Business and Economic Development

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Retail revolution makes Joliet a big winner

In 2015, Amazon didn’t have a single facility in Joliet or in surrounding Will County. Just three years later, the biggest company in online retailing had become the biggest employer in Will County with 3,500 workers in Joliet alone. Its five existing or planned distribution and sorting centers occupied ground equal to 56 football fields.

That’s just the most unmistakable sign of how drastically the revolution in retailing has supercharged Joliet’s industrial base. But like the revolution that first made Joliet what it is starting in the 1830s, we can chalk this one up to transportation.

Thanks to its location along the Des Plaines River linking Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River, plus three railroads and two Interstate highways, for 150 years Joliet built its economy on heavy industries such as steelmaking. Much of that remains, such as an ExxonMobil petroleum refinery and an NRG  Energy power plant.

Now more and more finished products are being manufactured abroad, then shipped to America via “intermodal” shipping containers that can be interchanged among ships, trucks or rail cars without ever being unloaded. Other products are made in American factories and shipped to their distribution points via these same containers. Increasingly, shoppers are buying items online rather than traveling to a “bricks and mortar” store.

Joliet and the neighboring area have ridden these trends to new prosperity as the West’s two biggest railroads, BNSF and Union Pacific, have built “intermodal logistics centers” on land formerly used for military purposes by the federal government. Together known as the CenterPoint Intermodal Center, with part in Joliet and part in neighboring Elwood, Illinois, it isthe largest inland port in the United States. Hundreds of trains per week roll into these two yards, where their shipping containers are unloaded from the train cars and lifted onto semitrailer trucks.

Some of those trucks then head onto nearby I-55 or I-80, bound for warehouses and stores all over the Midwest. In the past few years, a bevy of major companies have taken advantage of this nexus of rails and roads by opening distribution centers in Joliet.

Mars Inc., the candy maker, opened a 1.4-million-square-foot distribution center in 2017, bringing with it 400 to 500 permanent jobs plus 200 to 300 seasonal jobs.

IKEA, the Swedish furniture giant, opened a 1.29 million-square-foot Midwest distribution center in fall 2018.

Communications Test Design has added 500 employees at a 501,000-square-foot facility in the CenterPoint Intermodal Center.

Other distribution centers have been opened by Home Depot, Whirlpool, Saddle Creek Logistics and Cadence Premier Logistics. CAP Barbell, a manufacturer of fitness equipment, doubled its presence in Joliet with a 200,000-square-foot expansion.

To help keep up with all that traffic flow, the CenterPoint Center’s owners are collaborating with the State of Illinois, the City of Joliet and Will County for a toll bridge and interchange improvement at I-80 and Houbolt Road that will ease access to the rail yard by trucks. Both trucks and autos will benefit as plans are being made to turn I-55’s interchange with Illinois 59 into a full four-way interchange.

DOWNTOWN MODERNIZES

All this employment growth has bright with it many new residents. In 2016 a special census showed Joliet had a population of 149,386, which moved it up to third place among Illinois’ largest cities, exceeded only by Chicago and Aurora. From 2016 to mid-2018 the city had added another 450 housing units on top of that.

Joliet’s government and business leaders haven’t forgotten the city’s classic downtown area. With thousands of Metra commuter train riders heading daily toward Chicago along two Metra rail lines and hundreds of Amtrak riders heading toward the south and west, a new train station and commuter parking have been finished. Construction of a new Pace bus station nearby is in the planning phase awaiting funding, and when done will create an easy way to move between intercity trains and in-town buses. Amtrak, meanwhile, is upgrading the track it uses between Joliet and St. Louis to high-speed rail.

The 1912-era art deco Union Station that these facilities have replaced now houses a microbrewery/restaurant and a “Grand Ballroom” for community events, weddings, etc.

Joliet Junior College recently built a seven-story City Center Campus to house its adult education and literacy, workforce development and culinary arts programs. Construction began in 2018 on a new 10-story, $200 million Will County Courthouse  in the heart of the downtown area. The Rialto Square Theatre, Harrah’s Joliet Casino and the Forge Music Venue draw large numbers to the downtown from all over the Chicago area and beyond. A downtown plaza is planned to be created across the street from the theater and an extension of Chicago Street anticipated for late 2019 will enhance traffic flow in the downtown area.

Also downtown, the city government has installed artificial turf at the Joliet Route 66 Stadium so that it can be used not only for baseball, but also for concerts, soccer and other sports. The Joliet Slammers minor league team, meanwhile, have signed on at the park through 2023.

After years of planning, the 160-year-old Old Joliet Prison – often used in TV and film, and famous as the starting point for “The Blues Brothers” – finally opened to limited public tours in 2018. Steve Jones, the deputy city manager and economic development director, said  more and more of that sprawling campus will be opened for visitors or even converted into new uses.

Meanwhile, the city government has set up a tax increment financing (TIF) district downtown to encourage new businesses and the conversion of older business buildings into residential projects. In one example, the five-story, Daniel Burnham-designed Barber Building is being converted into 35 luxury apartments.

The city council also has set up a TIF district to encourage medical offices and businesses around the world-class Presence Saint Joseph Medical Center. Saint Joseph is the flagship hospital of the largest Catholic health system in Illinois and, besides Amazon, remains Will County’s biggest employer, with 2,430 jobs.