Western Illinois University demonstrated its commitment to the Quad-Cities with plans for a new Small Business Development Center, or SBDC, and an International Trade Center on the Moline campus.

University officials, including Western Illinois president Jack Thomas, announced Tuesday that it will expand its SBDC operations from its Macomb campus and open the university's first International Trade Center. The programs are led by the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs.

Thomas said the programs align with Western's mission "to serve as a driver of economic development across the region."

The two centers fill a gap created in 2015 when budget woes forced Black Hawk College to end funding to the previous Illinois SBDC and International Trade Center. The Quad-Cities Chamber of Commerce ran the SBDC and International Trade Center's operations on an interim basis throughout 2016.

"We want to reach across the region to share knowledge and provide technical assistance wherever we can," Thomas said.

He credited Chris Merrett, the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs director, and his staff with developing a plan for expanding the services to the Quad-Cities campus amid Western's own budget constraints.

"It's opportunities like this where we reach out and do partnerships with our communities that make us proud ...," Thomas said.

Merrett helped the university receive a $300,000 Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity grant to expand its operations. Western also is partnering with the Small Business Administration.

"A city this size should not be without a Small Business Development Center and an International Trade Center," Merrett said, adding that had the services not been preserved, it would have created a gap in the local economy.

In fact, he said that since 2010, the Macomb SBDC has helped businesses in a 12-county region create or retain 5,099 jobs and secure $21.84 million in new startup capital. Additionally, the Quad-Cities International Trade Center created or retained 43 jobs, which exported $143 million in sales in 2015 alone. The university now will cover a 22-county area in west-central Illinois.

The one-year grant will include funding for a two-person staff, including Michelle Lewis, an international trade specialist who filled a similar role under Black Hawk College and then the Quad-Cities chamber.

"The newly opened Illinois SBDC will provide confidential business planning guidance, training and other resources to entrepreneurs and start-up and existing small businesses in the Quad-Cities region," said Jim Boyd, the Macomb SBDC director, who will oversee the Quad-City operations.

Illinois Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti, who attended the announcement, said the expansion is a prime example of the collaboration needed during these financial times to keep the state moving forward. Entrepreneurs will continue to have access to business services, assistance in finding funding and other resources, she said. 

"It's also great because our student body is seeing this," she said, adding the resources will let students and other entrepreneurs see Illinois as a "great place" to start a new business.

The new program also will expand services into Western's classrooms to work with aspiring entrepreneurs and to Quad-City residents, including in Moline's Floreciente neighborhood, where it will work to boost minority small businesses. Merrett anticipates the centers to serve larger numbers in the urban Quad-Cities vs. Macomb and its surrounding rural areas.

Joe Rives, Western's vice president for Quad-Cities and planning, said the new centers show the commitment that the university has to stimulating community and economic growth and advancing the chamber-led Q2030 regional vision.

"Western welcomes the opportunity to serve the region and to advance our priorities and goals through workforce development, recruitment, retention and associated economic development," he said. 

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