A woman from Central Illinois who has been working several years at settling in this area was named director of the University of Illinois Extension office.
Connie Beck is serving as director of a six-county Extension region, including Saline, Gallatin, White, Hamilton, Pope and Hardin counties. She succeeds Cherrie Wilkerson, the longtime director of Extension here.
Beck has had an eye open for a way to move here for over 10 years.
"Twelve years ago, when I was pursuing my master';s degree, friends down here had property in Pope County. I came down here and fell in love with the area," Beck said.
Beck spent parts of her childhood in Eastern Kentucky.
"And this area reminded me of that, and I bought property here," Beck said.
Beck started planning a house, then ended up buying more property. In the back of her mind, she started thinking about a job that would allow her to move to Pope County before retirement. When the director position became available, Beck jumped at the opportunity.
Beck comes to Extension from an economic development background. She is past director of the Millikin Regional Entrepeneurship Network at Millikin University. She worked closely with the Macon County Extension office and the Small Business Development Center in Decatur.
"And as a land owner and property owner here I have used Extension many times," Beck said.
She worked closely with expanding businesses in her coverage area in Central Illinois, which included a large region west and south of Decatur. She also worked with Southeastern Illinois College and Southern Illinois University during her time at Millikin University. Building close working relationships with other agencies and colleges will help everyone during the current budget crunch, she said.
"So I think the opportunity to partner and institute cost savings is there on both ends," Beck said.
Beck has already asked Lori Cox, director of the SIC Small Business Development Center, to join the Extension council. Beck has worked with Cox before, she said.
The budget crunch faced by Extension - which has suffered cuts from state funding - means the coverage areas are larger and travel between offices and communities is always a consideration.
"Since I';ve been here, I';ve been averaging 1,000 miles per week," Beck
But her large coverage area in Central Illinois with the Regional
Entrepeneurship Network prepared Beck for travel. There is a lot of square footage to the Extension area, "But a lot of it is rural," Beck said.
Except in rural areas, Extension is a well-kept secret, Beck said. Extension needs to do a better job of marketing itself to people who don';t normally work with the agency or know what the agency does, Beck said. But Extension is involved in everything from 4-H to agriculture, horticulture, economic development and nutrition education, just to name a few functions.
"As a new person coming into Extension, there';s a real learning curve," Beck said.
Beck plans to work from the strengths of each county, and perhaps use those strengths to shore up weaknesses in other counties. For instance, the master gardeners program in Saline County is very strong, Beck said, mostly thanks to volunteers like George Turner and Jim Fowler who like to figure out ways to introduce gardening in the community.
Beck intends to use the next couple of months - county fairs, 4-H shows and other public events - to become acquainted with as many people as possible in the six counties.
"I';m excited. I think there are a lot of different opportunities here for growth," Beck said.