Everybody has different ideas about how land ought to be used. Lately, the fight’s been about whether to allow expanding retail development on farmland. But a different fight’s going on right now, too. It’s a fight between two long-time rivals – heavy industry and open space. It’s also about jobs and preservation. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Shawn Allee has this report:
Everybody has different ideas about how land ought
to be used. Lately, the fight’s been about whether to allow
expanding retail development on farmland. But a different
fight’s going on right now, too. It’s a fight between two
long-time rivals – heavy industry and open space. It’s also
about jobs and preservation. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Shawn Allee has this report:
(Sound of train)
The town of Riverdale’s a kind of industrial crossroads. It’s near a Great Lakes port, heavy trucks lumber through its streets, and in some areas, rail crossings are as common as stop signs. At one time, this village just south of Chicago was known for more than just moving industrial goods – thosands of workers used to make things here, especially steel.
(Sound of birds)
Today, there are only a few hundred steel jobs left in Riverdale. Most are at one plant that sits near a stretch of Cook County Forest Preserve, a place called Whistler Woods. The remaining steel mill wants to expand. It wants to swap twenty one acres of Whistler Woods for thirty one acres of its own wooded land. Supporters hope the move will bring jobs to the town.
Jim Bush grew up in the area and is with the region’s chamber of commerce. He supports the deal, saying the area is fighting for its economic future.
“So you can see, it’s pretty hard to keep your schools up to standards and all your city services when you’re faced with a declining tax base.”
Bush says this is urgent. The Riverdale plant was recently bought out by Mittal Steel, the world’s largest steel company. Bush says to keep the mill attractive to the new owners, the county needs to make the company happy now.
“Mittal USA has plants all around the world. If they don’t do this expansion here, they’re talking about taking it to Ohio. We can’t let other states take business away from Illinois without doing something.”
Besides, he says, critics of the land swap should just do the math.
“Thirty-one acres for twenty-one acres. Sounds like a no-brainer to the business community.”
But not everyone’s buying into that calculation. To understand why, I meet with Benjamin Cox. He’s with Friends of the Forest Preserves, an advocacy group. Cox and I are traveling along the bike path leading to the field the company wants to acquire.
“As you’re walking along here, you can hear many, many birds. We just saw some deer. There are wonderful native plants here.”
Cox says the forest preserve district could use an extra ten acres, but the company’s offering land that’s half a mile away and across a river. Cox says that land won’t help these woods. He also doesn’t have much faith in the company’s new owners.
“The part of this that nobody’s talked about yet is that they have not committed to actually bring these jobs here or do this project.”
The company confirms this, saying it can’t make promises about jobs even if it could expand the plant. Cox adds the proposal flies in the face of Forest Preserves history. During the past ninety years, it’s only sold or traded land a handful of times and the last time it did, it go burned. A few years ago, it let go of two acres so Rosemont, a Chicago suburb, could build a casino parking lot. The parking lot got built, but the casino project never got started.
Now Cox fears if this deal goes through, it’ll be open season on Forest Preserve land.
“As soon as you start nibbling away at the corners, a little acre here, a little acre there, twenty acres here. All of a sudden, it’s ‘You did it for them, you should do it for me.'”
The plan’s supporters say they don’t want to sell off the preserves, they just want a little flexibility.
Cook County Commissioner Deborah Sims represents Riverdale and surrounding communities. She says opponents are typically from more affluent parts of the county, places that have an easy time attracting new businesses. There, she says,
“All you have to do is build a few houses and everybody will come. We don’t have that luxury. So, any economic development we have, we can’t afford to lose.”
So the land swap seems a small price to pay for a little economic security.
A tall chain-link fence separates the woods from the Riverdale steel plant. Despite the division, both parcels of land have something in common – their boosters are motivated by fear.
The area’s steel industry is, in many ways, a diminishing, precious resource. The Cook County Forest Preserve District also faces a crossroads, but a more political one. It holds tens of thousands of acres of open land, but it’s not clear whether it can always fend off demands made by a land-hungry economy.
For the GLRC, I’m Shawn Allee.