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Changing Gears is starting an occasional series on innovation. Here, I kick it off with this story about 10 guys who want to change Chicago – $1,000 at a time.

Chicago Awesome Foundation chapter members Drew Bradford (left) and Matt Dorn (right) help the Little Free Library's Rich Brooks put the first library up. (Niala Boodhoo)

The word “foundation” often makes people think of big money. But there’s a new group of philanthropists in Chicago who have smaller funds, but big hopes for changing communities.

They call themselves the “Awesome Foundation”. Except the foundation part isn’t exactly that serious, says Chicago chapter co-founder Chris McAvoy.

“We’re not actually a foundation. We don’t have a huge amount of money to work from,” he said.

The amount of money he and nine other guys give out isn’t that huge – its $1,000 a month.

Chicago Awesome Foundation Chapter Co-Founders Derek Sherman, Chris McAvoy and Trustees Sean Donohue and Matt Dorn (Niala Boodhoo)

But that’s the point, said Matt Dorn, another “trustee” with the Chicago chapter.

“We bring ten people together who all pitch in $100,” he said. “And when we decide who to give the money to, we just give them a bag of money. It’s as easy at that.”

And that’s it. Everyone has day jobs – this is entirely a volunteer effort. The only real rule is to give $100 a month and find someone else to take your place if you want out.

The Awesome Foundation started in Boston two years ago, where one of the first $1,000 grants went to an artist who helped people crochet brightly colored basketball nets that went into empty hoops across the city.

It has since spread to 20 other cities across the world, from Melbourne to Zurich to Toronto.

Chicago’s the first Midwest chapter. Most of the guys who are in the group never even met before they came together – co-founder Derek Sherman is in advertising. (In fact, some of the group didn’t even meet in person until I scheduled an interview with several of them at once).

Sherman heard about The Awesome Foundation the same time McAvoy did. Together, they recruited eight others from a variety of industries: technology, advertising, finance and hospitality, to name a few. Most of the work is done via email, or social media outlets. Word spread quickly, so since the first grant has been announced, another ten have signed up.

Big grant giving translates to about $41 billion in the US each year. But according to Stacy Palmer, the editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, she said that doesn’t discount the Chicago Awesome Foundation. After all, she pointed out, big foundations have been giving out billions of dollars for years and there are still many problems to be solved.

Also, she said the Awesome Foundation is filling a gap in funding tiny projects that would fly under the radar of big foundations.

“To have something small that could blossom into something big – it’s really fantastic to have somebody focusing on that,” she said.

Last Saturday morning, a group gathered outside the Langley Avenue Church of God in West Woodlawn, a neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side for the first Awesome-funded grant.

The group received about 200 applications for its first grant. It picked one from two Wisconsin men who run a nonprofit called the Little Free Library.

BIG President Naomi Davis with Little Free Library's Rich Brooks (Niala Boodhoo)

Founders Rich Brooks and Todd Bol build wooden hutches that look like giant birdhouses, but are full of books. They’ve done this all over Wisconsin, but the grant has helped them make their first foray into Illinois.

Brooks explained how it works: “You share your favorite books with other people. So it’s take a book, leave a book,” he said, adding: “You can’t steal them because they’re free.”

Brooks said that what they have found is that it’s not only the books that attracts the attention, but the act of taking and leaving that gives people a “warm feeling of community”.

Mark Mitten is one of the Awesome Foundation Chicago members.

Just before Mitten started talking to me, he saw two kids come over and pick out books from a little library that wasn’t even completely set up yet. They sat on the church steps, and started reading.

“We’re not trying to change the world,” he said. “We’re just trying to make a small difference, for that one moment of the day.”

Because of the Awesome Foundation money, six little libraries will go up across Chicago. The money has brought the Little Free Libraries to Chicago, and to other local nonprofits like the Blacks in Green organization. BIG will be the ambassador for the Little Free Libraries in Chicago, helping take care of the hutches and select places for the little libraries to be placed.

When I first started working on this  story, there was much discussion about what the word “awesome” means. I even asked all of the Chicago chapter members what it meant to them.

One of the first visitors to the Little Free Library in West Woodlawn (Niala Boodhoo)

For Mitten – and for almost everyone else I spoke with in the group – they say this first month of giving has been awesome. Mitten told me that it’s about creating joy and having an impact, even if it’s just something that seems small.

