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Will County activists have cautionary tale for Sugar Grove residents about warehouse development

Elwood residents share how a large warehouse development has impacted their town

Village of Sugar Grove
Village of Sugar Grove

SUGAR GROVE – A videographer-turned documentary filmmaker and several residents of Elwood, a Will County town of 2,200 residents, told Sugar Grove and neighboring area residents a cautionary tale based on their experiences when two warehousing developments took over their little town and changed it forever.

Upon learning of a collection of Sugar Grove and nearby residents’ opposition to Crown Community Development’s plans to build a 760-acre business park development with 4 million square feet of warehousing at the Route 47 and Interstate 88 interchange, the Elwood contingent offered to travel to Sugar Grove on Aug. 7 at the Sugar Grove Community Center to share their experiences.

Delilah Legrett and Stephanie Irvine are administrators of Say No to Northpoint, a group opposing a proposed third warehousing development in Elwood, and Roberto Clark represents Warehouse Workers for Justice.

Legrett told the audience that initially she thought the proposed Centerpoint Intermodal development was a great idea. The developer promised a mixed-use development that would have a positive economic impact on the town, bringing money for new schools, an increase in property values, as well as lots of jobs.

The development became operational in 2003. Legrett said there were a number of factors involved in what happened next, not the least of which was the great recession, but ultimately what had seemed like a good idea was “executed terribly on broken promises and misinformation.”

The 6,500-acre Centerpoint Intermodal, serving 30 tenants, including Walmart, Target, Amazon, IKEA and others who utilize the 14 million square feet of warehouse space became “the largest inland shipping port in North America,” Legrett said.

Although a significant number of warehousing jobs did come with the development, she said they were mostly low-paying and temporary, resulting in a workforce that could not afford to live in Elwood. In fact, most of the new employees actually work for the local temp agencies that have sprung up in the area to meet the fluctuating employment needs of the development’s tenants.

The increased employee traffic in and out of the area several times per day to meet the needs of the 24-hour operations was on top of what Legrett described as a staggering increase in the amount of semi-truck traffic.

The pressure on truck drivers to provide a quick turn-around in product delivery has brought with it an increase in accidents, including roll-overs and fatalities. Of the 123 crashes in Elwood in one year, more than half of those involved semi-trucks, she said.

The increase in truck traffic, many carrying more than the legal weight limit, has had a damaging effect on the roads, as well as negative impacts on the environment, including a significant concentration of diesel particulates in the air.

Legrett said calls for police services in Elwood have increased, currently in the thousands per month compared to hundreds in the neighboring town of Manhattan. Elwood has had to add 10 full-time officers to its previous two, but since the deal struck between the town and the developer calls for a 23-year 100 percent TIF, there is no additional tax money to pay for the additional police staff.

In 2013, the amount of truck traffic traveling down the street in front of her home led Legrett and her family to move outside the city limits.

In 2017, another developer proposed a third warehouse development directly behind her new home. She said that, once a municipality accepts one such development, it becomes harder to say no to the next one.

“It sets a precedent,” she said.

So Legrett decided to fight back.

A leader in the activist organization, Say No to Northpoint, she, her neighbors and representatives of Warehouse Workers for Justice, not only have taken actions to oppose the new development, but have also become resources to residents of other communities fighting their own battles with such development.

She emphasized the need for local, county and state entities to be involved in the discussions and decision-making about such development and its impacts, to ensure there is a coordinated regional effort to head off problems as well as identify where funding and other resources will come from to mitigate problems when they do occur.

“What you do at the local levels affects other areas,” she said.

Sybil Drew, a Tinley Park resident currently filming a documentary about Elwood and a number of other communities affected by the warehousing development boom, joined the Elwood group in Sugar Grove.

Drew became involved with this issue after developing asthma that she believes was caused by the tens of thousands of trucks traveling on I-80 near her home.

Drew said the warehousing boom has been caused by a number of factors, including the country’s recent economic recovery, its reliance on foreign goods, the increase in the amount of online retail sales, the relative low risk to warehouse developers to build them, and the large profit margins made on such development.

With the Midwest’s proximity to ports, railroads and interstates, especially Chicago, it’s a prime target of warehouse developers. In addition, smaller communities in rural areas with an abundance of relatively cheap land and officials’ willingness to give tax abatements to attract jobs make these areas attractive to the warehouse developers, she said.

Drew plans to include Sugar Grove’s experiences in her film, and has begun to interview local residents.

Two of those residents, Fred and Maria Morelli, live in unincorporated Kane County, off of Scott Road and Route 47, “about 100 feet” from where the development would be built.

“There was nothing in the agreement (with Crown) that favored Sugar Grove. If Crown had a wish list, they got everything they wanted,” he said. “I thought it was a very good meeting; it was very well put together I learned a lot.”

Resident Millie Molitor, one of the organizers of the meeting, said she was pleased to see so many of the village's officials there.

Molitor said she hopes they will continue to do their due diligence and focus on the best direction for Sugar Grove.

“There are many residents that don’t want this (development),” she said.

Recently-elected trustee Ryan Walter said the information presented reinforced a lot of Sugar Grove residents’ concerns.

“This is just the beginning,” he said. “There’s a lot of farmland left. I believe our community needs to decide what we want to be – a residential neighborhood with a quality of life or an industrial hub.”

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