Inland port spreads across Will County plains

August 26, 2010

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Photo courtesy of CenterPoint
CenterPoint is developing what will be a 6,000-acre park anchored by the nation’s two largest railroads.

Developers are connecting the nation's railways to enormous state-of-the art warehouses to make shipping easier for big companies like Walmart. One of the most ambitious of these projects is in southwest suburban Will County. And it's about to expand.

Neil Doyle is a vice-president of Oak Brook-based CenterPoint Properties Trust. We meet at a helicopter pad a few miles past Joliet. He says it's the best way to see his company's project there. His pilot straps us in.

Ambi: Helicopter blades chop through the air during takeoff.

We use headsets so we don't have to yell over the engine.

DOYLE: We're hovering over the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Logistics Park Chicago, as it's known. We built this between 2000 and 2002. Then we built the industrial park next to it -- three bridges, 25 miles of roads, water systems, wastewater plants, all new utilities. And what you're seeing is about a dozen trains in here today, the longest trains that run in the country.

MITCHELL: What are they carrying and where's the stuff going?

DOYLE: They're carrying boxes. These are 100 percent international boxes, packed on the shores of another country, from Asia to the Mediterranean.

MITCHELL: Boxes as in cargo containers.

DOYLE: Containers, yes. The majority here will be coming from the ports of L.A.-Long Beach, the nation's largest and busiest port complex. They're loaded on the trains. They're two miles long, the equivalent of 400 trucks. They show up here and they're unloaded for Midwest consumption -- furniture, electronics, auto parts, you name it. They're unloaded by those overhead diesel cranes. They're put onto trailers.

And here's the key to what Doyle calls his inland port. Many of the semi-trailers don't drive away with the containers. They don't need to. They just go across a road to some giant warehouses.

DOYLE: Whether it's Walmart, Target, Georgia Pacific, you name it. They go into these buildings and they go either to regional distribution centers or right to a store shelf. The perfect model, if you're the retailer, is they go right to the store.

MITCHELL: How was the work getting done before?

DOYLE: It was just very difficult. The railroads were moving goods but they were moving them to city center, into old antiquated yards in neighborhoods and industrial areas that couldn't accept the volumes that needed to come that way. It used to take a train about three days to get from L.A. to Joliet, another three days to get to downtown Chicago. Hey, Mike, could we fly one more loop around, maybe Elwood?

PILOT: Yeah.

Ambi: Helicopter blades.

DOYLE: These two facilities you see on your left-hand side, those are Walmart's. These are Midwest import-distribution centers. They're the biggest user of industrial space right now in this park. Each one of those buildings is a half-mile long. Together, they're 50 percent larger than McCormick Place in its entirety.

Doyle says a couple years ago his company realized something.

DOYLE: We're going to run out of land before we run out of demand. We started acquiring land here North.

What this means is everything we've seen on this helicopter so far is just the beginning. The company's brought in Union Pacific to build a second rail yard.

DOYLE: What you'll have is one 6,000-acre park, anchored by the two largest railroads of the world, at the end of their longest run, in their biggest facilities. And you'll end up with about 30-plus million square feet of industrial space.

MITCHELL: Who will be your industrial users and when will they open up?

DOYLE: Well, I can hope and I can guess. But it's a 10-year marketing effort.

The helicopter pilot takes us back toward the pad. And Doyle says this Will County project doesn't just benefit big companies. It expands the local property-tax base. And it's creating jobs.

DOYLE: This is 100-percent union construction. And there are probably 1,000 people that work at that BNSF facility on three different shifts. And the logistics jobs: This is not your grandfather's warehouse. These are people riding around on forklifts with laptops and bar scanners. Our models show that we'll hit about 25,000 jobs when our work is complete here. And these are jobs you can live on.

Actually, that's a point of contention. And it's something I hope to explore after this helicopter lands.

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