Woelffer's Big Task Is Changing City's `Perception' / New Economic Director Seeks Legislative `Package,' Ways to Develop Jobs

Article excerpt

When Michael T. Woelffer was appointed director of the Ilinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs in 1983, he took over a department with a $400 million budget and 400 employees.

"Illinois was about at the bottom of its recession," said Woelffer. "We had a highly diversified economy and a gross product of $175 billion, but we had a lot of firms with old plants. People were coming from all over the country to offer lower taxes, cheaper land and cheaper labor to Illinois firms."

Under Woelffer, Illinois acquired the $100 million Chrysler-Mitsubishi joint venture, developed a $10 million tourism campaign, established overseas offices and set up 60 small business centers allover the state.

However, the most important problem, he said, was to change the perception of Illinois - inside and outside the state.

That is the same major problem Woelffer now faces as new economic and community development director for the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce.

"That doesn't surprise me," said Woelffer. "It's no different from cities all over the country. We had 1,500 cities and towns in Illinois, and they all had the same problem. Every city of 50,000 ormore in the country now has a director of economic development.

"Oklahoma City has to learn to believe in itself again - feel good about itself. Changing the perception is the most important job we have."

The challenge of turning around that perception certainly is one of the major reasons Woelffer took on the job, which he started April 1. It also was a chance to get back into the private sector after seven years in government service.

Woelffer, who is 33, is the latest of several new leaders on Oklahoma's economic scene. They include Frank Horton as the new University of Oklahoma president, James Cairns Jr. as the new chairman of First Oklahoma Bancorporation with an outstanding background of civic leadership in Seattle, and Frances Tuttle as the new director of economic development for the state.

They give us new leadership in selling Oklahoma City and Oklahoma. That's how Woelffer sees his job - as a sort of super sales effort. It fits his overall background going back to his days with Morton Chemical Co., Sambo's Restaurants and IBM.

That means developing programs that will help Oklahoma City sell itself to us (as citizens) and reviving our confidence, as well as selling the city as a prime location for new business.

It also means representing Oklahoma City in getting the state of Oklahoma to improve its overall image to the business world.

While "perception" is the overall problem, Woelffer sees major differences in the specific problems of Illinois and Oklahoma.

Illinois was well diversified with agriculture, extensive manufacturing, heavy industry such as steel, nationally-based service firms and a major financial industry with Chicago as one ofthe country's money centers.

As a result, the most important job was to retain the existing industry of Illinois and get that industry to expand. That produced far more than acquiring new industry, even including the Chrysler-Mitsubishi plant.

"We had an outreach program with 800 projects," said Woelffer, "but most of them brought in new business with 50 to 200 employees. That effort, especially with the Chrysler-Mitsubish plant, helped the perception. …