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Preckwinkle And South Suburban Mayors Band Together To Revive Chicago's Southland Region

There has been a great deal of talk recently about reviving interest and investment in Chicago’s South and West Sides, believed by many to receive far less attention than the city’s splendid and expanding downtown. But other portions in the metropolitan area also suffer from disinvestment and neglect, especially the south suburbs, and a new coalition led by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle wants to change their trajectory.    

Setting such plans in motion is not easy for such a huge region, which stretches 14 miles from Chicago’s southern border down to Cook County’s border with Will County, and roughly 10 miles east from towns like Country Club Hills to the Indiana border. Unlike Chicago, which benefits from a centralized planning department, Preckwinkle’s target is split into about 40 municipalities.

“These are communities that are geographically small, and resource-challenged,” she said.

Toni Preckwinkle

Preckwinkle aims to lend the county’s weight and financial wherewithal to the many struggling towns. Along with many suburban mayors, business owners and other stakeholders, late last year she helped start the Southland Development Authority, a new government agency that will create plans to leverage the region’s assets and activate its economy.

Much like Chicago’s South Side, the city’s Southland was once an industrial powerhouse, producing massive amounts of steel and other manufactured goods, but the decline of these industries cut into much of its economic and tax base, leading to declining population in some areas and a growing reliance on property taxes to fund municipal services, a vicious cycle that burdens many homeowners.

The population of Harvey, a suburb about 2 miles south of Chicago, peaked in 1980 at around 35,000, according to census figures, but fell to 24,000 by 2018. That is mirrored in other Southland towns, including Ford Heights, where the population fell from around 4,200 in 1990 to less than 2,800 in 2018.  

Although much of the region's decline started in the late 1970s and 1980s, the Great Recession did further damage to the south suburbs. Between 2004 and 2014, employment in the transportation, logistics and distribution sector fell 8% to about 20,000, according to a 2017 report from the South Suburban Economic Growth Initiative, a group of regional stakeholders that spent the last several years brainstorming a revitalization strategy.

Employment in metal, machinery and equipment manufacturing declined 5% to 14,000 over the same time period, the group found, and in chemicals and related materials manufacturing, employment fell 15% to 6,200.  

Past attempts to bring new life to Southland, most notably the years-long crusade led by former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. to establish a third major regional airport in Peotone, never got past the planning stages. Preckwinkle said the Southland’s manufacturing history left a great legacy. The area still has a highly skilled labor force, and coupled with one of the densest concentrations of transportation arteries in the nation, that could make it viable for other industrial activity, perhaps centered around food production, logistics and advanced manufacturing.

“But somebody needs to focus on these opportunities and get everyone on board to take advantage of them,” she said.

When Vernard Alsberry was growing up in Altgeld Gardens, a Chicago Housing Authority development on the Far South Side, he frequently visited suburban relatives, and seeing the massive steel works such as Interlake Steel in nearby Riverdale made the area look like the land of opportunity.   

“I remember the Southland as vibrant, with a lot of industry, booming with jobs and great schools,” he said.  

After leaving the Air Force in the late 1980s, he was looking for a place to call home, and the suburban towns seemed to have everything.

“I wanted somewhere close to my parents, in a community that was safe, growing and had great schools,” he said.

He ended up in University Park, a suburb about 30 miles south of downtown Chicago, and attended Governors State University there, earning several degrees, raising a family and starting a physical therapy company with his wife.

But the local steel plants had already started to shrink, with several shutting down completely over the ensuing decades. The surrounding towns watched incomes slide, many white residents flee and property taxes soar. ArcelorMittal still manufactures steel in Riverdale, but employs a fraction of what Alsberry remembers from the town’s heyday.

ArcelorMittal Steel plant in Riverdale, Ill.

Southland cities were hit hard. According to the Better Government Association, a nonprofit advocacy organization that recently studied the economic history of Dolton, a suburb just east of Riverdale, the number of private sector jobs there dropped 43% from 2000 to 2019. Only 7% of its working-age residents now work in manufacturing, down from 31% in the 1970s, the BGA added, citing census data.

Census data also shows a tremendous turnover in residents. In 1970, the city had 42 African American residents, and now has about 21,000, roughly 90% of the total, according to the BGA.

Many towns in need of funding began raising property taxes, which in turn hurt residents and businesses. In Ford Heights, the county’s poorest suburb, its most valuable business, GMI Recycling Services at 1703 Cottage Grove Ave., owed more than $192K in 2018, or nearly half of its assessed value, according to an analysis by South Cook News.

