The scale of warehouse and intermodal facilities in Will County, Illinois

As residents and local officials in Joliet and Will County debated a proposal for a new 1,300 acre office park, WBEZ put the size of the issue at hand in perspective:

The county is home to the largest inland port in North America and 3.5% of the nation’s GDP passes through here…

And $65 billion worth of products moves through Will County annually, according to the Will County Center for Economic Development.

In other words, this an important area for the current economy and the land use case has local, regional, and global implications. A few thoughts:

  1. Joliet and neighboring communities might not want the additional facilities and trucks but having these facilities in this part of the metropolitan region might be good for 9+ million residents. Balancing local interests and metropolitan interests is not easy. And the Chicago region has a lot of railroad and shipping bottlenecks.
  2. This is a symptom of larger economic changes as the economy became globalized, shipping goods across the country and on-time delivery became common, and Internet sales picked up. The effects may be local but Will County is part of a larger system.
  3. The changes in Joliet over time are striking, The news story hinted at how the community, what social worker Graham Romeyn Taylor in Satellite Cities: A Study of Industrial Suburbs in 1915 would have called an “industrial suburb,” has changed:

“Three steel mills closed. Caterpillar went from 8,000 people to a little over a thousand. We had numerous manufacturing plants shuttered,” said John Grueling, president and CEO of the Will County Center for Economic Development.

No other county in Illinois has seen job growth like Will County. It’s the epicenter of transportation for goods that move across the region and country with North America’s largest inland port. Now another real estate company wants to expand in the area by developing a logistics business park, and its raising concerns about the future of the county.

In summary: local land use decisions can have big impacts.

(See an earlier post about how the Will County community of Elwood responded to a large intermodal facility.)

The importance of the railroad to Will County’s projected growth

When Will County officials look at a map of Metra commuter rail lines in the Chicago region, they see limited services for a growing region. Indeed, communities like Joliet and Plainfield are quickly growing. Will County officials came together Monday to praise a new study that will look into improving train options for this area:

Several communities have pegged developments to improved service on the Heritage Corridor. But those suburbs have been frustrated in recent years by the slow pace of adding Metra trains.

Local officials said Monday they were pinning their hopes on the Heritage Corridor to help residents get downtown now and in the future.

“I truly believe the need is there more than ever, and the consensus is we are going to see Will County in the next 20 years jump to (more than) 1 million people to become the second-most populated behind Cook,” said Will County Executive Larry Walsh.

The study will help establish the line as part of the proposed high-speed rail corridor between Chicago and St. Louis, Hannig said.

Several pieces of information are interesting:

1. Many might think that the railroad ceased to be important for suburbs around the time that interstates were built (late 1950s in the Chicago area). But these railroad lines still play an important role: they are a commuting option but also give suburbs a flow of people in and out of the downtown as well as a center for which development can be anchored. Along other Metra lines, numerous communities have built condos and mixed-use developments.

2. Will County will have more than 1 million residents in 20 years? This would require growth rates like the county has experienced since the 1950s: in every decade except the 1980s, the county has experienced at least 30% growth. I wonder what DuPage County, the current 2nd most populous county in the region, thinks of this projection.

3. There is some Metra service to Chicago but the options are limited. The article suggests that this limited service leads to limited use: this line is “Metra’s least-used line, with an average weekday ridership of 2,600 passengers.” (A little comparison with these numbers: I believe both Naperville train stations easily exceed this each weekday.) So if the rail service is improved, will this necessarily lead to more riders as the political leaders suggest? Why can’t the officials look at some commuting data to figure out how many Will County residents work in Chicago versus in other suburbs?

County forest preserves benefit from economic downturn as they purchase cheaper land

The reduction in land values has not been bad for everyone: the Chicago Tribune reports that Chicago area forest preserves have bought up more land than anticipated in the past few years. Among the findings:

Flush with $185 million from a 2008 bond sale, the [Lake County] district went on a buying spree, gobbling up some 3,400 acres of land. The second-largest forest preserve system in the state at 29,300 acres, the 53-year old district has grown by nearly 12 percent since the onset of the recession.

“We spent down the money quicker than we had anticipated, mainly because there were so many good buying opportunities for us in 2009 and 2010, especially,” Hahn said…

Founded in 1971, the McHenry County Conservation District has essentially doubled over the last decade to just less than 25,000 acres…

Though the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County’s biggest growth spurt was in the 1970s, the 25,000-acre district managed to add some 2,400 acres over the last decade…

Racing the clock against development in one of the fastest-growing counties in the country, the Forest Preserve District of Will County has added about 8,300 acres since 1999, increasing its holdings by about two-thirds to nearly 21,000 acres…

The timing has been more fortuitous in Kane County, where the Forest Preserve District has added nearly 12,000 acres since 1999, increasing its holdings by 170 percent.

The only county forest preserve that didn’t add a significant amount of land was Cook County which likely has little available land. There hasn’t been too much news about these acquisitions in the Chicago area, even as these land purchases have been funded by bond sales approved by the public.

Overall, this has presented these districts with an opportunity to purchase land they might not have been able to purchase in better times. Particularly in some of the booming counties, such as Will or McHenry, this opportunity may have been the last one before suburban growth took up too much land.

This does lead to another question: how much land should Forest Preserves aim to have? I know there are recommendations about how much parkland or open space there should be for a set amount of people. Is most of this newly acquired land going to be open space/natural settings or more developed parks and recreation areas? Would there be a point where the Forest Preserves will stop purchasing or will they keep acquiring land forever?