Why Will County Residents Are Fighting a Major Logistics Hub — and Why Backers Say It’s Needed

If you spend much time on the road in Joliet and surrounding communities, long lines of trucks with huge loads of cargo waiting to get on I-80 is a familiar sight.

Will County is home to the largest inland port in the United States, taking in an array of products that just about all of us depend upon. But serving as a major logistics hub has made its mark on the community: traffic jams, potholes, open land converted to warehouses.

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“Instead of the entire United States carrying this infrastructure burden, this air pollution burden, the water burden, it is all coming to our doorstep,” said state Sen. Rachel Ventura, D-Joliet.

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It’s not just confined to wide-open state routes or the expressway. The trucks go right through downtown Joliet.

Several years ago, when the Kansas City-based developer NorthPoint proposed opening a huge logistics hub in the nearby village of Elwood, residents and local leaders were up in arms.

Katie Hunt is a high school teacher who also serves as Jackson Township’s clerk. She said that when she saw the initial proposal, “my stomach dropped.”

The site was right next to her parents’ house and her aunt and uncle’s farm.

“I would always take those back roads, go by my aunt and uncle’s house, see who was farming and who was doing what,” Hunt said. “The thought of that all being warehouses, it made me sick to my stomach.”

Hunt and other local leaders began a grassroots organizing effort, calling on the village of Elwood to turn down the project — in no small part because they’ve seen the impact of Centerpoint, a logistics hub Elmwood brought to the town two decades ago. It’s the country’s largest inland port.

On the initial site map for the proposed new hub, Delilah LeGrett saw her own house, which she and her husband bought to move their kids away from truck traffic.

“They could not go out in the front yard and play because of the traffic,” said LeGrett, one of the founders of Just Say No to NorthPoint. “To see it chase us to our new home was very concerning.”

Organizers eventually won over Elwood officials and blocked the project in its original form. But it found a home on a much smaller plot of land that Joliet annexed from Elwood when a boundary agreement ended. Opponents haven’t given up, with arguments coming from multiple fronts.

“There are studies that should have been done that they really didn’t do adequately,” said Just Say No to NorthPoint’s Stephanie Irvine. “There are a number of streams and creeks that run through this area. That runoff would be a very dangerous problem.”

Opponents of the project also said increased truck traffic will mean more wear and tear on some already bumpy roads, and fear there won’t be enough new money coming in for needed repairs to streets and bridges.

But the question of truck traffic is one of the reasons Joliet Mayor Bob O’Dekirk has been backing NorthPoint.

“The infrastructure currently was not built to handle this,” O’Dekirk said. “It’s been really underfunded with all the commerce and all the new business coming this area.”

NorthPoint said part of its plan is to use a “closed loop” of roadways to keep trucks off local streets, which opponents question the company’s commitment to.

“The demand is here,” O’Dekirk said. “This is a controlled development trying to put some order to what’s going on.”

NorthPoint’s opponents have also cried foul over the fact that O’Dekirk received $20,000 in campaign contributions from the developer. Other elected officials in Joliet have, too. O’Dekirk said there is no undue influence.

“Political contributions are part of being a politician,” O’Dekirk said. “Businesses support the elected officials that are pro-business, that are supporting them.”

The project has also drawn the support of the Operating Engineers Local 150 construction industry union.

“These are jobs that are needed,” said Marc Poulos. He leads the union’s labor-management group, the Illinois, Indiana, Iowa Foundation for Fair Contracting.

“We saw during COVID … a consumer spending frenzy where people were at home and wanted things at their fingertips, right?” Poulos said. “You know, not just the next day, but in the next hour.”

NorthPoint has also donated more than $23,000 to the union’s PAC, but Poulos said Local 150 backs the project because it’ll be built with union labor. He also said the developer has pledged not to interfere with any potential union drives for people who end up working at the hub.

“These guys gave a presentation that made assurances that not just on the building side of things, but the actual operation side of things, that people would be fairly treated, they’d be fairly compensated,” Poulos said.

Despite the smaller footprint of the hub that’s begun construction, some neighbors question whether the company has an eye on future expansion.

“I don’t believe that they have any intention of stopping up in this small section of the city that they officially have approved,” LeGrett said.

For LeGrett, Irvine and other opponents of NorthPoint’s development, the fight is far from over. They’re involved in legal action on a number of issues, including that the way the project got approved wasn’t on the up and up — something company and city officials deny.

“They may be determined to build this, but I don’t think it will ever be more than our determination to stop them,” Irvine said.

The NorthPoint project has also faced separate legal challenges from the competing logistics hub of Centerpoint and from the village of Elwood.

Despite that, O’Dekirk — who is facing two challengers in next month’s mayoral election — said he’s confident the development will move forward.

NorthPoint did not respond to interview requests.

Community Reporting Series

“Chicago Tonight” is expanding its community reporting. We’re hitting the streets to speak with your neighbors, local businesses, agencies and leaders about COVID-19, the economy, racial justice, education and more. See where we’ve been and what we’ve learned by using the map below. Or select a community using the drop-down menu. Points in red represent our series COVID-19 Across Chicago; blue marks our series “Chicago Tonight” in Your Neighborhood.

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