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Throughout the past two years, Changing Gears has looked at the role that newcomers play in the Midwest. This afternoon, we’ll be talking about them — and talking with you. 

Join us at 3 pm ET/2 pm CT for “Hidden Assets,” a call-in show airing on WBEZ Chicago, Michigan Radio and ideastream Cleveland. We’ll also be holding a live chat here at

WBEZ’s Steve Edwards will host with a variety of scheduled guests, including Michigan’s governor, Rick Snyder, and Changing Gears reporter Niala Boodhoo. The Changing Gears team will chat with you here during the show.

Part-time farmer Howard Haselhuhn at his West Michigan hops farm. Credit: Lindsey Smith

This month, we’re looking into some of the hidden assets of the Midwest – the parts of our economy that don’t often get noticed when we talk about our strengths (the first part of the series is here). Agriculture is one of the biggest drivers of local economies in the Midwest – it accounts for billions of dollars worth of exports and thousands of jobs. There’s been a lot of concern about whether enough young people are going into farming these days. But the ag industry goes well beyond being just farming – and plenty of young people are interested in that.

At Navy Pier, a special meeting of the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences’s FFA chapter is being called to order. Ringed around the room, one by one, chapter officers check in during the traditional opening ceremony. It ends when President and Senior Jennifer Nelson asks her fellow FFA members: “Why are we here?”

The students stand and chant in unison: “To practice brotherhood, honor agriculture opportunities and responsibilities, and develop those qualities of leadership that an FFA member should possess.”

These students are part of the 17,000 FFA members in Illinois alone. Membership in the organization overall has increased 20 percent since 2000, to more than half a million members across the country. But there’s a reason why FFA no longer calls itself Future Farmers of America.

Actual farmers make up just about two to four percent of the American work force. But people who work in related industries that depend on what farmers do account for at least a quarter of the entire work force. That includes everyone from people in food services jobs to Kraft executives to commodities traders.

These students were at the Chicago Flower and Garden Show to exhibit a garden they designed and built, and to sell food produced in the school’s kitchens.

Applications to the public school – located on the far south side of the city – have almost doubled in the past year.

Chicago High School for Ag Sciences senior Justice Plummer. Credit: Niala Boodhoo

But student Justice Plummer wasn’t so sure about agriculture when she first found out she got in. Her mom convinced her to go, and she’s never looked back – even though she’s the first in her family to go into the industry.

At the moment, Plummer is nine for 13 on being accepted into colleges she applied for – all to study agricultural business. She wants to major in agriculture business in college, and eventually get her Master’s degree and work in the Peace Corps, all in relation to agriculture business or finance.

“Everybody looks at me, like, ‘Agriculture?’” she says, laughing. “They just think of farming. But it’s all about food, clothing and shelter, and people are always going to need those kind of jobs.”

Instructor Corey Flournoy agrees.

“Just here in Chicago – some of the largest food companies are based here, from Quaker Oats to Kraft Foods,” says Flournoy, who is in charge of the new Center for Urban Agricultural Education, a partnership with the University of Illinois. “The opportunities to work in agriculture – because those are agricultural companies – are plentiful. We need more people to go into those fields.”

Educators like to use the acronym STEM to describe this need for people who know science, technology, engineering and math.

“I say that agriculture puts the STEAM into STEM,” said Laurie Kramer, an associate dean at the U of I’s College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.  When I asked her how much farming was a part of the college’s curriculum, she laughed and said you would think it was “big.” That’s what it was like 50 years ago.

“Nowadays, things are very, very different,” says Kramer. Seventy percent of the college’s students come from urban environments. The few students who focus on farming are likely to come from farming families, she said,  adding that today, the number of farms – especially those operated by families – is very small.

“It’s very expensive to run those operations, it’s very tricky,” she says.

