DANVILLE – Look around at the area's industries and projects in the works and you’ll see Vermilion Advantage President and CEO Vicki Haugen’s legacy.
“The casino, all the development around the casino and the Carle development ... these are crowning achievements. I wish she was around to enjoy it,” said Stephen Nacco, president of Danville Area Community College. Nacco also is on the Vermilion Advantage Board of Directors and is first vice chairman of the executive committee.
He said it’s “phenomenal” what she’s done for the area.
Haugen, 62, died Tuesday after a long battle with cancer.
A 1975 graduate of Danville High School, who also attended DACC and was a University of Illinois, Center for Entrepreneurial Studies graduate, was named to the DHS Hall of Fame in 2016.
Haugen has spent the past 38 years in service to economic and work force development in Vermilion County.
Haugen has seen thousands of local jobs created or retained during her leadership of both the Economic Development Corporation (1986 to 2002) and Vermilion Advantage (2002 to present). She has led local efforts to create work force development projects that have impacted thousands of Vermilion County students as they prepared for the work force.
The work led by Haugen in both economic and work force development has drawn acclaim from regional, state, national and international sources. A number of these programs have served as best practices for other communities and organizations. In her almost four decades of leadership, Haugen changed the economic face of Vermilion County as no other individual person has.
“It is, by far, the greatest public honor of my life and also an awesome responsibility,” Haugen stated in 2016 about her DHS Hall of Fame honor. “The inductees before me are quite a distinguished group with amazing life, education and career accomplishments. I’m beyond humbled that my work on behalf of our community and county is held in the same high esteem.
“The office occupations program my senior year gave me an unbelievable insight into the real world of work and set me on a path to follow those passions,” she said in 2016. “It is somewhat ironic and rewarding that through our work at Vermilion Advantage with our business partners that we have been a part of trying to make more such opportunities available to students throughout Vermilion County.”
In addition to her business background, Haugen also served as a mentor to two young ladies for about the past 10 years.
In a Commercial-News magazine article last year featuring women in leadership positions, Haugen talked about her first clerical job in the state’s attorney’s office.
Haugen was initially a paralegal for seven years and was considering going back to school when she was selected for her local knowledge to get the Danville Area Economic Development Corp. up and running. It was expected to be about a year of her time, but it turned into a long-term career.
In 2002, the Economic Development Corporation and the Danville Chamber of Commerce merged into Vermilion Advantage.
Haugen has said the best part of her job is “having a role in growing and impacting the area.”
She has said her job offered an opportunity to give back to the community in which she was raised. She said she was living her dream job.
She also said what she liked best about working in Vermilion County was all the great support from the community.
Haugen previously said every project was different that Vermilion Advantage was a part of. Some that stuck out in her memory was working with Central States and Chem-Cast in 1983 when they started here.
One that she was proud of and that was special to her was working with Blue Cross Blue Shield.
“It took nine months to develop. I call it my first baby,” she’s said. “All the projects are my babies.”
In Haugen’s free time, family was important. She also liked gardening.
Former Mayor Bob Jones, who served from 1987–2003, said he remembers when Haugen first came on board the Economic Development Corp. in the 1980s.
“She was very eager and very professional and full of ideas and energy,” Jones recalls.
He said the first several years they worked together they had a lot of close calls of potential projects that fell through on industries which didn’t come to the community. There were more of those through the years, such as big plant speculation and some businesses went elsewhere.
“We had a lot of failures before we had some successes,” Jones said. “She never gave up and kept right on plugging away when we’d lose a battle.”
He said they then had a lot of successes in bring in businesses.
He remembers the calls when she told him they’d landed a business, such as AutoZone and McLane Midwest.
“We were thrilled to death to get them,” Jones said about the industries and hundreds of jobs they brought. “I remember picking her up and swinging her around.”
The next big surprise, Jones said, was Alcoa. He remembers a vice president of the business coming here dressed very casually, asking questions and never telling them what company he represented.
“That was a big plus and it came at the right time,” Jones said.
Another groundbreaking he recalls was for Sygma. He said there were a bunch of dignitaries here, but there was a last minute dilemma of it possibly not locating in Danville and building in Indiana instead.
Haugen and city officials worked to make sure Sygma still came here.
“Vicki was a negotiator,” Jones said, about not letting things get in the way and working with the state and others on grants and acreage.
“She had an extremely positive attitude, and what I loved about her is that she didn’t give up,” he added. He thinks those attributes were responsible for her success.
Jones also recalls an economic summit at the civic center with more than 250 people in attendance.
He thinks that helped Haugen gain expertise in meeting a lot of people and helped Haugen on her way to becoming a leader in the field.
“She represented Danville very well. She put Danville and Vermilion County first and that’s awesome,” Jones said. “It will be hard to fill her shoes.”
Former Mayor Scott Eisenhauer said “I don’t think anybody truly appreciates everything she meant to the community.”
In addition to bringing in companies, she also was instrumental in business expansions and retention, he said.
Eisenhauer also said “Vicki was always an impeccable landscaper, winning many Make It Bloom awards. I think of her as the landscaper of the community.”
He said no matter where you look in the community, she’s had her hands in part of it and she’s been the gardener.
Machelle Dykes, membership resources director with Vermilion Advantage, says personally, Vicki has been more than a mentor to her.
Dykes said Vicki had confidence and faith in her when she didn't think she could do something.
She said Vicki was "a brilliant woman that I deeply admire."
Illinois State Rep. Mike Marron said "I was saddened to hear about the passing of Vicki. She was a strong and dynamic person who has labored to better Vermilion County for a number of years. Her passing is a loss to our county and our community."
Nacco said during his role on the Vermilion Advantage executive board the last three and half years, “I’ve just been really in awe of what she does.”
He said Vermilion Advantage is not a chamber of commerce, but with her it has been involved in the overall revitalization of Danville and Vermilion County.
He said Haugen was one of the most intelligent people he’s ever met. He said Haugen was a strategic thinker.
He said she’s brought businesses and professionals here.
She’s been a partner with schools and DACC, and was instrumental with others with College Express.
He said “it’s a terrible loss.”