Alsberry witnessed all this economic turmoil, and felt compelled to do something, so he got into politics. He was elected mayor of Hazel Crest, a town roughly 9 miles southwest of Dolton, in 2013 and later was co-chair, along with Sterling Lumber CEO Carter Sterling, of the South Suburban Economic Growth Initiative. 

He now sits on the board of the Southland Development Authority, which grew out of those discussions, and said it can play a key role in attracting new business. In the past, he watched various south suburban towns try to poach businesses, such as car dealerships, from one another, luring them with tax breaks, but by participating in the authority, dozens of mayors have now agreed to cooperate.

“We know that we need each other, and the days when one community would take a business from a neighbor made us all look bad,” he said. “We can’t continue to do that and survive as a region.”

Businesses that see advantages in Southland will also no longer have to negotiate with its array of municipalities. The authority will be able to purchase land, organize environmental cleanups if needed, negotiate deals and tax incentives, and plan infrastructure improvements most towns are too small to tackle.

“You will not have all that red tape to get through if your property crosses the boundary between say, Country Club Hills and Hazel Crest,” Alsberry said.           

Hazel Crest Mayor Vernard Alsberry with veteran Leo Moore

The Southland Development Authority may already have a model for how to pursue a revival. Just to its north, near the southern edge of Chicago, sits Pullman, a neighborhood once occupied by belching steel mills and other heavy industry. Most of its factories also disappeared over the past few decades, replaced by empty land, frequently contaminated by years of heavy use. Bright spots have begun appearing among its dense network of roads and rail, with new, advanced manufacturing operations opening up, along with new distribution facilities that can service Chicago, and neighborhood advocates say a similar process could unfold further south.

“In a lot of ways, the Far South Side is part of the broader Calumet region,” Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives President David Doig said. “In the 1950s and 1960s, this area was thriving, but 30 or 40 years ago, the steel industry left, and that was the turning point.”

The nonprofit CNI began repurposing a neighborhood site once occupied by Ryerson Steel. It arranged environmental cleanup, and eventually sold portions of the land to companies that wanted locations among the eight interstates and six railroads that crisscross the wider Calumet region.

“That’s unparalleled in North America; there’s no other transportation network like it,” Doig said.

Gotham Greens, a pioneer in indoor greenhouse agriculture, opened a 100K SF greenhouse on the site last fall, joining a 140K SF Whole Foods Midwest Distribution Center, the LEED-Platinum certified Method Products factory and Pullman Crossings, a 62-acre industrial park where Ryan Cos. built a 400K SF industrial spec building. A total of $400M has been invested in Pullman in the last eight or nine years, and about 1,500 jobs created.

Doig also sits on the Southland Development Authority 16-member board, and said Pullman and the wider Southland share a lot of characteristics.

“They’ve suffered a lot from perception issues, because people think of these areas as ex-steel wastelands.”

But a lot of industry and employers remain, and with so many mayors agreeing to coordinate through the new development authority, it now has a welcoming political environment, along with available land far cheaper than other distribution and logistics markets around Chicago.

“A lot of those areas have been saturated with new product, but there is very little new modern product in the south suburbs, and that’s where there will be opportunities for new development,” he said.

Alsberry agreed that the region has greater economic strength than many realize. He pointed out that Hazel Crest is home to Mi-Jack, a large crane manufacturer, one of many heavy industrial operations that still calls the region home. The south suburbs have more than 100M SF of industrial property, more than any other submarket except O’Hare, according to Colliers International. The submarket is also well-occupied, with a vacancy rate of less than 5%, the firm said.

But it is also rare to see new construction. Colliers found that until last year, the area had 10 consecutive quarters without developers starting a single new building. 

Bridge Development Partners brought an end to that long drought in 2019 when it broke ground on a 219K SF spec at 6855 West 65th St. in Bedford Park. It finished the building about three weeks ago.

The firm developed the new building on spec, but company officials said they are confident of finding tenants, as the lack of available land near Chicago's downtown, where the need for deliveries keeps growing, has many distributors looking for space just over the border.   

"What we've seen in the last few years is a push to get as close to the city as humanly possible," Bridge Development Partners Vice President Nick Siegel said.

The region's history of heavy manufacturing means the south suburbs have an healthy supply of labor, he added.

Preckwinkle said new distribution and logistics facilities would be a perfect fit. 

"Having that kind of economic base would be good for the Southland." 

Alsberry wants to revive planning for a third regional airport, but said the new development authority has far broader aims.

"An airport is in the mix, but we're not going to hang our hat on that, but it would be a catalyst that would bring a lot more opportunity and businesses to the Southland region, and give some much-needed property tax relief to homeowners. The opportunity is there, and we need to grab it."