People tend to think of innovation as something that just relates to technology, Mitten said. But he thinks innovation isn’t just about technology – or business – it’s about changing ideas and communities.

“Just putting a smile on somebody’s face, or getting to think about them differently, I think is a form of innovation,” he said.

Update: If you had $1,000 to change your city, what would you do? Read about what you shared here.



View Midwest Road Trip 2011, Changing Gears in a larger map

This afternoon, Changing Gears reporters wrapped up a week on the road, traveling to places throughout the Midwest where local economies and town cultures revolve around single employers. We started our trip Monday in Kohler, Wisc., and completed our trip today in Orrville, Ohio.

If you missed anything, here’s a recap of our road-trip coverage:

MONDAY: Niala Boodhoo visited Kohler, Wisconsin, a town created by The Kohler Company nearly a century ago. The home-fixtures and plumbing company remains the county’s largest employer. Main story

TUESDAY: The heart of Illinois’ agribusiness lies down-state in Decatur, home of giant Archer Daniels Midland, which had sales of $62 billion last year. Main story | Reporter’s notebook

WEDNESDAY: Far to the north, the iron-ore mining industry is alive and well in Ishpeming, Mich. Kate Davidson traveled to the Upper Peninsula and found perhaps one of the last places in Michigan where blue-collar workers hold some degree of job stability. Main story

THURSDAY: Dan Bobkoff told the story of Norwalk, Ohio, where the town’s major employer, Norwalk Furniture, was rescued by 12 local citizens who bought and invested to keep it open after previous owners faced financial turmoil. Main story

FRIDAY: You may have already heard of Smuckers, located in the north-central Ohio town of Orrville, but you may not have known there are plenty of other family-owned businesses in town that have kept the local economy moving for decades. Main story

You can find a catalog of both our radio and online coverage during our Midwest Road Trip here.


If you know anything about Orrville, it’s probably from those ubiquitous Smucker’s ads on TV. Two young Smucker brothers are portrayed in an idyllic, rural Orrville of yesteryear.

“I think that the Smucker’s ads are true to the company and the family and are a pretty fair picture of Orrville as well,” says Jenni Reusser of the Orrville Area Chamber of Commerce. She’s lived in town most of her life.

Dan Bobkoff

Smucker's New Headquarters in Orrville.

It’s in a rural part of Northeast Ohio. There are fewer than 9000 residents. Smucker’s is by far the biggest employer. However, this is a community that’s had a diverse economy way before diverse was a buzzword. It’s a place of entrepreneurs.

“We’re third generation Smith Dairy,” says John Schmid, a vice president at Smith Dairy.

The family adopted the business name Smith before World War I—a time when the German-sounding Schmid was not an asset. Other than that, the company’s founding sounds like it’s out of a Smucker’s ad. It starts in 1909.

Dan Bobkoff

John Schmid of Smith Dairy

“Grandpa and his brother borrowed like $600 dollars from a neighbor and bought a milk wagon and a couple horses and they had a route right here in town,” Schmid says.

Today, the company’s bustling Orrville plant has about 300 employees, and is one of the few family-owned dairies to survive competition from the huge corporate milk companies that have taken over much of the market.

Smith Dairy in Downtown Orrville.

Dan Bobkoff

Smith Dairy in Downtown Orrville.

About a mile away, there’s another venerable business: The Schantz Organ Company. It’s about 136 years old and Victor Schantz is the third generation in his family to run the company. Yes, they make pipe organs in Orrville: found in churches and concert halls from Cleveland to Australia. A large one can cost as much as a million dollars.

Smuckers, Smith, Schantz—those are just three Orrville examples. There are more. So, how have so many companies managed to survive and thrive for over a century in this one Ohio town?  Victor Schantz thinks it comes down to two things: steam and the Swiss.

“Almost the entire population of Swiss Anabaptists moved to this country en masse,” Schantz says.

Dan Bobkoff

Victor Schantz

Religious persecution, a bad economy, there were a number of reasons so many Swiss moved to the United States in the mid-19th century. When they did, many settled in the Midwest, and in the area that is now home to Orrville.

