Manufacturers continue exodus to other suburbs

Greg Hafkin

John McGivern’s business was expanding. Strange Engineering, a drag racing component manufacturer, had outgrown its two buildings on Church Street and needed more space. McGivern, the general manager, looked for more room around Evanston for three years but came up empty-handed.

In September 2001, Strange relocated four miles west to Morton Grove.

“A lot of the existing industrial space in Evanston is much more antiquated than in Morton Grove and in surrounding communities,” McGivern said.

Strange Engineering’s story is characteristic of what many other Evanston-based manufacturers have done in recent years. Dissatisfied with what the city offers its businesses, they moved production out of town.

The steady exodus has increased in recent years. The number of Evanston manufacturers dropped from 74 in 1998 to 66 in 2002, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But these numbers are exaggerations of the true state of Evanston industry, since they include three retail bakeries and four print shops — businesses most people would not consider manufacturing.

Although reasons for shutdowns or relocations differ from company to company, most can be linked to one cause, said Morris Robinson, Evanston’s economic development planner.

“The real-estate taxes are prohibitive,” Robinson said. “No two ways about it.”

The city is unattractive for manufacturers, though the outflow has not resulted in any permanent damage since Evanston rebounded with its restaurants and entertainment, Robinson said. Still, losing manufacturing is disappointing for the city, he said.

But there really is nothing the city can do to turn the tide, Robinson said. Property assessment, on which taxes are based, is the responsibility of Cook County. There is no money for financial incentives to attract new businesses. The city’s proximity to major highways isn’t changing. And because Evanston lacks large blighted areas, there is no room for the creation of new industrial estates.

“All we’ve got is that one narrow strip of what is probably highly polluted land and it is not enough of a footprint for large manufacturers,” Robinson said.

The diagonal strip, running through west and south Evanston, once had a freight railway, the Mayfair Cutoff, that served manufacturers. But the rail line was dismantled two decades ago. That’s when nearby suburbs, with their cheaper land and easy freeway access, suddenly appeared more attractive.

Evanston’s manufacturing decline came as quickly as the city’s industrialization. The tranquil residential suburb turned into a hub of production after World War II as open land attracted growing firms to the city.

Tinkertoys, copy machines, Orange Crush drinks, Nabisco cookies, Rust-Oleum coatings, insulation panels and radios all are part of Evanston’s manufacturing past.

Not all manufacturers left or closed because of Evanston’s changing business climate. Main Steel, for example, was looking to consolidate production in the Chicago area. When the lease on its Greenwood Street plant expired in summer 2002, it moved its 14 Evanston-based workers to a company-owned plant in Wheeling, company officials said.

Evanston’s manufacturing decline soon became a domino effect, one business leaving after another. As businesses relocated, other businesses were affected, said John Schroeder, owner of metal stamping plant J.F. Schroeder.

“It was becoming more difficult to get services from my suppliers delivered on a timely basis because Evanston was not as industrialized as it used to be,” Schroeder said.

After manufacturing on Custer Avenue for 42 years, Schroeder moved his 18 employees to Arlington Heights two years ago.

Schroeder also cited the larger pool of blue-collar workers in nearby suburbs as a reason to move.

According to the 2000 Census, only 8.1 percent of workers who live in Evanston worked in manufacturing. In Skokie, this rate was at 13.6 percent and even in upscale Wilmette, 8.5 percent of workers participated in manufacturing in 2000.

In the end, though, it all comes down to costs, Robinson said.

“Why would you want to come to Evanston and pay millions and millions of dollars when you can do it in a cornfield farther north for cheaper?”

Reach Greg Hafkin at [email protected]