There have been numerous public (and not so public) meetings, discussions, debates, hearings, lobbying activities, political maneuverings, etc. regarding several very large projects being considered and planned in a number of Will County communities. Some of these span multiple communities and, in a few cases, multiple counties.
While on the surface, a few of these are readily accepted by most (the reconstruction of Interstate 80, including replacing the Des Plaines River bridges), and others (NorthPoint’s Compass Business Park) have sought approval in multiple jurisdictions and up until now, have been unsuccessful.
Large-scale industrial projects have been a big part of the economic renaissance of Will County over the past 30 years. The Will County Community Friendly Freight Mobility Plan identified a number of existing super freight clusters including the Bolingbrook/Romeoville cluster, the Joliet/Elwood cluster and the University Park/Monee cluster that have seen the majority of the development.
These clusters have more than 110 million square feet of industrial space in them of the about 190 million square feet of industrial space in the entire county. And an emerging super freight cluster is in Wilmington at I-55 and Lorenzo Road. Before any of these projects were approved, local, state and federal authorities put them through rigorous reviews. In cases where there was community opposition, changes were made in the projects to minimize harm and encroachment into the surrounding community. And, some new projects were denied.
There are also numerous smaller freight clusters in many Will County communities that through planning and community policy cover well-defined areas that will not expand beyond their current boundaries. Examples include industrial parks in New Lenox, Crest Hill, Shorewood, Lockport and Channahon. These communities for the most part have decided not to encourage large-scale freight/industrial developments beyond what they have. Local infrastructure is adequate to support the development, impacts on residential areas is limited, and they enjoy a diversified tax base with local employment opportunities. And any new projects will have to face the same test. Community planning is relevant here and works.
Two of the largest planned developments are transportation projects that will serve the movement of people and freight alike: The South Suburban Airport and the Illiana Expressway. Both projects are on hold waiting on the state of Illinois to green light them (if ever). Years of planning, engineering, public review and community input blessed by IDOT and the federal government could lead to the construction of both projects. But not without further analysis of regional and local impacts. This is demanded by local, state and federal guidelines for projects of this size. But they won’t happen if there isn’t state, local and regional consensus to support them in place.
Other major developments include the proposed super regional center Rock Run Crossing, the commercial, retail, entertainment and residential project at I-80 and I-55 in Joliet. This campus will spin off thousands of constructions and full-time jobs, millions of dollars in new taxes and add to the quality of life for residents throughout the region. Large infrastructure improvements are necessary to make this project happen, so accessing available funding is key to its success. The collaboration between local units of government will help make this happen.
And then there is Compass Business Park. While a portion of the project is treated in the freight plan as an extension of the Joliet/Elwood freight cluster, the Compass plan contemplates a much larger project than the plan envisioned. Again, many positive impacts: construction and industry jobs, expansion of the tax base and designed to meet the future growth of freight intermodal activity in Will County.
Groups and individuals that have opposed this project feel the county does not need more distribution centers, the jobs pay poorly (and are mostly “temporary”), and the additional truck and workforce traffic will destroy the local road network, causing congestion and environmental damage and hurt the quality of life the current residents in the area enjoy. While statistics disprove the first two concerns, impacts on our transportation system are real. And not just from the proposed Compass plan.
The biggest failing in Will County regarding these large-scale projects is that regional transportation impacts are not addressed. One community can approve a project with minimal impacts locally but might have large-scale impacts on surrounding communities and the local and regional road networks. The freight plan contemplates that before these projects are approved, there should be a regional impact analysis done by the multiple jurisdictions affected. Finding collaborative solutions might lessen the animosity between special interest groups, protect the entire community and, in the end produce a better development. You say that will never happen? I say it must.
• John Greuling is president and CEO of the Will County Center for Economic Development.