Updated at 1:35 p.m.
About 35 miles south of downtown Chicago, in an area where the suburbs meet farmland, red and blue signs have suddenly sprouted throughout the normally sleepy town of Crete.
They represent opposing views of a heated debate that has engulfed Crete and raised significant questions about the suburb’s identity and future. The village, which is still recovering from the Great Recession, is at a crossroads over a planned rail-yard facility that residents say will either help revive the community with much-needed economic growth or put its natural beauty in peril.
This debate is playing out at a time when job creation is on the minds of many Americans. President Donald Trump promised to bring back middle-class jobs and rode that momentum all the way to the White House.
But as the residents of Crete have discovered, bringing back blue-collar jobs may come at a cost.
A changing landscape
Crete, on the border of Cook and Will counties, is like many Chicago suburbs that offer quiet suburban life and easy access to the city. It’s nestled between two major highways and is just a 15-minute drive to the last train stop on Metra’s Electric Line, which can get passengers to downtown Chicago in 58 minutes.
Residents said the village allows for both city and country living.
And it’s not just talk: The street signs in Crete are carved into rustic cross beams, horse farms dot the landscape and Village President Michael Einhorn spends time on Saturdays talking to residents at The Edge Coffee House and Roasting Company on Main Street.
But change is coming to tranquil Crete, and many residents are worried their community will soon become overrun with warehouses and rumbling semi trucks.
In 2016, the national railroad company CSX purchased 500 acres of land in Crete to build a facility to transfer goods from their trains to semi trucks. The land, purchased from a private seller, was already zoned for industrial development.
The energy and transportation company CenterPoint had proposed developing a similar facility on that site in 2007, but the project fell apart, Einhorn said.
CSX said the facility, known as an “intermodal terminal,” will bring 200 full-time jobs. Proponents said it will also bring even more jobs, as new warehouses are built near the terminal and attract restaurants and other businesses catering to the influx of workers.
But the project concerns some of the 23,774 people who live in Crete Township.
Opponents, many of whom have placed signs opposing CSX in their front yards, argue the facility will bring pollution, lower property values and increased traffic.
With the purchase finalized, the facility is almost certainly going to be built, but that hasn’t stopped many people in the township from trying to get the rail company to change course. The tactic isn’t just a pipe dream, it worked in 2014 in Baltimore.
“Plans for the terminal are in the early development phase and as with all our projects, we expect and welcome feedback and input from the community during the process,” said CSX spokeswoman Gail Lobin in an email.
‘How do you entice someone to be here?’
Those in favor of the proposed facility hope it will revive the area by not just attracting new businesses and residents, but by bringing in new tax revenue.
Einhorn, who has been village president for 32 years, said not a single house has been built in the village in the past decade. The average property values in the village — a part of the township with 8,246 residents — also fell by 36 percent between 2009 and 2015, according to Will County tax records.
The village of Crete’s population was stagnant between 2010 and 2015, according to census records.
Einhorn believes the lack of growth is partly because people are choosing to live in Northwest Indiana, which has lower property taxes than Crete.
“A comparable house of similar value pays one third the amount of real estate taxes than it would in Crete,” Einhorn said. “So how do you entice someone to be here?”
Einhorn, sitting in his office in Crete’s City Hall, thinks the solution to the village’s financial woes is to lure in more businesses. He said he is confident the CSX facility will be clean and quiet.
“I think this is a well thought-out project that can be the driver for securing our financial future,” he said.
Crete resident Erik Hoelzeman, a 25-year-old general contractor, said many of his friends have moved away because of the lack of high-paying jobs in Crete.
“There is nothing for them to stay here for, other than a nice town,” Hoelzeman said. “The younger people … their outlook on this town isn’t good right now. I mean, there is nothing for it to be good. You’ve got building going on crazy in the western suburbs … and in Indiana … (but in Crete) there is no jobs. There is no new home building. Why would they want to stay here?”
