Many of the Midwest's top design firms saw mild to moderate improvement in revenue last year, though prosperity in the region wasn't on par with business growth in the South, West and Southwest.

Photo Courtesy of City of Columbus
DLZ Corp. is a designer for a $341.5-million deep rock stormwater overflow and relief sewer in Columbus, Ohio.

This year looks to be more profitable, if not pivotal, for regional design firms, economists say. "I'm moderately bullish about the Midwest," says Ken Simonson, chief economist with Alexandria, Va.-based Associated General Contractors of America. A surging auto sector should benefit Michigan and Indiana, while alternative energies should buoy neighboring Ohio, particularly eastern portions of the state, he says.

Even slow-growth states in the region are gaining momentum. "Illinois and Wisconsin have been among the worst economic performers in the nation in recent years, and while they're not setting the pace these days, they're seeing an uptick in industrial demand," says Anirban Basu, chief economist with Washington, D.C.-based Associated Builders and Contractors.

More challenging to the region is transportation funding. Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn unveiled a five-year, $14-billion plan for transportation construction in April but acknowledged he was uncertain how to fund it. Since 2009, annual funding for Missouri roads and bridges has dropped by nearly 50%, to $685 million from $1.3 billion, with a dip to $325 million anticipated by 2017. The Missouri State Highways and Transportation Commission in January suspended a cost-share program intended to accelerate local road projects, citing its intent to focus only on maintenance due to the decline in funds. A proposed 1-cent transportation sales tax faces opposition in Missouri's Senate.

Failure to fund the federal Highway Trust Fund, due to run dry this year, could disrupt the entire region. Due to intransigence in Congress, "states should prepare for at least a short-term lapse in funding," Simonson advises.

To see a ranking of the year's Top Design Firms, click here.