Part-time farmer Howard Haselhuhn would agree. He’s an electrical engineer for Texas Instruments. But his West Michigan farm has been in his wife Amy’s family for several generations. She’s a CPA. When they were first married, Amy says they thought about farming full-time, but:

“We just didn’t see how we could possibly make a living off of a farm that was this size and growing commodity crops and also make payments off the land,” she says.

Together, the couple saved for 25 years to buy the 420-acre land from the rest of her family. Most of it is rented out to full time farmers. But on the weekends, they make the three and a hour trek west from their house near Ann Arbor to check on their hops crop.

Michigan’s farmers exported $1.75 billion worth of food – mostly to Canada – in 2010. Forecasts are that number will top $2 billion this year. The state’s goal is to double Michigan’s exports in the next five years.

More than half the farms in the Michigan area are what the USDA considers residential or lifestyle farms – meaning that the owners have other full-time incomes. Another 20 percent are retirement farms – what the Hasselhuhns hope this will be.

The farm was started in the 1930s by Amy’s great-grandfather. She says growing up on the farm gave her strong attachment to the land that Howard now shares. And even though they didn’t grow up there, her children have it, too – that weekend, her eldest son and his wife were also up at the farm, helping out. Her hope that is future generations of Haselhuhns will be at this farm, maintaining that attachment to the land.

This story was informed by the Public Insight Network. If you want to learn how to be a part of our network, click here.

Wisconsin woes Changing Gears’ Niala Boodhoo has the second in a two-part report on how life has changed for public workers in Wisconsin, a year after the labor battle began. In today’s story, she reports that police officers and firefighters, who were originally meant to be exempt from the state’s cuts, are still feeling the pain.

Another deal, another vote The United Steelworkers has another tentative contract with the Timken Co. for workers at a plant near Canton, Ohio. Workers turned down the last agreement. If they approve this one, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reports the company says it will make a $225 million investment to upgrade the plant.

State of the speech Partner station WCPN Ideastream reports Ohio Governor John Kasich focused on the economy during his State of the State speech last night.

Privatization problems An effort to privatize Michigan’s prisons and save $93 million in this year’s budget is stalled. The problem is that private contractors would have to pay prison workers the minimum wage $7.40 an hour. The Detroit News reports the state currently pays the workers a tenth of that amount.

Tax and switch Gas could get a lot cheaper in Michigan soon. But don’t worry, you’ll still lose that extra money another way. Lawmakers in Michigan are looking at a plan to replace the state’s 19 cents/gallon gas tax with a 1 percent increase in the overall sales tax. Partner station Michigan Radio says the idea is meant to increase funding for road repairs.

A novel class Chicago Police officers are getting a chance to try out a different profession: novelist. According to The New York Times, the police department has started offering voluntary writing classes for officers.

The nation was riveted on Madison, Wisconsin last year when tens of thousands of people protested Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to dismantle most union rights for state and local workers. Walker was successful. Now, a year later, how have those changes made life different in Wisconsin? Changing Gears has been taking a look at the impact state governments have on everyday life, and I take a look at Wisconsin in the first of two reports.

The Solidarity Sing Along outside the Capitol building in Madison, Wisc. (Niala Boodhoo)

It’s noon, and on the steps of the Capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin, about 100 people are gathered in a circle, singing labor songs like “If I Had a Hammer” and “Solidarity Forever”. They have a conductor, drummer, someone passing out songbooks and even a cymbals player. It’s been dubbed the Solidarity Sing-A-Long.

People wave signs protesting Gov. Scott Walker as they walk. Some signs call for his recall.

Last Valentine’s Day, when the sing-a-long began, thousands of workers were protesting at the Capitol. They were trying to get legislators to stop Walker’s proposal to take away collective bargaining rights for state workers.

Wisconsin was one of the first states in the country to allow its public workers to unionize. Dues were taken right out of their paychecks, and they were represented by unions that bargained over wages, pensions and health care contributions.

When Act 10 passed last March, the unions remained, but their collective bargaining power was gone. Now, members have to opt into the union, instead of opting out.

