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Cook County seeks partners for economic development projects

Wednesday, August 16, 2017
Chicago Tribune
by Ted Slowik

Sometimes, economic development is tricky business.

Consider Wisconsin's dilemma about whether to provide $3 billion in financial incentives to lure electronics maker Foxconn Technology Group to the state. The reported $10 billion project would create at least 3,000 jobs, but "giving away the store" raises questions about benefits to taxpayers.

Other times, economic development is downright simple. Community partners invest in infrastructure improvements. Improved access attracts development. Businesses and industries create jobs that help the tax base, leading to more money for schools, parks and other amenities.

John Yonan, superintendent of the Cook County Department of Transportation and Highways, shared his vision for specific economic development opportunities during a tour Tuesday of various south suburban sites.

He wanted to talk about 30 projects throughout the county selected for the inaugural round of $7.2 million in funding through the Invest in Cook grant program and to raise awareness about the grants.

"We want communities in all of Cook County to apply for funding," he said.

We met at 119th and Division streets in Blue Island, an area where shopping centers share the neighborhood with manufacturing and shipping facilities. It's conveniently located just a couple blocks west of an Interstate 57 interchange.

Yonan took me down Division Street, an unimproved gravel road that extends about a mile south of 119th Street. It's the only way to access the Blue Island Intermodal Terminal, a link in the nation's freight-shipping network. Chicago is a key hub for logistics and intermodal operations.

"The function of this terminal is that of a crosstown facility — where a drayman (flatbed driver) or a railroad delivers a container from one railroad to another for continuance of the move," the Mid America Freight Coalition says on its website.

More than 10,000 rail cars pass through the terminal each month, Yonan said. The Blue Island Intermodal Terminal is operated by the Iowa Interstate Railroad System, which maintains connections with six Class I railroads. They're the big boys — like Union Pacific, BNSF and Canadian National — that use coast-to-coast tracks.

The problem is Division Street is pocked with potholes and deep craters. Heavy trucks continuously use the road to access the intermodal yard. Some of the holes are so big and deep, loads could shift and trucks might even tip over, Yonan said.

"There's potential for capsizing," he said.

The cost to pave and improve the mile stretch of road is estimated at $4 million. If you're a local official in Blue Island, Yonan said, you're not going to prioritize fixing a road that's only used by trucks.

Logically, you're going to take whatever limited road funds you have in a given year and spend them patching potholes and fixing streets where people live and shop — where voters will experience the benefits of the improvements.

"Local municipalities are not in a position to make this a priority," Yonan said.

That's where the county can help, he said. The inaugural group of Invest in Cook grants include $200,000 to perform preliminary engineering for "The Blue Island Yard Joint Rail Intermodal Facility: Division Street" project.

The applicant is the Chicago Southland Economic Development Corporation.

"Access is poor. Division Street doesn't work well," Reggie Greenwood, deputy executive director of economic development for the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association told me by phone.

If partners can secure funds to pay for the Division Street improvements through various local, county, state and federal resources, the project would be "a great investment in the region," Greenwood said.

Land on either side of Division Street is vacant. As we bumped along in an SUV on the way to the intermodal terminal, Yonan and I passed what looked like a group of potential developers eyeing a vacant parcel.

"You see?" Yonan said. His point was, this location was ripe for economic development, with convenient access to an interstate highway and railroad. Improving a mile stretch of local road could create the additional incentive needed to close a deal.

Blue Island Mayor Domingo Vargas said about 90 acres of vacant land at 119th and Division streets could be developed with big-box retail along the 119th Street frontage and other uses farther south.

"We've had a handful of developers look at it," Vargas told me by phone. "Since that area is so close to I-57, (Division Street improvements) are not only beneficial for the intermodal facility but also ingress/egress for any future development. It's a vital link in that area."

Yonan stressed the form to apply for Invest in Cook grants takes "15 minutes" to complete. Applicants are asked to describe the need and how addressing it would contribute to economic development.

"We're looking for leadership, not money," he said. "There has to be potential for businesses to add jobs or retain jobs they have."

One third — or 10 of the 30 projects receiving initial Invest in Cook grants — are located in the south suburbs. They include resurfacing 135th Street in Crestwood, renovating a Metra station in Harvey and extending a bicycle trail in Richton Park. Other projects are in Dolton, Lansing, Riverdale, Robbins, Sauk Village and Steger.

Cook County's initial $7.2 million investment, combined with an additional $7.6 million in available federal, state and local funds, "will enable $14.8 million in project activity across all phases to get underway in the coming year," the county said in a news release.

As Yonan described how the county seeks partners for transportation projects that will encourage economic growth, I asked about a quality-of-life issue: Grade-crossing separations.

As any Blue Island resident or frequent visitor knows, rail lines surround the city. Freight trains frequently block crossings, creating reactions that range from minor annoyance to deep frustration.

County transportation planners understand the feelings, Yonan said, and are identifying potential solutions.

"At-grade railroad crossings disproportionately affect Cook County's south suburbs," reads a project description for one of the Invest in Cook grants, $120,000 for a planning study of the "Dolton and Riverdale Gateway."

"This planning study will examine 10 at-grade road/rail crossings in the communities of Dolton and Riverdale to determine which ones rank most highly from the perspective of residents and business people and to explore possible solutions for improving mobility in these two communities."

Grade-crossing separations are expensive, since they typically entail construction of large bridges. There are other possible solutions, though. Yonan showed me on a map how a railroad "short line" could potentially be rerouted to eliminate at least one grade crossing near Blue Island.

"We've identified where the bottlenecks are," Yonan said. "You can't leave these problems to their local owners."

Twitter @tedslowik

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