“It’s clean. It’s big. It’s empty.” That’s how a real estate broker in 2009 described the old Wrigley gum factory at 3535 S. Ashland Ave. when it hit the market.
In 2017, Sun-Times investigative reporter Tim Novak provided an updated take: “The abandoned factory that the Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co. left behind in Bridgeport has been like a wad of gum stuck to the shoes of Chicagoans.” In classic Chicago fashion, the empty factory stood for misspent tax incentives for Wrigley and an insider deal to cut the property taxes on the factory after the company sold it.
But now, 14 years since Wrigley stopped making Chicago originals such as Juicy Fruit and Spearmint at the property, something positive is finally happening there. The factory is being demolished and in its place will be new industrial construction providing a jolt of fresh jobs.
The real estate firm NAI Hiffman said it has been hired by new owners to find users for what it calls the South Branch Commerce Center, a 260,000-square-foot building on more than 16 acres. John Basile, senior vice president at NAI Hiffman, said construction should begin in the summer and be finished around year end. He said the project represents about $23 million in spending.
It’s a straightforward appeal to the hottest trend in warehousing and shipping — a site that’s within heavily populated areas that can help with the “last mile” challenge of getting items to homes and businesses. So yes, the site has Amazon written all over it, but its fate might be better than that.
“Every industrial developer has ambitions to do a deal with Amazon,” Basile said. “We’ve spoken with all logical parties.” There is no deal to announce yet, but the project’s speculative nature — construction is proceeding without a committed tenant — is a sign of confidence.
Amazon has been gobbling sites around Chicago — the old Maywood Park racetrack in Melrose Park, Skokie, Channahon, and it is said to be considering a site in Pullman. A company spokeswoman had no comment on the Bridgeport site.
But when you think of an Amazon site, you imagine big-box construction for lots of little boxes, with employees struggling to raise families on what they earn. Basile said the Wrigley site could go beyond pure shipping, with light manufacturing involved. One possibility, he said, could be food processing. Manufacturers could provide jobs that pay higher wages.
In a sign of the site’s jobs potential, Basile said the final site plan could provide parking for up to 630 cars. CTA buses serve the site directly, and it’s close to the Orange Line. “E-commerce is heavily dependent on the local labor force and on access to public transit,” he said.
Chris Gary, also representing the property as executive vice president for NAI Hiffman, said, “This large site allows the developer to include the truck-maneuvering capabilities found in suburban sites but at a city location only 10 minutes from downtown, the thriving West Loop and the Fulton Market District.”
The brokerage identified the owners as Karis Industrial and Stonemont Financial Group. Basile said they closed on the sale around late October, although a check of deed records showed no recent transaction. A representative of the owners was not immediately available.
The old gum factory, which employed 1,700 people in the 1960s, became an embarrassment to the administration of former Mayor Richard M. Daley. In 2002, Daley told the Sun-Times he’d gotten assurances from Wrigley that the plant would stay open. It was part of the horse-trading when Wrigley sought tax increment financing help to build a research center on Goose Island. But the assurances were never committed to writing and Wrigley, then part of the Mars candy empire, ended 95 years of Bridgeport production in 2006. It also downsized its Goose Island project.
It finally sold the property in 2012 to a Lombard group that paid nearly $4.9 million. The buyers later hired Daley’s nephew, Patrick Daley Thompson, to help cut the property taxes. Thompson is now 11th Ward alderman with authority over the property. He did not reply to a message last week.
There was talk the last few years about a shopping center at the site, so at least the city stuck to its plan to keep it industrial. It needs those jobs. Speaking of “stuck,” maybe taxpayers can finally scrape that gooey stuff off their soles. Basile said the new owners are seeking no tax subsidies for the construction.