Walker declined requests to be interviewed for this story. But in his State of the State address last week, he provided his perspective on what he was facing last year, when Wisconsin’s budget deficit was about $3.6 billion.

Act 10 was referred to as the Budget Repair Bill.

Today, Walker claims Wisconsin has a balanced budget. (Whether or not the budget is actually balanced is controversial in Wisconsin. Walker’s spokesman directed me to this website. But a recent LaCrosse Tribune editorial offers another view.)

Walker was interrupted several times by hecklers during his speech. But he was met with applause and cheers when he noted Wisconsin’s unemployment rate, which has dropped from 7.5 percent to 7.1 percent, is the lowest it’s been since 2008.

“We’re turning things around,” he said. “We’re heading in the right direction.”

Paul Wright has worked for Wisconsin's Dept. of Corrections for 24 years. (Niala Boodhoo)

State worker Paul Wright sees things differently.

“He turned around and stabbed us in the back,” said Wright, a 24-year veteran of the state’s corrections office. He said he, like most corrections officers, voted for Walker.

Since last July, Wright estimates he has made about $900 less a month because of increased pension and health care contributions.

In his case, the loss in income means Wright’s son is going to a local community college instead of the University of Wisconsin. He hopes his son will eventually be able to transfer to the more-expensive school.

And Wright says he’s actively involved in politics for the first time. He helped collect signatures for the petition to recall Gov. Walker. Under his Packers sweatshirt, he showed me a red “Recall Walker” shirt. He has five of them, so he can wear one every day of the week.

Wright makes $26 an hour. That’s almost twice the average hourly pay for most state, county and municipal workers, according to Wisconsin’s state employees union, AFCSME Council 24.

“We now have folks who utilize food banks, food stamps, are living on the edge, paycheck to paycheck,” said Martin Bell, its executive director, adding the average pay of its members is about $14.50 an hour.

Before Act 10, the union represented 22,000 state workers. Now that workers have to sign up voluntarily, about half have done so. Beil is on the road most of the time recruiting them back into the union.

Too bad it was too cold for frozen custard. (Niala Boodhoo)

About 50 miles east of Madison, in Delafield, I stopped by the Wholly Cow Frozen Custard downtown. Delafield is between Madison and Milwaukee. The shop’s closed in the winter – it was 25 degrees when I was there, and owner Jan Stoffer says people don’t eat enough ice cream in the winter to keep it open.

Jan and Jim Stoffer are small business owners in Delafield, Wisc. (Niala Boodhoo)

Jan and her husband, Jim run the business together. In the winter, Jim works for the state teaching part-time at Waukesha Community Technical College. Jan is a business consultant. The couple don’t exactly see eye to eye on Walker.

Jim Stoffer applauded the governor’s political will in seeing Act 10 get passed.

“This guy inherited a lot of problems from Gov. Doyle,” he said. “You can’t just continue to spend money forever”.

Jan Stoffer, who used to be a teacher, disagrees. She said her husband’s comment sounds reasonable until you realize that money is being taken away from teachers, while corporations continue to make a lot of money. And she thinks it’s not just teachers – it will only get worse for all state workers.

“When they were trying to push this through, and they said, ‘Oh, don’t worry it’s not going to affect the firefighters and the police officers’. But it’s the old slippery slope. If you’re going to make that be the rule ofr a certain group, it’s going to trickle down to others. How can it not?

Remember the Solidarity Singers who are still protesting in Madison? I’ll be reporting next on police officers and firefighters who were singing, too – even though these changes weren’t supposed to affect them.

*This story was informed by the Public Insight Network. Add your story here.

Chicago White Metal Casting's Factory Floor (Niala Boodhoo)

CHICAGO – The Midwest may have just 13 percent of the country’s population, but we still produces more than a third of the nation’s cars, steel and the lion’s share of heavy machinery. And, the rise in manufacturing meant good news for the Midwest economy last year. Here, a perspective on why things went so well for manufacturers last year – and what challenges lie ahead.