It was these Swiss immigrants, and their descendants, who created local companies like Smuckers, Smith Dairy, and Schantz Organ. They were industrious and entrepreneurial and Schantz says they seized another opportunity in the late 1800s: the railroad. Orrville became an early rail hub.

“Having that connection to the national railroad and also having these businesses come to town and take advantage of that, you begin to see the connection between the dairy, and Schantz Organ, and Smuckers and very many companies that came,” he says.

Smith Dairy in Downtown Orrville. Inside Smith Dairy John Schmid of Smith Dairy Milk jugs coming off the line at Smith Dairy. Victor Schantz A pipe organ in progress. Another part of Schantz Organ's facility. Schantz Organ's Shop Floor. They make furniture and pipe organs from this facility. A room in Schantz Organ's factory. Smucker's New Headquarters in Orrville.

For the last 100 years, this town has adjusted to technology. Computers now help build Schantz’s pipe organs. Trucks—not trains—cart Smith’s milk around the Midwest. And, the town put a fiber optic line down its main street, hoping to attract high tech businesses with superfast internet. New companies have joined the old ones. Maybe they’ll be the 100 year old businesses in the future.

But at Smith Dairy, John Schmid doesn’t know what will happen when his generation moves on.

“I’m definitely proud of the family tradition of three generations, and I’d love to see the fourth generation, and it’s nothing I lose sleep over, but it’s something I’d be mighty proud of if we make it to that,” Schmid says.

 


It took more than a decade of political wrangling for the Milwaukee Common Council to craft and approve a plan for a $64.6 million downtown streetcar project that was finally green-lighted Monday.

Sort of.

Because of concerns aired during contentious debates about possible cost overruns, the council limited current spending to engineering expenses. No money for construction will be released until a comptroller reviews the project.

“I view this as a significant step, but by no means do I view this as the end of the road,” Mayor Tom Barrett told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Barrett noted that Milwaukee is one of few American cities that has no light-rail or streetcar public transportation in supporting the plan.

Officials say the project could create anywhere from 680 to 1,080 jobs in the city, depending on which particular routes are included in the plans. Approximately $55 million of the project will be covered by a federal transit grant the city received in 1991 and, to date, has left unused. The remaining $9 million will come from a local city tax and parking fees.

But others fear that moving utility lines for the project, among other items, could wind up costing Milwaukee millions more in unseen expenses.

The street car is an “absolutely horrible idea,” Alderman Joe Dudzik told Milwaukee Public Radio. “My true thoughts about this idea is that the first car that we put on the track should be named ‘Abyss’ because we could be building a hole in the late and throwing money into it for the rest of this city’s existence.”


When a company bears the name of its hometown, it can be hard to separate the two. Such is the case with Norwalk Furniture and the town of Norwalk in Northern Ohio.

Dan Bobkoff

Saving Norwalk Furniture means about 150 locals have jobs again.

“It really is our flagship company,” said Sue Lesch, Norwalk’s mayor. “It’s the company we’re proud of. We’re known for furniture all over the country.”

For more than a hundred years, Norwalk Furniture made custom-order sofas and chairs in its Ohio factory. For a long time, it was the biggest business in town, employing about 700 in this town of 17,000.

Jump ahead to 2008. The housing crisis depressed demand for furniture. The company’s bank pulled its credit line. Meanwhile, the town’s unemployment rate was heading toward 18 percent. Norwalk Furniture closed its doors.

“The closing of Norwalk Furniture was just such a symbol of not only the devastation we were seeing in many companies, but just a shock to the very system of this city just because of the importance of that company,” Mayor Lesch said.

Dan Bobkoff

The name is the same, but this is a new company. It's owned by 12 local families.

So, the story could have ended here. A company dies, leaving hundreds without jobs.

And, yet they’re still making furniture in Norwalk. How this factory reopened is a remarkable story.

LOCAL INVESTORS

Tom Bleile is a Norwalk local. He worked in the family business much of his life: highway construction. But, like many in this small town, he didn’t like its most famous company closing up shop. Over just four days, Bleile and a group of local families came together to buy the company.

On the surface, it might not seem like this group had any hope of succeeding. There wasn’t much time to do their homework, and they weren’t exactly experts on this market.

