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Industrial revolution? City, county create 'growth zones'

Monday, July 18, 2016
Crain's Chicago Business
by Micah Maidenberg

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle unveiled an initiative aimed at helping property owners put vacant land back to use. Photo by Thinkstock
Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle unveiled an initiative aimed at helping property owners put vacant land back to use.

To entice landowners to develop industrial projects on their properties, city government and Cook County are focusing, in part, on dirt.

As part of a new initiative, landowners in seven areas around the region will be eligible for up to $130,000 to pay for environmental assessments and remediation of empty properties, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and county board President Toni Preckwinkle said this morning.

Polluted land is a big hurdle when it comes to industrial development in Chicago and many close-in suburbs, as properties that are unused right now might have formerly been home to manufacturers in dirty businesses.

Brownfields, as such vacant lots are typically called, can be expensive and time-consuming to clean up. As such, industrial companies often opt to open new facilities on so-calledgreen fieldland sites in farther-out suburbs.

“When you think about building in an urban environment, in a distressed environment, so one of the things you will typically run into is . . . the ground that you build on was often being used for other operations and is polluted and needs to be remediated,” Garry Embleton, global vice president for supply chain at cleaning products maker Method, said at Crain's Future of Chicago event this summer. (The company opened a factory on the former Ryerson steel factory site in Pullman last year.) “To get it developed, it actually is more difficult than to go to a greenfield site.”

The city will pay for the site assessment and cleanup using tax-increment financing, while the county will use federal block grants, a spokesman for the Emanuel administration said in an email.

The financial assistance for land analysis and remediation is one part of a broader new effort to generate investment in manufacturing and related facilities in seven "Industrial Growth Zones" around the city and Cook County. Emanuel and Preckwinkle are touting the program as a big policy shift that will help Chicago and the county win industrial projects and the jobs that come with them.

In addition to the money for land analysis and remediation, the initiative will provide free marketing for landowners and to companies, as well as access to an “industrial concierge,” who will serve as a single point of contact on regulations, permits, licensing and other issues.

“This joint effort will improve how property owners, industrial developers and businesses invest in our city's neighborhoods, and unlock the potential for further economic growth,” Emanuel said in a statement this morning.

The growth zones program will last three years during its rollout. Initially, property owners in seven areas will get to access to financial assistance and additional supportive services: the Northwest, Greater Southwest, Burnside and Calumet Industrial Corridors; the area around Roosevelt Road and Cicero Avenue in the city, and multiple communities in southern Cook County.

“Growth Zones are designed to attract investment into and development of specific industrial areas to spur regional economic growth and generate real, sustainable jobs,” Preckwinkle said in the statement.

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