Global commerce is juxtaposed with prairie land in Will County.
The logistics industry has dramatically changed the county — from Joliet to Elwood to Manhattan. The transformation of farmhouses to warehouses is clearly visible.
Amazon, Ikea, Home Depot, Samsung and Walmart are among the companies with warehouses. The county is home to the largest inland port in North America and 3.5% of the nation’s GDP passes through here.
“As the retail apocalypse deepens and we see thousands of brick and mortar stores close, this is one of the places where jobs are growing. We only expect this trend to continue for the foreseeable future,” said Roberto Clack, associate director of Warehouse Workers for Justice, a labor rights group based in Joliet.
Since 2001, the number of transportation and warehousing jobs has increased by 420% in Will County. But Clack said these jobs don’t compare to the era of the past.
“There’s a lot of staffing agency jobs out here in Will County. People aren’t directly employed by warehouses; they’re employed by these outside agencies. People experience wage theft, discrimination, health and safety issues. And the pay’s not as nearly as good as steelworkers and manufacturers were making,” Clack said.
Still, those truck and warehouse jobs came when unemployment was high.
“Three steel mills closed. Caterpillar went from 8,000 people to a little over a thousand. We had numerous manufacturing plants shuttered,” said John Grueling, president and CEO of the Will County Center for Economic Development.
No other county in Illinois has seen job growth like Will County. It’s the epicenter of transportation for goods that move across the region and country with North America’s largest inland port. Now another real estate company wants to expand in the area by developing a logistics business park, and its raising concerns about the future of the county.
Missouri-based NorthPoint Development wants Joliet to annex nearly 1,300 acres of land to build a business park in phases. The Joliet Planning Commission approved it. On Tuesday, the Joliet city council is scheduled to vote on the annexation.
NorthPoint is not asking for tax breaks and is promising road improvements. The company originally sought land in Elwood. But the town said no. Back in 2002, Elwood gave a 20-year tax abatement to CenterPoint, the first intermodal here that spans more than 6,400 acres in parts of Elwood and Joliet. That deal frustrates residents in the region to this very day.
“Just Say No to NorthPoint” yard signs are sprinkled in parts of Will County.
“The NorthPoint project and the reaction they got when they were trying to develop in Elwood kind of lit the fire for a lot of people. It’s a much different temperature today than it was five years ago when you talk about logistics, trucking or all the expansion that happens,” Joliet Mayor Bob O’Dekirk said.
Yet the new industry has helped Joliet financially, he said, pointing out the city reserves are healthy and sales tax revenue has grown.
Those economic benefits don’t appease everyone. Some residents in opposition literally don’t want anymore trucks in their backyards. And some worry about sagging infrastructure. Pollution is also a concern.
Last month, hundreds of people packed a Manhattan elementary school on a cold Monday night. The No to NorthPoint Coalition organized the community meeting.
Stephanie Irvine lives in unincorporated Jackson Township and is a founder of the No to NorthPoint group. She said there is middle ground, and it’s not as simple as either trucks or no trucks.
“I say why can’t you want responsible land use planning and responsible development while still understanding the work that truckers do, their value and how they’re driving our economy as well as warehouse workers?” Irvine said.
The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning is in the process of conducting a land use study in the county to balance community concerns with freight growth. There won’t be any adopted plan until fall 2021.
The resistance is bigger than NorthPoint. E-commerce is a game changer in our economy.
Those trucks and warehouse jobs are needed because consumer tastes have changed. Same-day deliveries are commonplace. And $65 billion worth of products moves through Will County annually, according to the Will County Center for Economic Development. In Will County, freight volumes could reach 600 million tons valued at about $1.2 trillion by 2040, raising more concerns about highway and road capacity. Gov. JB Pritzker’s $45 billion capital bill, which passed in 2019, will help improve roads.
The center agrees that an analysis should be done. It estimates more than 100,000 jobs are in or related to transportation.
“The earnings of these jobs is over $5 billion, and it generates about $12.8 billion in gross regional product,” Grueling said.
Annexation is one step for NorthPoint. It will need twice as much land from unincorporated Will County to complete the business park. The company, which is in 23 states and redeveloping the old Republic Steel site on Chicago’s Southeast side, said its investing $1.2 billion for the project. NorthPoint is promising a project labor agreement and good permanent jobs from its tenants.
“We expect our starting payroll to be about $38,000 a year in our Will County project. It’s one of those challenges where the anecdote is not the truth,” said Patrick Robinson, vice president of development for NorthPoint.
NorthPoint projects 1,600 construction jobs and up to 10,000 permanent jobs. The company said it will pay for construction of a new career center and partner with local schools to operate it.
While some see the job growth as a benefit to the region and suggest that any job is a good job, others argue that thousands of people take warehousing and logistics jobs offered by temp staffing agencies because they have no choice. Again, the issue is bigger than NorthPoint’s proposal. Last year, two workers at the Walmart warehouse in Elwood filed a federal employment complaint alleging discrimination for a belated background check.
“I want the workers to have respect and a say so in the workplace,” said Bobby Frierson of Warehouse Workers for Justice. “These companies are getting rich off the labor of blacks and browns and paying these workers pennies. And then when they’re done with the worker, they throw them out and just recycle on to the next, and it’s just not right.”
And there’s also been racist pushback against NorthPoint from Will County residents. In emails and social media, some complain about too many “blacks” or “inner-city” workers being employed in their community.
Roberto Clack, also with Warehouse Workers For Justice, said the debate over NorthPoint brings in a lot of different issues.
“Leverage for more sustainable transportation for electric trucks, electric delivery vehicles. It’s also bringing together some of these disparate communities — rural people from Elwood and Manhattan along with workers who are from Joliet. There’s challenges because a lot of these communities have been very divided,” Clack said. “There’s an opportunity to bring people on the same accord instead of being pitted against one another.”
Clack is optimistic because once upon a time in this very place, manufacturing and steel companies fought against workers unionizing.
But the workers prevailed.