“Quite frankly, most of the investors couldn’t tell you the difference between a sofa and a love-seat,” Bleile said.

There was something unusual in this deal to save Norwalk, though. Investors like Dan White saw this as almost civic duty.

“The people who live here are truly devoted to this town and their friends and neighbors in this community,” White said. “So, it really wasn’t that difficult to get those 12 families to come together to look at doing something to help Norwalk Furniture.”

Dan Bobkoff

Dan White is an investor and Norwalk Furniture's president.

Dan White had made his money starting a firm that helps predict flood zones. He too knew very little about furniture, but with financing secured, and the company sold to the group of families, White became president. He streamlined the business. Maybe his inexperience in furniture was an asset: he says the company is now profitable. It has no bank debt. And, about 150 workers like Jim Spears are back on the job.

“I got hired in here when I was 20 years old. I’m 45 now,” Spears said from the shop floor. “I have a wife and three daughters. And, it was scary. Definitely a little bit of depression going on there.”

Of course, Norwalk Furniture isn’t the only company in town, but others were watching closely. The New Horizons Baking Company churns out thousands of hamburger buns for companies like McDonald’s. It’s just down the street and is growing. Trina Bediako is New Horizons’ executive vice president and she says what happened with Norwalk Furniture influenced their decision to expand here.

“It kind of helped to reaffirm what kind of community this was. There is growth. The people do care. The businesses do want to thrive,” Bediako said.

Dan Bobkoff

Downtown Norwalk. The town is more than 200 years old.

It’s not a totally happy ending yet. Not all the workers from the old Norwalk Furniture were hired back. The economy still needs help. Mayor Sue Lesch worries about the remaining unemployed and underemployed in her town.

“I think we have a lot of folks that have not been able to find that job that they want, but they’re working to provide for their families. They’re working two jobs. I worry about those folks,” Lesch said.

Perhaps the biggest contribution of these 12 investors is showing what’s possible.

 


The Empire Mine has been producing iron ore for more than 40 years. Photo courtesy of Cliffs Natural Resources

Our Changing Gears project is on the road, bringing you stories of towns where one company still affects everybody’s lives. Today we head north, to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. That’s where North America’s biggest supplier of iron ore has been blasting the earth, and creating jobs, for more than 160 years. 

Ishpeming is a city built on iron ore. Photo by Kate Davidson

Our destination is the city of Ishpeming. It’s small.  Basically, you can’t throw a rock here without hitting a miner.

Take Steve Carlson. After high school, he worked 37 years for the mines.

“When I started as a young man, all the old bucks set you straight on the dos and the do nots,” he says.  “And what you want to do is go home every day to your family.”

Ken Hietikko is still mining after 36 years. He operates an enormous shovel at the Tilden and Empire open pit mines outside of town. They’re deep craters that have produced more than 450 million tons of iron ore. Hietikko runs the machinery of giants. The first time he saw it, he was struck with awe.

“I still am,” he says. “I like this. You know this is me running this great big piece of equipment. And supplying a living for a lot of people in our area. And supplying iron ore, to the world actually.”

Dale Hemmila says North American steel begins here. Photo by Kate Davidson

Like other miners, Hietikko endured his share of layoffs in the 1980s. But he still calls mining a “dinosaur industry” — one of the last places where a blue-collar kid with little education can make good money for life.

As for Ishpeming, it wouldn’t exist if Cliffs Natural Resources hadn’t started mining the UP in 1848.  Around here, the company is still known as Cleveland Cliffs.

The Empire and Tilden Mines produce about 13 million tons a year. Photo courtesy of Cliffs Natural Resources

“What we tell people is that steel in North America really begins here in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula,” says Dale Hemmila, the company’s director of public affairs in North America.

We’re standing at the edge of the Empire pit, which stretches nearly a mile long and a mile wide.  Here, the miners extract low-grade ore, which is processed into higher-grade pellets.

The iron ore is pulverized and turned into higher grade pellets. Photo by Kate Davidson

“The pellet is about the size of a marble,” Hemmila says. “And literally we create billions of them on an annual basis here.”