Hoelzeman, who created a Facebook group to support the proposed facility, said the village’s financial struggles can be summed up by looking at a Kohl’s department store located on a large swath of land intended for new businesses in 2008.
“This whole area was slated for retail development,” Hoelzeman said. “And we have asked, and asked, and asked, and pushed to try and get retailers to come. But we get the same answer. ‘Not enough daytime population. Not enough traffic.’ ”
‘We don’t want all that industrialization’
Those opposed to the intermodal said it will bring unwanted industrial buildings, pollution, health risks and low-paying jobs.
About 40 people who are opposed to the rail-yard filed into a meeting room at the Crete Public Library last month.
Christian Anderson, a member of the Crete School Board who works in the communications department at DePaul University, said he was skeptical of the kind of jobs that would come with the intermodal.
“I don’t think this is the type of project that will entice people to move to Crete,” he said. “These are not the kinds of jobs that will allow people to move here.”
According to the Will County Workforce Investment Board, the average wage for a laborer in a warehouse in 2017 was $12.29 per hour.
Jill Hornick, whose subdivision is “literally on the other side” of the intermodal site, is concerned the project will “fundamentally alter the beautiful environmental area that we have, it would turn us into an industrial zone.”
“We don’t want to be Chicago. We don’t want to be Bedford Park. We don’t want to be Cicero,” Hornick said. “We don’t want all that industrialization. If we wanted that, we would have moved there.”
David Zaber, a resource ecologist from nearby Homewood who was invited to speak to the crowd, said the residents of Crete are at a crossroad and, depending on which way they turn, the decision over the rail-yard could have far-reaching consequences.
“You guys have something special in Crete,” Zaber said. “The CSX Intermodal will not add to that. It will detract from that. … Air pollution, polluted runoff and the actual disturbance of people — all of those things have adverse health effects. That doesn’t mean we can’t live with some of these, but what happens is those who benefit are not those who pay the cost.”
The trade-offs for improvements
In Elwood, about 55 miles southwest of Chicago, officials approved a plan for energy delivery company CenterPoint to build an intermodal facility in 2002.
By 2013, the village sued CenterPoint, the intermodal operators, for misappropriation of village subsidies.
“Centerpoint built an intermodal facility and warehouses that have generated mostly minimum wage jobs and truck traffic three times greater than anticipated,” according to the lawsuit.
The suit was settled “amicably” in 2016, according to the village of Elwood’s lawyer, Tom Gilbert.
CenterPoint Chief Development Officer Michael Murphy said in a statement “all claims relative to the Village of Elwood’s 2013 lawsuit against CenterPoint Properties have been resolved. CenterPoint continues to develop and expand the intermodal in tandem with the village.”
Bob Blum, who was mayor of Elwood from 2001 to 2006, said the facility has had a mixed effect on the area.
“You see all the new streetlights, roads, and the (combined) curb and gutter?” he said. “We didn’t have (those things) before CenterPoint came in.” But Blum also described dealing with “errant trucks” driving down residential streets on their way to and from the intermodal.
Blum added that business at the local restaurant and coffee shop has gone up, “but not as much as we anticipated.”
Crete residents organizing against the intermodal are confident they can stop it. But for now, CSX is moving forward with “preliminary engineering,” a spokeswoman said.
CSX said it wants to begin construction in early 2018, and have the facility open early in 2020, according to its website.
The spokeswoman said in an email that the next informational meeting for residents is not scheduled yet, but will likely occur in “early summer.”
Anti-intermodal organizer Jill Hornick said her group is also working to coordinate its next meeting, but is planning a rally against the facility in downtown Crete on Saturday.
Miles Bryan is a reporter for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter at @miles__bryan.
Investigative reporting and in-depth journalism at WBEZ is made possible in part with support from Doris and Howard Conant.
This story has been updated to reflect that Crete Township has 23,774 residents, including 8,246 in the village.