Just before you get to the factory floor of Chicago White Metal Casting, there’s a grainy, mural-sized picture of what the floor used to look like in the 1930s, when the business started by CEO Eric Treiber’s grandfather.

Back then, it was on the second floor of Chicago’s Fulton Street Fish Market. Today, the family-owned company operates further north of the city, just west of O’Hare International Airport. Chicago White Metal makes aluminum, zinc and magnesium die casting for a variety of industries, from automotive sector to health care. Die casting involves creating small metal parts – in this case, everything from the rearview mirror mount for cars to components for inside a MRI machine or a tractor.

Eric Treiber is the CEO of Chicago White Metal Casting, a business that was first started by his grandfather. (Niala Boodhoo)

Treiber said he’s happy that 2011 was brought much more stability for the company. With revenue growth of about four percent, it’s an improvement over 2010.

“Output according to the Chicago Fed Midwest Manufacturing Index was actually quite strong,” said Bill Strauss, a senior economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.

As measured by the Chicago Fed, Midwest manufacturing output has had 28 months of growth – at an annualized rate of six percent. That’s much better than the rest of the economy.

But there are a few caveats about these good manufacturing numbers. Strauss likes to use a tennis ball as an analogy, helping to explain that the growth numbers look so good because things were so bad before. In other words, the ball bounced pretty low before it went back up.

Now, Strauss said we’re seeing “great demand” at manufacturers, especially for machinery made right here in the Midwest – and not just automobiles.

“Whether it’s from Caterpillar, Deere, or Case New Holland, they are doing extremely well, especially for Caterpillar with those heavy mining equipment that they sell,” Strauss said, adding that demand especially from Canada and Russia is very strong.

Heavy mining equipment – some of which weigh more than 1 million pounds – in turn requires a lot of steel. That helps that industry, too, Strauss said.

In all, Strauss says about 60 percent of the manufacturing output lost during the downturn has come back.

So why don’t the job numbers add up?

One out of every four jobs lost during the recession was in manufacturing – that’s 2.3 million jobs. As of last November, we’ve added back just 308,000 of those jobs.

Remember the mantra “produce more with less?”. Many manufacturers practically perfected that during this recession.

Take Chicago White Metal Casting. Trieber says it had to be focused on productivity in order to stay competitive with business that was moving out of the country. By focusing on training workers, improving machine efficiency and updating equipment, he estimates they’ve had a 29 percent productivity increase between 2008 and 2010. And Treiber is actually hiring. But he’s looking for a few people, such as die cast machinists, especially repair men.

And that, in a crux, is the labor market problem right now with manufacturing – the need is for workers who are much more skilled. So why can’t you hire back those 2 million people out of work?

Strauss said it seems that many of those 2 million people who worked in manufacturing lack the skills that employers now want. He’s also quite optimistic about the future of manufacturing this coming year – as long as there are workers.

I’ll be reporting more on the skills gap later. In the meantime, if you were one of those 2 million people who were laid off, what are you doing now? Feel free to weigh in the comments section.

The incentives war between the Midwestern states has heated up over the past few months, especially between Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, which, are fighting over Sears and the CME Group. Here is a look at how states use incentives to keep or steal companies, and how that effects overall economic development.

Think back to Political Science 101 and what you learned about game theory. If you need some help, think about the premise of one of my favorite 1980s movies: War Games.

Remember the ending? (No? Keep reading.) The movie’s  star, Matthew Broderick, wants to show Joshua, the computer, that there’s no way to win a zero-sum game. He gets the computer to play itself, first Tic Tac Toe, then a simulation of a nuclear war between the then-Soviet Union and the United States. In the end, Joshua realizes no one can win.

Keep game theory in mind, because we’ll come back to it later. But that’s kind of what’s happening between Illinois, Ohio and Indiana. These states have spent the past few months waging an economic incentives war worth millions of dollars and thousands of jobs.