Pellet prices are high right now. Countries like China and India are using a lot of iron ore, to make a lot of steel. That’s good for Cliffs. Dale Hemmila says when you add up payroll, taxes, electricity and supplies, the company has a regional economic impact of more than $830 million. That includes 600 employees in Ishpeming and lot of other people who rely on the economic oxygen of the mines.

People like Sandra Sundquist. Where else besides Ishpeming could a gal sell 800 pairs of steel boots a year?

“We do have an issue in the UP of wide feet, and we actually call them pasty feet,” she says.  “They need extra wide boots.”

She has them in stock at Wilderness Sports downtown.

Sandra Sundquist sells 800 to 900 pairs of steel boots a year. Photo by Kate Davidson

Lee Woods sells giant tires to the mines. Photo by Kate Davidson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Down the road is a big guy, Lee Woods. He’s president of Northern Tire Inc., which provides giant tires for the mine’s giant haulers. The largest hauler can carry 320 tons of iron ore. The tires stacked up out back make Woods’s lot look like a sandbox for Titans.

“This tire weighs 10,500 pounds,” he says. “It’s twelve-and-a-half feet in diameter and these are just almost 50,000 apiece.”

Which all begs the question: How long is this going to last?

“Well, the iron’s gonna run out sometime. The ore’ll run out sometime. I don’t know when,” says Jered Ottenwess.

Ottenwess is Ishpeming’s city manager. He says it’s hard to do long-range planning when the local economy is so dependent on one company.

City Manager Jered Ottenwess says diversification is key. Photo by Kate Davidson

“What’s Ishpeming gonna look like in 25 years?” he asks. “Well that’s entirely predicated on whether Cliffs is still gonna be here, operating those mines. If they’re not, what’s our economy actually going to look like?”

All of Marquette County is trying to grow tourism, education and health care. The Marquette General Health System is already the biggest employer in the county; Cliffs ranks second overall. But the city manager worries Ishpeming itself won’t diversify fast enough. He says that shifting this old mining town’s economic base is an overwhelming challenge.

Meanwhile, a lot of people think mining will be here for a very long time.  Dale Hemmila says Cliffs is trying to extend the life of the Empire pit to 2015.  He says the Tilden Mine should operate another 30 or 35 years, depending on economic viability.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


In my recent Road Trip story about Decatur, I spent some time in the city’s downtown area. Odd fact: the city has two Main Streets, although no one could tell me why. It is also the site of Abraham Lincoln’s first “official” political speeches. The news everyone’s excited about in downtown Decatur, though, is ADM’s consolidation of some of its operations from around the city into one office building downtown:

Rodney Powell, owner of Robbie's Grill (Niala Boodhoo)

It’s one of the hottest days of the year in Decatur. So the lRobbie’s Grill on Merchant Street in downtown Decatur isn’t as packed as it usually is at lunchtime, owner Rodney Powell says, even though nearly every table is full.

Powell was “born, raised and baptized” in Decatur, he says. He’s also earned the unofficial title “The Mayor of Merchant Street” for his efforts to bring more people downtown.

That’s why Powell is thrilled that Archer Daniels Midland Co. is bringing 300 to 400 more workers downtown soon as it consolidates its IT, audit and accounting personnel into the Reynolds Building downtown.

“I am a fan of anybody moving anybody into downtown,” he said.  “It’s definitely better for restaurant owners like myself – the more the merrier.”

Powell has been working to hold events Saturday night once a month on Merchant Street, to bring bands in from Chicago and have a place for families to gather.

(Food note: Powell makes excellent soups. All the recipes are in his head. It was at least 95 degrees the day I had lunch there, and his cold borscht hit the spot.)

Downtown Decatur statue commemorating our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln (Niala Boodhoo)

The city of Decatur is working on re-routing truck traffic outside of downtown, redesigning street scapes to make space for outdoor cafes, and working on a redevelopment of its lakefront as well, Craig Coll, of  Decatur’s Economic Development Corp., said.

On a tour we took around the city, Coil told me there aren’t many vacant buildings anywhere downtown. Many downtown workers work for one of Decatur’s largest non-manufacturing employers, Decatur Memorial Hospital, which employs about 2,000 people.

But it’s clear, to me at least, that the downtown lacks a vibrant, walking group of working people. That’s what the EDC is hoping ADM will bring.

