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New jobs don't really help displaced factory workers

It’s coming up on six years since a group of then-soon-to-be-unemployed factory workers sat me down in a church basement to sketch out what quite honestly struck me as a quixotic proposal.

Their employer, Cooper Lamp Co., was shutting down its big old factory on Diversey Parkway just east of the Kennedy, and the workers had teamed up with some of the building’s neighbors in hopes of preventing it from following the fate of seemingly every other old industrial building on the North Side — conversion to residential condos.

Their goal, they said, was to make sure future owners of the landmark building used it in some way that would continue to generate jobs and put people in the neighborhood to work. Perhaps light industrial, they imagined, or a business incubator of some sort.

As I say, I was skeptical. A prospective developer was already trying to get the property rezoned for condos, and if there’s one thing I thought I’d learned over the years, it’s that you can’t stop real estate from market forces. Like water, it seeks its own level. If the market wanted that location for residential development, I figured, then residential it would have to be.

On Tuesday, though, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that Coyote Logistics will be adding 400 jobs this year at its new location in the Green Exchange, 2565 W. Diversey, which will bring its total work force at the site to more than 1,000 employees. The Green Exchange, if you haven’t guessed, is what used to be the old Cooper Lamp factory.

So this must be a great victory for those workers and neighbors who dug in their heels years ago, right? And proof that people can redirect the real estate market?

Well, yes and no. It’s never that simple.

“It is a victory in the sense that this community invested in a strategy to bring jobs to the neighborhood before the recession hit,” said John McDermott, a community organizer with the Logan Square Neighborhood Association. “But it comes several years later than we thought.”

The Logan Square group backed the organizing effort that enlisted the support of then-Ald. Manny Flores (1st), who blocked the condo project. Flores embraced an alternative plan that became the Green Exchange, which bills itself as the country’s “largest sustainable business community.” It was envisioned as a Merchandise Mart for environmentally friendly businesses.

As it happened, the Green Exchange couldn’t sustain itself during the economic downturn, and the building sat mostly vacant for years while the developers looked for new financing.

That finally came in the form of a $15 million federal HUD loan, repayment backed by a $10 million commitment of tax-increment financing from the city.

In addition to the $10 million TIF subsidy to the developers, the city has also approved another $2 million TIF subsidy to Coyote Logistics to help pay for building out its space in the Green Exchange, which it began occupying this past summer.

So it wasn’t exactly market forces, but instead subsidies that enabled this particular piece of real estate to take a different direction.

The upside is all those jobs coming to town. Coyote was located in Lake Forest.

But so far, these haven’t been the kind of jobs those displaced factory workers or their blue-collar neighbors might fill.

McDermott said that continues to be a major concern. “We desperately need jobs that displaced workers in their 40s and 50s can transition to,” he said.

McDermott and Ted Wysocki, president and CEO of the Local Economic & Employment (LEED) Council, said they are working with the Green Exchange and Coyote to identify job opportunities for neighborhood residents. A for-profit day-care center is considering a lease, and other prospective tenants have been approached.

But McDermott conceded, “This is not the range of jobs we had initially hoped for.”

Still, his goal now is to use the same reasoning to protect the Elston-Rockwell industrial corridor, just north of the Green Exchange, from residential encroachment, to preserve its manufacturing jobs.

Those Cooper Lamp workers succeeded in a way they hadn’t envisioned. They did create jobs for workers from the neighborhood, only those turned out to be the young college-educated workers at Coyote, who like the neighborhood just fine.

Keywords: Cooper Lamp Factory, Coyote Logistics, Green Exchange, John McDermott, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, TIF

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