This business may be just what Pullman needs next

By ALBY GALLUN

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David Doig, president of Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives


The rail industry powered Pullman's past. David Doig thinks food could fuel its future.

After working eight years to redevelop a former Ryerson steel plant in the South Side neighborhood, Doig has turned many skeptics into believers by cutting deals on the 170-acre site for a Wal-Mart store, a Method soap factory and the world's largest rooftop greenhouse, owned by Gotham Greens. The project, known as Pullman Park, gained momentum last month when workers began construction on a Whole Foods distribution center that will employ 150 people. It will get a further boost with a $20 million sports complex the Chicago Park District board approved Aug. 10.

Now Doig, president of Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives, a nonprofit developer backed by U.S. Bank, is trying to figure out what to do with the rest of the property—about 85 acres—which could take another decade to develop. More food companies could be the answer: He's already heard from Whole Foods suppliers that want to be near the new warehouse, and he's trying to persuade food wholesalers being pushed out of the city's Fulton Market neighborhood to move to Pullman. “We've got a nice little conglomeration of food companies, and I think with Whole Foods (there's an opportunity) to create kind of a food hub,” Doig says.

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Though his work is far from over, Pullman is already emerging as a successful neighborhood turnaround story in a part of the city better known for poverty and crime. Doig's project, on the west side of the Bishop Ford Freeway between 103rd and 111th streets, so far has created 750 permanent jobs and generated $175 million in investments, including low-interest loans from community development lenders, $7 million from Doig's nonprofit, state grants for infrastructure and $20 million in tax-increment financing from the city.

And the Pullman National Monument, created last year to commemorate the company town that rail car magnate George Pullman built in the 1880s, has fueled hopes that the neighborhood will attract hundreds of thousands of visitors annually.

But while Pullman's distant past may be a selling point for tourists, you won't find many residents waxing nostalgic over its more recent history, which included the demise of the U.S. steel industry and the loss of tens of thousands of South Side jobs.

Pullman's median income from 2008 to 2012 was $42,800, higher than many other South Side neighborhoods but down 23 percent from 1980, according to Rob Paral & Associates, a Chicago-based research firm. Over the same period, the neighborhood lost nearly 30 percent of its population, which fell to 7,262 residents. “It still has serious demographic and economic challenges,” says Jon DeVries, director of the Marshall Bennett Institute of Real Estate at Roosevelt University. “Pullman is still in the heart of the Rust Belt.”

Yet DeVries agrees that Doig's nonprofit could accelerate the neighborhood's comeback by focusing on food, considering it already has a foundation on which to build. Dutch Farms, which distributes eggs, cheese and other products, runs a major warehouse next to the Whole Foods building underway. And being close to an interstate exit is a big asset for firms that need to truck goods in and out of their facilities.

PLANTING SEEDS

Considering all the empty industrial land on the South Side, urban farming offers another big opportunity for Pullman and surrounding areas, DeVries says. Gotham Greens, which grows lettuce and herbs atop the Method plant, already has hit capacity at the greenhouse after just nine months, says Viraj Puri, co-founder and CEO of the New York-based company. It's hunting for a site for a second warehouse, possibly in Pullman, he says.

Doig, meanwhile, sees Pullman Park as a potential destination for food distributors moving out of Fulton Market, as developers snatch up property in the West Loop enclave for new office, hotel and residential buildings. “If we can develop spaces and places for them to come, they can keep their workforce, they can stay in the city and the city gets a win-win,” Doig says.

He's still at the talking stage and hasn't cut any deals yet, so it's too early to tell if the idea will work. But Doig is certain of one thing: Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives wants to focus more on creating jobs in Pullman than housing. At one point, the developer planned as many as 3,000 homes for the north end of Pullman Park. Doig now is pushing for industrial development on much of that land and fixing up distressed homes and row houses in the neighborhood's historic district. The Pullman housing market just isn't strong enough to support a bunch of new homes, Doig says.

“There's nothing better than putting people to work,” says Ald. Anthony Beale, whose 9th Ward includes Pullman. “They'll find a house.”