“I’m really optimistic about the future of our community,” he said. “We’re kind of at that turning point where things are going in a positive direction and we’re laying the foundation for the future of the community.”

 


“It’s a city center with a small-town feel.”

That’s the way the promotional arm of a Detroit development consortium describes the Motor City’s downtown. Many residents might not see their neighborhoods in that context, but a new program launched Monday aims to change that.

Despite losing 25 percent of its population over the past decade, Detroit has seen an uptick in young, college graduates living downtown.

As part of an effort to attract more residents and rebuild Detroit’s core, five of the city’s key employers announced a joint initiative that provides employees with cash incentives to move downtown and maintain their homes. More than 16,000 employees from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, DTE Energy, Compuware, Quicken Loans and Strategic Staffing Solutions are eligible for the Live Downtown initiative.

Neighborhoods eligible for the program include Corktown, Downtown, Eastern Market, Lafayette Park and Midtown. Overall, approximately $4 million will be available over a five-year period. A variety of incentive plans are available, including $20,000 loans for new homeowners purchasing a primary residence and $2,500 for new renters. Existing homeowners can receive as much as $5,000 for exterior improvement projects of $10,000 or more.

“We support the idea of providing greater convenience for our employees, the attraction of new talented workers and the goal of revitalizing Detroit’s downtown,” DTE Energy vice president for corporate affairs Paul Hillegonds said in a written statement.

The program attempts to build on what has become one of Detroit’s few strengths amid a turbulent economy: Although the city’s overall population contracted by 25 percent in the past decade, according to census data, the number of college-educated residents under age 35 increased by 59 percent downtown. Earlier this month, The New York Times called the youth movement an “influx of socially aware hipsters and artists now roaming the streets of Detroit.”

The “Live Downtown” program is similar to the $1.2 million “Live Midtown” plan that launched in January and involved Wayne State University, the Detroit Medical Center and Henry Ford Health System. Both programs are coordinated by the Downtown Detroit Partnership.

“Live Downtown is a tremendous program that will enhance economic development and draw new residents who will add their ideas and voices to the ongoing transformation of our city,” DDP CEO David Blaskiweicz said in a written statement.


“It’s a city center with a small-town feel.”

That’s the way the promotional arm of a Detroit development consortium describes the Motor City’s downtown. Many residents might not see their neighborhoods in that context, but a new program launched Monday aims to change that.

Despite losing 25 percent of its population over the past decade, Detroit has seen an uptick in young, college graduates living downtown.

As part of an effort to attract more residents and rebuild Detroit’s core, five of the city’s key employers announced a joint initiative that provides employees with cash incentives to move downtown and maintain their homes. More than 16,000 employees from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, DTE Energy, Compuware, Quicken Loans and Strategic Staffing Solutions are eligible for the Live Downtown initiative.

Neighborhoods eligible for the program include Corktown, Downtown, Eastern Market, Lafayette Park and Midtown. Overall, approximately $4 million will be available over a five-year period. A variety of incentive plans are available, including $20,000 loans for new homeowners purchasing a primary residence and $2,500 for new renters. Existing homeowners can receive as much as $5,000 for exterior improvement projects of $10,000 or more.

“We support the idea of providing greater convenience for our employees, the attraction of new talented workers and the goal of revitalizing Detroit’s downtown,” DTE Energy vice president for corporate affairs Paul Hillegonds said in a written statement.

The program attempts to build on what has become one of Detroit’s few strengths amid a turbulent economy: Although the city’s overall population contracted by 25 percent in the past decade, according to census data, the number of college-educated residents under age 35 increased by 59 percent downtown. Earlier this month, The New York Times called the youth movement an “influx of socially aware hipsters and artists now roaming the streets of Detroit.”

The “Live Downtown” program is similar to the $1.2 million “Live Midtown” plan that launched in January and involved Wayne State University, the Detroit Medical Center and Henry Ford Health System. Both programs are coordinated by the Downtown Detroit Partnership.

“Live Downtown is a tremendous program that will enhance economic development and draw new residents who will add their ideas and voices to the ongoing transformation of our city,” DDP CEO David Blaskiweicz said in a written statement.


Our Changing Gears road trip continues. Yesterday, I was in Kohler, Wisconsin. Today, I went down state in Illinois to Decatur.

