Who We Are
The Value-Added Sustainable Development Center (VASDC) is a unit of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs (IIRA) at Western Illinois University. VASDC extends IIRA’s rural community economic development work to the sectors of agriculture, food, energy, and community sustainability. VASDC helps farmers, non-farm rural businesses, and community leaders excel by providing technical assistance and research on topics such as value-added and sustainable agriculture, local food systems, rural grocery stores, and renewable energy systems.
Through funding from the United States Department of Agriculture, a special unit within VASDC called the Illinois Cooperative Development Center, helps cooperatives and other community-owned businesses in Illinois start up and succeed, by providing technical assistance, training, and publications. Assistance is available to co-ops in any sector of the economy, as well as to economic development and business assistance organizations seeking to enhance their own ability to serve co-ops.
Sean Park is Program Manager of the Value-added Sustainable Development Center at IIRA, where he provides technical assistance and training on business plan development and business start-up to cooperatives and other rural businesses in all sectors, and administers IIRA’s overall outreach in the co-op sector. Sean has worked with IIRA since 2010, and his experience also includes ten years as owner-operator of an independent rural grocery store, seven years in operations management for a national corporation, and additional roles as a community college business instructor and a small town economic development director. Park is a Certified Business Advisor and has completed CooperationWorks! Cooperative Business Development Training Program. He received an MA in economics from WIU and a BA in economics from Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
John Gruidl is Economic Development Specialist within the Value-Added Development Center at IIRA. Gruidl has performed more than 30 technical studies and feasibility studies on rural economic issues. Most recently, he conducted a USDA-RD funded feasibility study for an agricultural incubator in the Missouri Bootheel and a Delta Regional Authority-funded feasibility study for an artisan innovation hub in the eastern Ozarks. He has extensive experience examining entrepreneurial ecosystems in rural regions, taught community and economic development for many years, and founded important outreach and training programs, such as the Midwest Community Development Institute and Peace Corps Fellows program. Gruidl was awarded the Community Development Achievement Award by the Community Development Society in 2007. He holds a Ph.D. in Applied Economics with a focus on Community Economics (University of Wisconsin – Madison).
Si (Sirun) Leng, Graduate Intern
Si (Sirun) Leng implements housing needs assessment surveys for the Center. He is currently a MBA student at Western Illinois University majoring in Community Economic Development. He is serving his graduate internship through the Peace Corps Fellows program. Si served in the Peace Corps from 1996 to 2001 in Togo and Cameroon, West Africa as an Environmental Protection Extension Agent. He has had extensive experience in small project management in sustainable development. His work included propagation the use of efficient clay woodstove, reforestation, application of composting and soil rejuvenation using locally available resources, and environmental education. In Cameroon, he also taught English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) at the local government high school.