ameren-IMG 2243-Aphoto courtesy of Ameren Illinois

Journeyman lineman Ryan Meuth, foreground, uses a remote control with the help of apprentice lineman Craig Franklin to load a reel of wire with the winch line on a digger derrick line truck. Meuth and Franklin work out of Ameren Illinois’ Jerseyville operating center.
    The Metro East area is playing a crucial part in Ameren Illinois’ elaborate, billion-dollar plan to improve natural gas and electric service for years to come.
    From a new, $6 million, 11-acre worker training facility in Belleville to the 600 hirings anticipated as part of its smart grid infrastructure plan, the utility will provide a solid boost to the region, said Richard J. Mark, president and chief executive officer.
    “People are going to see a lot of growth for Ameren Illinois. This could be the catalyst for economic development in southern Illinois,” Mark said. “I think we’ll generate interest from outside businesses looking to relocate here.”
    Some $42 million is being invested in Metro East upgrades in 2013, and much more is planned in coming years.  Mark said every dollar the company spends is estimated to generate another $1 to $2 of benefit across central and southern Illinois.
    As part of a $1 billion infrastructure modernization investment systemwide, the company is replacing and refurbishing underground distribution cables, fortifying utility poles, refurbishing high-pressured gas pipelines and installing intelligent switches and sensors that can isolate power outages and enable services to be restored faster.
    Along with advanced meters, the changes aim to provide utility customers with more options to control their energy usage and hopefully save money.
Ameren Illinois’ Metro East Training Center opened in early October at 1590 East State Route 15 in Belleville. It is used to train electric and gas service workers — both new hires and existing employees — on new technologies that are part of the energy delivery and modernization plan approved by the state in 2012.
    “Our linemen, for example, will be trained in a classroom setting on installation of new capacitor banks and automated switches, learning how to repair and maintain them. When they go out in the field they will be very proficient in making sure that equipment is maintained and repaired efficiently,” Mark told the Illinois Business Journal.
    Most of Ameren Illinois’ 3,000-member workforce gets regular yearly training. “From Springfield down to the southern tip of the state, many of them will be coming through the Belleville training center,” he said.
    Some 100 workers a week will be trained in Belleville. The company also has smaller training centers in Decatur and Peoria.

Eagle-on-Branch-photo courtesy Alton Regional CVB

An American bald eagle sits perched in a tree along the Mississippi River. The increase in migrating bird population has become one of the popular winter attractions for local tourism promoters.
    A local tourism bureau is developing a long-range plan to draw money-bearing visitors from the region — and around the world.
    “It starts with a visit,” said Ann Badasch, an Alton restaurateur who has preached tourism for decades. “When you build a place where people want to visit you’ve built a place people want to work, and when you build a place people want to work, you build a place people want to live. And when you build a place people want to live, you’ve built a place people want to visit.”
    Badasch is chairman of the Alton Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau board, which covers a 50-mile tourism corridor along the Mississippi River, from Hartford north to Pere Marquette State Park in Grafton.
    That highly touted scenery is not lost on international tourism promoters who have been to Alton recently for video-recording sessions — taped in multiple languages for overseas use.
    This year, for the first time, the Alton CVB’s budget has gone past $1 million. Since 2004, when Brett Stawar was named as president, the Alton CVB has managed to find new sources of funds to double its operating budget. Now the office has six full-time staff and four part-timers and is supported by a 20-member board.
And, yet, the amount of tax money taken in has changed little, Badasch said, made up for by grants, visitor guide sales, tourism services and individual contributing companies who believe it is smart business to promote tourism.
    “We actually have about 50 small businesses contribute money toward the bureau’s budget. That’s telling.”
    The Alton-to-Grafton area, in particular, has benefited from a push that actively began in 1985 as part of an administrative move by Gov. Jim Thompson who recognized tourism as a growth industry. That year, the State Department of Tourism was formed. The state eventually authorized a hotel-motel tax that led to creation of the state’s Local Tourism and Convention Bureau program, allowing communities to access grant money. Today, as a result there are 41 CVBs in Illinois, outside of Chicago.
    Some 20 percent of the Alton CVB budget comes from a regional hotel/motel tax. Another 22 percent comes from the food and beverage tax out of Alton. In return, Alton holds five seats on the CVB board.

    Despite an unemployment rate that is stubbornly stuck above 7 percent, some business owners find it tough to find and keep good employees.
    One of the types of businesses that struggles with the employment problem the most is landscaping. During the season the hours are long, the work is hard and the conditions are harsh. Out of season, there’s little work to be had.
    Josh Hickam is all too familiar with the labor tribulations in the landscaping business. He’s owned and operated Altered Grounds Outdoor Services, LLC in Pontoon Beach for nine years. Hickam said the first eight years were plagued by employee turnover. In fact, he said, there’s only one worker who has been with him since the beginning.
    While struggling with the chaotic labor situation, he said, he happened to hire an American citizen who had immigrated from Guatemala. It was then that he discovered the H-2B visa program and a solution to his problem.
    “He did a really good job for me,” Hickam said, “and he explained the whole H-2B process to me. I found myself an immigration lawyer and here we are.”
    The H-2B visa program allows noncitizens to come to the United States to perform temporary or seasonal work that is nonagricultural if persons capable of performing such a service or labor cannot be found in this country. Up to 66,000 new visas are available each year in this category.
    To qualify, an employer’s need must be temporary. H-2B visas are only authorized if the employer can demonstrate a temporary need, that is, less than one year, and that the need is a one-time occurrence, a seasonal need, a peak load need or an intermittent need. The employer cannot use H-2B visa labor for permanent and long-term labor needs.
    And, the employee’s intent must be temporary. The nonimmigrant worker must intend to return to his or her country upon expiration of the authorized stay. In fact, the worker may be required to prove ties to his or her home country.
    The attorney Hickam turned to for help was Suzanne Brown of the Law Offices of Suzanne Brown, P.C. in St. Louis. Brown is recognized as one of the foremost immigration attorneys in metro St. Louis. Brown led Hickam through the complicated, multi-stepped process involved in becoming an H-2B employer.