a top performing community right now. That region is continuously ranked in the top three for job growth and economic growth. What I learned is just how passionate they are in their community, and it really has taken a long-term plan in order to see it through in that community.
When you look to the Quad-Cities and you start to apply that, you see the start of that already growing here. It’s not something that’s in its infancy; it’s already maturing. We have businesses that are willing to invest. The public sector is working as well.
What I learned in Grand Rapids is that you can’t wait for fate to make things happen. You can’t rely on being lucky. It takes a lot of hard work, a lot of dedicated efforts and putting your money where your mouth is.
The private sector, in particular, in Grand Rapids had a really solid philanthropic sense that they needed to contribute. And I really see that here in the Quad-Cities at the start and we can grow on that.
What is the biggest issue the area faces?
Rumler: We are in two states. That has always been seen as a challenge. I think it’s one of our biggest opportunities, to be quite honest. When you can actually leverage the assets of Iowa and Illinois, I think that’s going to be great.
One of the challenges has always been how we traverse our communities, how sometimes, historically, we are parochial in nature. Over the last 10 years, you’ve seen watershed moments happen where those parochial interests have not gone away. But they started to take a different perspective.
The Quad-Cities Chamber is now in its eighth year working across those two states. It’s really about harnessing that.
You could always slide back in into that parochialism and I can see where that could be one of those issues that we are always confronting. But I see things like the I-74 bridge that are really uniting our community, where that literally was a barrier to getting between our two states.
Some in Illinois feel slighted. Do you think that's a problem?
Rumler: As I look at what’s happening in Illinois from a statewide perspective, the political drama is an issue. The budget stability is an issue. Bond rating is an issue.
But if you look at where people are investing, people are still deciding to live in Illinois. Businesses are still deciding to operate in Illinois, starting to expand in Illinois. We just saw the ratings from one of our site selector magazines. It had Illinois rated No. 3 in terms of the volume of projects of any state in the country.
Investment is still happening in Illinois and is still happening in Iowa. So what we get to do is we get to tell the Quad-Cities story.
What I see is the biggest opportunity is not many people outside of this region have a good sense of what this community is all about. That could be seen as one of those limitations, but I think it’s one of our greatest opportunities, to go out there and tell that story from our perspective.
Say this is what it’s like to live here. This is why you should as well. Tell all those good stories that are just making it happen here.
How are you going to help commuter rail happen in the Quad-Cities?
Rumler: In 2007, I started the Quad-Cities Passenger Rail Coalition. It was an initiative of the Illinois Quad-City Chamber, and we formed quite a group that advocated. This was before there was funding at the federal level.
Over the years, I hear that things have been promised and then things get stalled. There’s always some negotiations happening in the background. I continue to hear that there’s good news, that things are moving forward.
It's awesome to see the new Element Hotel in downtown Moline and the (Metro) station. We’ve continued to make investments in this community. And I think by keeping our focus on that at the state level, it really needs to happen with Illinois — to make sure that they have committed and gotten all the agreements in place.
Because it’s not just a state. There’s a railroad involved. Federal funding (is) involved. And I know that our elected officials know that it’s a huge priority for this community.
So it’s just making sure that the chamber continues to stay in the forefront and keep that issue moving forward. The passenger rail continues to be a priority for this organization.
How did you tell the chamber selection committee you were the right person for this job?
Rumler: I love the big challenge and I see potential here in the Quad-Cities. With a lot of hard work, we will actually become that top-tier community.
That’s what I told them (when asked) why I wanted the job and why I thought I was right for it. I have that perseverance and tenacity.
I believe in collaboration and partnerships, so the chamber can’t do it alone. It’s my methodology to go out and build those relationships. It’s so key.
That’s where I look at: what our chamber membership looks like today. It’s 1,800 businesses strong. But we have so many other community partners that we rely on as a chamber and as a community. That’s kind of my style.
What can we take from Grand Rapids that would help make the Quad-Cities?
Rumler: I will tell you what I think that they had the super sauce on that is replicable: It’s about believing that your region is special, that it’s unique, that the businesses there and the people there help make that unique.
And they have a virtuous cycle of supporting one and another. It's beyond doing business local and buying from a local place. It goes to the element of you’re an expert because you know the dynamic of this region.
Take that from a business perspective. If I had to describe a region that was so unique, it would be the Quad-Cities. We’re in two states with all the complexities that this region has.
If you’re a business looking for another business that understands this market, you should be doing business with other businesses located here. That’s what they do in West Michigan. You had to be from there in order to get work there.
Right here sometimes in the Quad Cities we look at experts from the outside as "all-knowing." And I think we can flip that and really build an economy that’s about supporting one another, believing in ourselves and giving somebody a chance because they are a member of the chamber or they’re a neighbor down the street, because they understand what it takes to be successful in this community.
I really think that will be a game-changer — just by having more trust in one another and giving people a shot here. It will build upon itself.