The Chicago Board of Trade is one of several financial exchanges owned by the CME Group, which has been courted by the state of Indiana to move out of Illinois. (Niala Boodhoo)

The most recent round ended yesterday, when the Illinois Senate approved more than $200 million in tax breaks – specifically designed to keep Sears and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange from leaving Illinois.

The CME Group owns the Chicago Board of Trade, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, as well as the Chicago Board Options Exchange.

Last week, at a news conference with Gov. Pat Quinn and Senate President John Cullerton, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel echoed their sentiments that much is at stake.

“Chicago Mercantile Exchange allows Chicago and the state of Illinois to be a leader in the futures and risk management industry,” said Emanuel.

Indiana offered CME a reported $100 million to leave Illinois. Ohio offered four times as much to try to lure Sears.

An ad campaign by Indiana's Economic Development Corp.

But it doesn’t just happen with big companies. Indiana’s Economic Development Corporation earlier this year spent $50,000 on ads asking lllinois businesses if they were “Illinoyed” by the state’s taxes.

States find themselves over a barrel when officials feel the need to offer millions to lure and retain companies.

That’s a mistake, said Jennifer Bradley, a fellow with The Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program.

Bradley said that in the case of incentives, governors and public officials face a classic “prisoner’s dilemma”.

“Governors would probably all be better off, or state economic development authorities would probably all be better off, if nobody got into these kinds of bidding wars,” she said.

In Illinois, the current tax package for Sears was set to expire. The legislation has extended those credits for 10 years for one set of credits, as well as 15 years for a special taxing district in regards to property taxes.

But Bradley says the effort to win jobs from other states may be misguided. She says most research indicates that 95 percent of a state’s typical job growth comes from existing or new businesses.

And here we’re back to the prisoner’s dilemma: with the current game of incentives, though, no one wants to budge.

“If you can’t count on everybody to do the right thing, then nobody’s going to do the right thing,” she said. “So companies have incentives to ask and individual states have incentives, temporarily, to make the offer.”

But some states are playing differently. Michigan is trying something that might break the Midwest out of this prisoner’s dilemma. In his first State of the State speech in January, Gov. Rick Syner rejected the “up the ante” mindset.

“We need to put more emphasis on economic gardening as opposed to hunting,” he said to much applause. “For those unfamiliar with economic gardening, it means we’ll focus first and foremost on building businesses that are already in the state.”

Since that address, Michigan has eliminated almost all of its tax credit incentives – including its much publicized film incentives.

(We reported on film incentives in our first Changing Gears story last year. You can hear it here.)

“We’re really trying to provide key access to tools that will help a business’s customer base grow as opposed to just providing them money and hoping that they will be able to grow their business,” said Michael Finney, president of the Michigan Economic Development Corp.

For Finney, that means the focus is more on providing help with accessing export markets, debt financing, and the like. He hopes this approach will also make it easier for the Midwest to work together.

“I happen to think if we worked together as a Midwestern region we’d be much more successful,” he said.

It’s not unprecedented for states within a region to cooperate. Take the South.

“Our former director used the term ‘coop-er-tition’,” said Kathy Geltson, Deputy Director of the Mississippi Development Authority. “We cooperate in instances where it makes sense, but there are instances when it’s a true competition.”

She’s talking about several specific alliances Mississippi and several southern states have formed for industries like the automotive or aerospace center. There, the states work together to bring companies to the region, and don’t try to compete, at least in this case, with incentives.

For Michigan, cutting those hundreds of millions of dollars out was a necessity given its fiscal state. But it works – if Michigan can show that this new strategy will still lead to comparable job growth –maybe other Midwestern states will start to follow suit.

What do you think about incentives? Should it be every state for itself? Or would the region be better served following other models?

And because I can’t resist, in case you’re nostaglic: that final scene from War Games:


The U.S. is the world leader is research and development spending, in terms of both government and private sector spending. In 2009, the United States spent about $338 billion on research and development – China was the next closest, at about $124 billion.

