A city with industrial roots that date back farther than the city’s 1852 incorporation, Joliet is undergoing a kind of economic renaissance as its growing population now places it third in Illinois, in terms of size, with more than 149,300 residents.
“There are three areas of forward movement,” said Steve Jones, the city’s economic development director and deputy city manager, “the downtown, the employment base and new retail, in place, proposed and envisioned.”
A new college campus, a new courthouse, transportation facility improvements, new residential development and the re-purposing of Joliet’s Old Union Station are among the initiatives revitalizing the downtown area.
In January 2017, Joliet Junior College added a new campus location, which includes its much-heralded and acclaimed culinary school along with adult education and literacy departments, in a seven-story downtown building known as City Center at 235 N. Chicago St. The 96,000-square-foot facility represents a $58 million investment in the city’s future.
“It sort of anchors the north end of the downtown,” Jones said.
As the county seat of Will County, Joliet is home to the Will County Courthouse. Jones said the county has begun drawing up plans for a new courthouse, at an estimated cost of $200 million, to be started in 2018. Bond financing efforts currently are underway.
“It will be a 10-story structure,” Jones said.
Commuters and long distance travelers are getting treated to upgrades via embellishments to the transportation system that serves Joliet. A hub for local, regional and national transportation, the city recently built a new rail platform for the Metra Rock Island line and recently completed commuter parking lot improvements.
“The two rail platforms will be oriented to serve the new commuter facility,” Jones said. The old station ceased operation in 2014.
By the end of the year, Jones said a new two-story train station will be unveiled that will serve the Metra Rock Island line, the Metra Heritage Corridor line and Amtrak.
Amtrak, he said, is currently engineering improvements to accommodate a soon-to-be-introduced high-speed rail service.
“There will be high-speed rail service between Chicago and St. Louis. Joliet will be the first stop outside of Chicago,” he said.
Jones said architectural plans for a new bus facility also are in the works for a later phase of the transportation improvement project.
Meanwhile, the Joliet Union Station, a former commuter and long-distance rail station, has been undergoing a transformation courtesy of two private-public partnerships.
The 1912 vintage building, a grand, ornate structure elegantly appointed with marble flourishes, arch windows and cathedral ceilings, is reminiscent of Chicago’s Union Station, Jones said.
The upper floor has been leased by JBM Golf Properties, the company that owns the Mistwood Golf Club in nearby Romeoville, into a 250-seat banquet facility that accommodates weddings, fundraisers, birthday parties, personal milestone events, conferences and corporate gatherings.
“It’s a really nice venue,” said Jones. “They also do community events.”
The part of Joliet Union Station that once housed Amtrak has become MyGrain Brewing Company, a microbrewery and restaurant launched by a personal trainer and a business owner in September 2017.
“They became the first microbrewery in the City of Joliet,” Jones said.
MyGrain offers several ales, IPAs and stouts, along with a bar menu that serves up whiskey, wine and cocktails. Diners may order burgers and sandwiches, soups, salads, or full entrées, from grilled salmon to short ribs to fried chicken. There are even two beer-themed desserts to choose from: beer beignets and chocolate stout bread pudding.
Jones said the city is also seeing a move toward increasing downtown residential options.
“Back in the day, it was all commercial and office uses,” he said.
City officials would like to see more residential development downtown so that people can live, work and play in the city’s center.
He said the city recently approved a development agreement for the construction of 35 apartment units on the top four floors of the five-story Barber Building, a structure built in the 1800s. The ground floor will house commercial enterprises.
“It’s an old Daniel Burnham building,” he said, referring to the renowned architect whose designs helped shape Chicago’s skyline. “It’s going to be a great use of historical space.”
Jones said city leaders have embarked on plans to attract more retail and restaurant business downtown. To that end, he said, the city is pursuing ways to improve traffic flow.
“At the present time, the main roadway that travels through downtown is Chicago Street. It dead-ends at a parking lot at the courthouse. We are working on a deal with the county to connect both legs of the street to allow better travel through downtown,” he said.
Plans also call for improving the parking options on Chicago Street.
“We want to make it easier to find places to park,” he said, adding that shared bicycle lanes with lane marking may be added.
The city is encouraging the creation of “street-side dining” options and is planning to improve the streetscape with ornate streetlights and pavers and acquiring land near the Rialto Square Theater, a Joliet cultural icon, to increase foot traffic and form a pedestrian-friendly nexus that will further invigorate the downtown scene.
Slammers Stadium is getting a makeover that will make it more amenable to not only accommodating baseball games, but concerts and other sporting events.
“We’re putting in artificial turf. With this, it’s going to open up three seasons of use and increase the number of folks visiting this venue,” he said. “It’s slated to be in place by spring. We are also in the process of planning for the rebranding of the stadium to incorporate a Route 66 theme.”
A Denver-based company that specializes in helping high-tech business start-ups get off the ground is planning to install an Innovation Campus downtown north of the train station.
“This would bring millennials downtown, and some employment,” Jones said.
Amazon recently completed construction of a second Joliet fulfillment center, a 747,000-square-foot warehouse. When fully staffed, the facility in combination with the previously opened Amazon fulfillment center in Joliet will employ a total of 3,500 people, Jones said.
The CenterPoint Intermodal Center is another major employment center in Joliet.
“It’s the largest inland port in North America,” said Jones. “Train lines provide freight movements to both coasts.”
The center has created thousands of jobs and added millions of square feet of construction to Joliet. Growth continues with a recent lease of 501,313 square feet of space to Communications Test Design, Inc., a Pennsylvania-based company. Within the past year, the company has added 600 employees with plans to hire another 500, Jones said.
“They do electronic testing, repair and distribution for the telecommunications industry,” he said.
Also located at the CenterPoint Intermodal Center is a 1.4-million-square-foot distribution center for Mars, the candy company.
Ikea is building a1.2 million-square-foot distribution center at Laraway Crossings Business Park on the northwest corner of Emerald Drive and Cashel Road, a venture that will add about 100 jobs. The company also plans to build a second building on an adjacent piece of land, Jones said.
Other companies locating distribution centers and/or corporate headquarters in Joliet include Cadence Premier Logistics, Saddle Creek Logistics, the Whirlpool Corporation, Home Depot and the CAP Barbell Company.
Jones said two hotel chains, Holiday Inn and Home2Home Suites, are building hospitality projects.
“These projects are well into the construction phase and will be completed shortly,” Jones said. “The hospitality industry continues to grow.”
He said a total of four industrial spec projects are underway without named tenants. “The strength of the Joliet market allows for a successful build-it-and-they-will-come mentality,” he said.
Cullinan Properties, a Peoria-based real estate group, has proposed turning a 265-acre parcel near the intersection of I-55 and I-80 into a planned mixed use area to be called Rock Run Crossings.
“It’ll include retail, residential, offices, entertainment and medical, all mixed,” said Jones. “It’s more of a town square type approach. It’s exciting. It’s something that could anchor the south end of town.”
Jones said he envisions residents of Pontiac and points south traveling to the center to take advantage of its many anticipated services and amenities.
Retail remains a strong mainstay of the Joliet economy.
Along Route 30, which winds north of the Louis Joliet Mall, there was a short-lived vacancy created when Sports Authority closed up shop. Bob’s Discount Furniture quickly moved into the big box spot.
“Fresh Thyme Farmers Market came in recently and has been a huge hit. We often have retailers comment that they wish we had more available land on Route 30. That is a sign of success,” he said.