Lawrence M. Walsh
Will County leads Illinois in job creation and continues to add residents while the state overall is losing population, business and civic leaders were told at an event Thursday.
Will County added 8,450 jobs in the past year, John Greuling, president and CEO of the Will County Center for Economic Development, told an audience of about 180 people during an annual economic outlook event at a banquet hall in Mokena.
“That’s not happening anywhere else in Illinois,” Greuling said.
Illinois’ population has declined by more than 100,000 people since 2013, according to the Census Bureau. Will County was home to 692,310 residents a year ago and its population had increased by 2% since 2010, Greuling said.
“In spite of all the bad stuff we think is happening in the state of Illinois, companies are moving here,” Greuling said.
Greuling highlighted several projects in eastern Will County, including a new Amazon facility in Monee. The online retailer already operates fulfillment centers in Monee and four other locations in the county.
Amazon’s new facility set to open in July will occupy 153,000 square feet and employ 400 people, he said. Amazon already is Will County’s largest employer, with more than 7,000 workers, he said.
The company describes it as a “make-on-demand” center where products will be manufactured, Greuling said.
“If you buy a book and it’s not in stock, they’ll print it there,” he said.
An Amazon representative did not immediately respond Thursday to requests for comment.
The new facility is immediately south of Amazon’s existing fulfillment center at 6605 W. Monee Manhattan Road, said Kevin Daly, Monee’s economic development coordinator.
“This is not a huge project for Amazon but it is big for the village and for the Southland,” Daly said by phone Thursday. “We’re excited to continue the relationship we have with them.”
Big-box warehouses are unpopular among many Will County residents who contend with heavy truck traffic on I-80 and other highways. The county has 184 million square feet of industrial space under roof and only 10% of it is vacant, Greuling said.
“We don’t have a lot of empty buildings,” he said. “The market can sustain more growth. There’s going to be pressure to build more large industrial buildings in Will County.”
The good news for travelers is that state legislators recently approved more than $1 billion in spending on roads in Will County, Greuling said. Most of that — $848 million — is to expand I-80 and build new bridges over the Des Plaines River.
“(The Illinois Department of Transportation) chose I-80 as a signature project,” Greuling told the audience. “We’ve always played second fiddle here,” as the state diverted infrastructure funds to other locations, he said.
Billboards paid for by a group representing union construction contractors helped highlight the need to fund the I-80 project, Greuling said.
“I-80 has become the poster child for Rebuild Illinois,” Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s six-year infrastructure program, Greuling said.
The state’s 2020 budget includes $162 million to build a new interchange on I-57 to serve the proposed South Suburban Airport near Monee, Greuling noted.
“(The South Suburban Airport) is a project that (former) Gov. (Bruce) Rauner walked away from,” Grueling said. “Gov. Pritzker listened to legislators from Will County” who advocated for the project, he said.
Government spending on infrastructure creates private investment in business and commerce, Greuling said.
“We needed this,” Greuling said of the state commitment to fund highway improvements. “We haven’t had something like this in Illinois for 10 years. … When businesses see the community doing the heavy lifting, they feel better.”
The Will County Center for Economic Development is a private entity that was founded in 1981 to help retain existing businesses and attract new employers to Will County.
Some trends create concern in Will County, Greuling said. For instance, 11.6% of Will County’s population is people between the ages 25 and 34 years, which is below the state average of 13.9%. In Cook County, 16.5% of the population is within that age group, he said.
“Chicago is a tech center” that attracts employees who are millennials, Greuling said. “We’re not doing so good. It’s a challenge for us. We’re not able to attract and keep those workers.”
Part of the reason may be Will County’s lack of multi-family housing, he said. In Illinois, 53% of new housing units being built are multi-family and in Cook County the rate is 82%, he said. In Will County, only 16% of new housing units are multi-family, Greuling said.
“It’s a concerning trend. We’re not building enough multi-family housing in Will County,” Greuling said. “It’s a lifestyle (younger workers) are looking for. (They don’t want to live in) subdivisions, they want to be within walking distance of train stations and coffee shops.”
Greuling praised a new initiative by the villages of Mokena, Orland Park and Tinley Park to create the Chicago Southland Interstate Alliance. Mokena Mayor Frank Fleischer introduced a video that highlighted how the alliance aims to encourage development of land along I-80 in the three communities.
unicipal alliances can help attract investment in regional concerns such as transportation and economic development, Greuling said.
“One of the things we can do better in Will County is collaborate better,” Greuling said. “Communities that work together are more successful.”
Mokena, Orland Park and Tinley Park made a smart move by forming the alliance, Greuling said.
“These are three communities that historically have been fierce competitors, chasing the same business investment and new residents,” he said.