What’s interesting is how that spending gets broken down: The federal government spends much more on the research side. Private industry focuses on development, creating products that can make more money.

That’s what makes Battelle Memorial Institute such an interesting place. I reported earlier this summer on Battelle, a nonprofit research and development organization in Columbus, Ohio, that brought us the technology behind bar codes, cruise control, tamper-proof bottles, and more.

That story focused on how to Battelle takes things from ideas to economic reality. Our friends at National Public Radio’s Morning Edition were interested in that story, so I’ve branched beyond our initial report and taken a second look at the company, and this time focused on how it prioritizes research-and-development spending. You can check out the new report here.


Outside the former Harris Marcus furniture factory in Chicago (Ken Fager via Flickr Creative Commons)

Given the thousands of old industrial properties in the United States, especially across the Midwest, you might think city governments know the number of vacant commercial properties within their municipalities.

Think again.

In reporting my story about one man’s quest to convert a former meatpacking plant on Chicago’s South Side into an urban farm, I tried to figure out how many other empty industrial buildings there are in the city.

But Chicago city officials don’t keep track of vacant commercial properties.

“We wouldn’t consider a commercial property a vacant building as long it is being marketed and secure,” Buildings Department spokesman Bill McCaffrey said. No laws requiring the city to keep track of vacant commercial properties, as there are for empty residential properties.

“Our focus for the past few years has been the vacancy crisis in residential homes,” McCaffrey said.

Officials in Gary, Indiana said the same thing. They don’t keep records of vacant industrial properties are within city limits.

(I wish I could tell you if this was the same story for the city of Detroit. But the city didn’t return the numerous emails and calls I made in the past two weeks trying to find an answer.)

“I think most of our recording of vacant and abandoned or problem buildings come through complaints,” said Vanesse Dabney, executive director of the City of Gary’s Department of Redevelopment.

Dabney said anyone with a complaint about a problematic building can call the city at (219) 886-1531.

Peter Strazzabosco, spokesman for the City of Chicago’s Department of Housing and Economic Development office, said the city views its role as to being “responsive” to the private sector when it wants to convert empty buildings.

To that end, one of the biggest incentives the city offers is property-tax reduction to any new owners that take over buildings vacant for at least two years. Strazzabosco said the “widely used” credit – officially known as the Class 6(b) property tax incentive – can reduce property taxes from the industrial tax rate of 25 percent to 10 percent for 10 years.

Although that’s the most popular, there are other credits, as well. Many people, including John Edel, who I profiled in the Plant story, also take advantage of money via the much-discussed tax increment financing districts that are throughout the city.

Vacant industrial buildings dot the Midwest and swallow up chunks of some neighborhoods. But instead of blight, one Chicago man sees opportunity. All this month, Changing Gears has been reporting on Empty Places. The series reminded me of a man I first met last year, when I reported on brownfield industrial sites. I thought I would check back in with him a year later to find out how his experiment to cultivate new life on Chicago’s South Side was turning out.

Baby tilapia growing in the basement of The Plant, an urban farm inside a former meatpacking plant on Chicago's South Side. (Niala Boodhoo)

Deep inside the basement of a former meatpacking plant on the edge of Chicago’s Stockyards, rows of giant plastic barrels are neatly lined up. Inside, hundreds of dark grey and pink speckled fish are quietly swimming around.

“We breed all of our own tilapia,” said urban farmer John Edel, as he gestures to a series of tanks full of guppies in one corner of the basement.

Edel calls this building “The Plant”.

It’s a big space – at 93,000-square feet, The Plant is bigger than most department stores. Inside is Edel’s urban farm as well as other tenants, including a brewery.

The building was the home of Peer Foods, which had smoked and roasted meat here since 1925. It sat empty for years before Edel bought it in 2010.

Today, he’s escorting a team of engineers around the building. They’re planning to design a new heating and cooling system for the facility – which he wants to be completely energy self-sufficient.

