Within a span of eight days in March, the Southeast Side laid claim to 320 new industrial and warehouse jobs: A Chinese manufacturer promised to open a 170-person plant in Hegewisch to assemble Chicago Transit Authority rail cars. And Whole Foods Market said it will set up a distribution center on an old Ryerson steel-processing site in Pullman and hire 150 people.
Several other nearby employers have been expanding production, opening facilities and hiring. In all, at least 2,650 new, relocated or planned jobs have come to the area since late 2011, most of them industrial.
While valuable, the positions aren’t a critical enough mass to transform an area still devastated by factory closings a generation back. But these developments do raise the possibility that such projects can—and will—beget more like them, creating a virtuous cycle this corner of the city sorely needs.
Still, those trying to fill the hole face a stubborn modern-day reality: Industrial companies are more efficient than ever, requiring fewer workers. To win these employers over, elected officials and policymakers have to offer subsidies and incentives, and play up the strengths of a region’s workforce and its transportation network.
The fight is almost for one new position at a time.
No one ever said economic development was easy.
“The old steel mills were the locomotive that pulled the community along—those are gone,” says Richard Longworth, a distinguished fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “You’ve got to do what you can. Getting these companies in is a start.”
The recent mini-boom picked up last year, building on several recent deals in the area, when Method opened a soap factory on the ex-Ryerson site, where it now employs more than 60 (and 45 others work on the Gotham Greens commercial garden on its roof). Some 600 people have positions at an adjacent shopping center anchored by a Wal-Mart, and 325 make specialty steel at Finkl Steel, which moved from Lincoln Park to Burnside almost three years ago. Ford Motor is said to be planning 200 more hires at its Torrence Avenue plant, where more than 4,000 people build Explorers and other vehicles.
While welcome, the jobs don’t come close to making up for what this section of Chicago has lost. State employment data show that as of March 2015, there were 30,677 jobs in the five ZIP codes in the region, down 39 percent from 50,561 in 1980. Manufacturing positions plunged by three-quarters, to 7,300.