Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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City industry’s future ebbs as condos replace factories

Mention Evanston to just about anyone and the image that comes to mind is a college town. Or a residential suburb.

But the “dining capital of the North Shore” isn’t often known as a capital of industry.

Despite the city’s manufacturing decline, numerous factories in Evanston still produce a variety of products, from nails to car and motorcycle parts.

Many of these manufacturers are small, privately-held, business-to-business enterprises. Out of the 66 manufacturers that the U.S. Census Bureau counted in Evanston in 2002, 36 had nine or fewer workers.

Frank Hussey, president of glass manufacturer Sterling Precision Optics, 1916 Greenleaf St., remembers a time when industry comprised a larger part of Evanston’s economy.

“When I moved here, there was manufacturing on McCormick Boulevard and at Dodge and Dempster and they’re all gone,” he said.

The downturn in manufacturing comes at a same when downtown Evanston is experiencing a rebirth. This has caused some manufacturers to question Evanston’s policy toward industry, wondering whether they are being treated as second-class businessmen.

Evanston Chamber of Commerce has focused its efforts on the professional service sector, not manufacturing, said Jonathan Perman, the Chamber’s executive director.

Only three manufacturers are Chamber members, according to its Web site.

“Our chances of attracting more manufacturers to Evanston are unlikely,” Perman said.

‘I Live Here’

Some manufacturers choose to remain in Evanston, citing the proximity to public transportation and the inconvenience of moving an established business.

Bruce Nesvig, the president of ERDCO Engineering Corporation, 721 Custer Ave., said the public transit network in Evanston makes it easy for his 15 to 25 employees to get to work.

ERDCO’s circa-1910 three-story brick building is in a quiet residential area in south Evanston. Production there creates no outside noise and neighbors don’t need to worry about large trucks coming through, Nesvig said.

“It’s still possible to have activities like this that don’t compromise quality of life for others in the neighborhood,” said Nesvig of ERDCO, which has been located in the same 21,000 square foot building since 1971.

ERDCO’s products measure the rate of flow of liquids, such as the gallons of salt water flowing through a tube per minute. The business competes against much larger companies but finds a niche in the market because it offers strong product benefits, such as simplicity, Nesvig said.

“This product is as dumb as a rock and people love it,” Nesvig said, picking up one of the salt water meters. “They understand how to use it.”

About a mile west of ERDCO in a more industrialized area is Hussey’s specialty glass manufacturing plant. But at 15 employees and 22,000 square feet of production space, Sterling Precision Optics isn’t much bigger than ERDCO’s.

“It’s small enough that taxes aren’t huge,” Hussey said. “If I had a building five times this size, I wouldn’t be staying in Evanston.”

Sterling makes 300 types of glass and supplies them to customers, ranging from analytical instrument makers to defense contractors. Business has picked up since the start of the Iraq war, Hussey said. Sterling glass is used in tank windows, night-vision goggles and laser range finders.

When Hussey bought the company in 1982, it was located in Blue Island, Ill., south of Chicago. He moved production to Evanston because it was closer to his home in Wilmette. Relocating to another city is now the last thing on his mind.

“To move this operation would be a huge effort for me,” Hussey said. “I live here. I’ve ridden my bike to work.”

A Future for manufacturing?

Not all manufacturers who have stayed in Evanston are happy with their interactions with the city.

Joseph Bender, the controller of construction supplies maker Chester Brothers Machine Products, 2200 Greenleaf St., has been frustrated with licensing, inspections and city bureaucracy.

“The general atmosphere by the municipality of Evanston is that they don’t make it easy to be a manufacturer,” said Bender, who has worked in Evanston since Chester Brothers moved from Chicago in 1995. “I think they would prefer retailers because of the local sales taxes retailers generate.”

Morris Robinson, Evanston’s economic development planner, said there’s no proof behind this claim, stressing that the city helped alternator maker C.E. Niehoff, 2021 Lee St., one of the city’s largest manufacturers, close off a street in south Evanston to expand their business.

But it is hard to overestimate retail’s contribution to Evanston. Even in 1997, prior to downtown’s renaissance, total retail trade in the city added up to more than $746 million, much larger than manufacturing’s $321 million worth of shipments, sales and receipts, according to the economic census.

With high-rise offices and condos rapidly replacing smokestacks on the city’s skyline, it’s unlikely Evanston will experience a rebirth in manufacturing. Although there is some vacant industrial space, developers in parts of west Evanston have been busy converting former factories into lofts, changing the character of entire neighborhoods.

For Nesvig, it’s a discouraging sign of where Evanston is heading.

“It transforms our city to make it more and more residential,” he said. “They could have gone into the facilities and maintained the same tax base as commercial properties.”

Evanston’s expanding and increasingly vocal residential community could also hamper any efforts to introduce new industry into the city. Last year city residents campaigned to close Evanston Hospital’s medical waste incinerator.

“Believe me, in a city like Evanston, no matter what you put in, everybody has a say,” Robinson said. “Can you imagine trucks rumbling through Evanston every day?”

Reach Greg Hafkin at [email protected].

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881
City industry’s future ebbs as condos replace factories