Edel bought the building for $500,000 to create a vertical farm. Originally, he said he was just thinking of creating an aquaponics systems that he combined with light manufacturing and shared office space.

That’s what he did his first building conversion. Orginally, Edel was a video game designer. He paid his way through school by doing construction work. Then he got into converting buildings.

His first project was a former paint warehouse in Bridgeport, on the South Side. It’s now the Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center – with 16 business tenants.

Plant Chicago founder John Edel, in his basement urban farm. (Niala Boodhoo)

When he found this building, which was already fitted for commercial food storage, Edel saw it as a new opportunity.

“The plan behind the Plant began to change,” he said.

That’s one of the biggest lessons Edel would impart to anybody who’s interested in converting one of the thousands of empty buildings across our region – be flexible.

(Curious about how many vacant industries properties there are in Chicago? I wrote about that in my Reporter’s Notebook for this story.)

When he tried to buy his first building, he said the banks laughed him out the door. His realtor arranged an owner-financed sale – basically, Edel paid a mortgage to the building’s owner – until he owned it outright.

His family helped buy this building – so he pays them a mortgage. And Edel uses profits from the first building to help finance operations at the Plant.

While the building is being converted, Edel rents out three acres out back for tractor trailer parking. Some parts of the building are rented as storage space.

He reuses whatever he can, and does as much of the construction work himself, along with an army of volunteers, who help him salvage everything from the building that can be reused, like floor tiles.

Edel also has had help from local and state governments. He’s taken advantage of a City of Chicago Small Business Improvement program to help finance things like replacing all those windows.

Having a green project also helped secure state grants. He got $1.5 million from Illinois to buy an anaerobic digester that will convert plant and waste matter into energy.

A diagram of how the Plant will be off the grid (Courtesy of The Plant Chicago)

“This model isn’t spending huge amount of money as fast as you can to get the building done as fast as you can,” Edel said. “It’s about slow money and about doing what you can with what you have.”

Lee Bey

Lee Bey is executive director of the Chicago Central Area Committee, a downtown civic group that focuses on urban planning. (He also writes a blog for our partner station WBEZ on architecture.) Bey  said someone like Edel is almost creates magic in that he’s a rare person who tackles problems like vacant commercial properties.

“Even if its not a blight, the absence of something commercial means an absence of jobs, the absence of a dollar turning around in the community,” Bey said.

Although it’s required by law to keep track of vacant residential buildings, the city of Chicago doesn’t actually for vacant commercial properties. Neither do smaller cities like Gary.

Bey says the key with someone like Edel is using him as a blueprint.

“I think the real magic is to pull him aside – the City, an Alderman, a city official – and say, ‘What did you do, and how can we do that for that building over there?”

Bey says every city has people like Edel. The key is figure out how their work can be replicated – that’s when seeing fewer and fewer empty buildings.

If you want to see more about what’s happening inside The Plant, my WBEZ colleagues Robin Amer and Shannon Heffernan just shot this cool video:


CHICAGO – Over the past decade, the Midwest has led the nation in creating the biggest pockets of poverty. That’s the headline from a report from the Brookings Instituition, which was released today.

After a national decline in the 1990s, the population of poverty-stricken neighborhoods rose 30 percent in the last decade. (A poverty-stricken neighborhood is one in which at least 40 percent of the people live below the poverty line. In 2010, that was defined as $22,314 for a family of four.)

In our region, concentrated poverty — meaning people living in these neighborhoods — has doubled. The Great Lakes metropolitan areas of Toledo, Youngstown, Detroit and Dayton have experienced some of the largest increases among all metropolitan areas for concentrated poverty.

The analysis comes from federal data from the 2000 Census and the American Community Surveys from 2005 to 2009.

Changing Gears will be covering this issue in greater depth over the coming weeks. But in the meantime, here’s a video from Brooking summarizing the results. You can read the entire report here.


Inform our coverage: How has the shifting landscape of poverty changed your life or attitudes?