Corn being grown across the street from Archer Daniels Midland Co. headquarters in Decatur (Niala Boodhoo)

 

 

DECATUR – Driving south from Chicago, it only takes about 25 miles to hit the corn fields. For the next 150 miles to Decatur, it’s a sea of yellow corn tassels, a head tall.

At night, the central Illinois darkness is broken only by the lights of the corn and soy processing facilities at Archer Daniels Midland Company.

At dawn, the truck and rail traffic starts rolling into the yards of ADM, one of the largest food processing companies in the world.

Its global sales were $62 billion last year. Its headquarters are in Decatur, as well as some of its largest processing facilities.

Its operations are so large that to tour all their plants, I had to get in a car.

ADM doesn’t grow crops, like those surrounding its operations in Decatur. It buys and sells crops – wheat, corn, soy and cocoa, from all over the world. Some of those crops are brought to processing plants, where they’re turned into products like corn syrup, vegetable oil, animal feed, or ethanol.

“This is the center of agriculture, and I joke a little, it’s the center because we’re here,” said Mike Baroni, a vice-president with ADM. “But if you look around, when you drove from Chicago you saw some of the most fertile land in the world, and corn and soybeans as far as the eye can see.

The company started its first plant in Decatur in 1939. Thirty years later, it moved its headquarters to Decatur, too.

Baroni said the company thinks of Decatur as its home: “We’ve been here a long time,” he said, adding that as far as he knows, the company has no plans to leave Decatur.

ADM has almost 4,500 workers in Decatur. While many of them work in the processing plant, the company also runs one of the largest private trading floors in the country and does a lot of scientific research.

That varied workforce should dispel any misconceptions people have about Decatur, the City Manager Ryan McCrady told me.

“We have a rich history of industry, so I think a lot of folks think we’re a dusty, old, blue collar city,” McCrady said. “It’s quite the contrary.”

When you talk about employers in Decatur, three names loom large: ADM, Caterpillar and Tate & Lyle, the British food giant that bought Decatur’s homegrown Staley Company in 1988. (Interesting side note: today’s Chicago Bears were started as the Decatur Staleys in 1919, then moved to Chicago as the Chicago Staleys in 1920, where the NFL franchise was officially started.)

But Tate & Lyle is moving some research operations to the Chicago area.

And Caterpillar’s employment has been more cyclical. Over the past few years, it has laid off, and since rehired, hundreds of Decatur workers.

ADM’s been steady. Last fall, it bought a building in downtown Decatur to consolidate 300 IT, audit and accounting workers.

McCrady says that was a big deal.

“First of all, to have all that many more people in your central business district is going to be great for commerce,” he said. “But bigger than that was a sign of ADM’s commitment to Decatur by buying this building, especially in this age of downsizing.”

The unemployment rate in Decatur has dropped below 9 percent – better than Chicago’s jobless rate. McCrady says Decatur sales tax revenues are up 10 to 15 percent over the past year. That’s a faster rate of growth than Illinois as a whole.

With job prospects good in Decatur, welding classes are full at Richland Community College – even at midnight.

“Everybody seems to be in more of a hiring mode,” said Douglas Brauer, a vice-president with the college.

In the welding lab at Richland Community College (Niala Boodhoo)

For spring semester the school started offering welding classes at midnight, to accommodate students who were working full-time. The class was full, so they offered it again this summer.

Richland Community College is literally in ADM’s backyard. When it was built, ADM built a pipeline to the campus to send steam. That has powered the college’s heating and cooling systems for the past 20 years.

I stepped outside with Andy Perry, who also works at Richland. He explained that we were standing directly north of one of the production facilities for Archer Daniels Midland, as well as northeast of Tate & Lyle.

“So on a given day, when some of those production facilities are giving off you steam and other elements,  we can smell the products from here,” he said.

But Perry says nobody in Decatur minds.

“Really,” he said, “it’s the smell of money.”

The world’s population is expected to reach 7 to 10 billion people by 2050. That means the demand for agricultural products – everything ADM produces – is supposed to double. That can only mean good things for Decatur, which likes to call itself the heart of agribusiness.

Correction: an earlier version of this story contained an invalid figure for the world’s population. It is approximately 6.7 billion, according to the World Bank.