That part of the West Side known as K-Town is usually in the news for the wrong reasons.
Its name has too often been associated with a plague of violence and poverty. K-Town — it refers to the K names of most of its north-south streets — in a Chicagoan’s dialect tends to be spoken with a foreboding tone.
Many efforts are underway to change that, and one is getting recognition Monday. Community leaders and state officials, including Gov. J.B. Pritzker, are expected to gather to herald one company’s $20 million investment in new jobs and light manufacturing.
And it’s being called the K-Town Business Centre, nothing less than an attempt to embrace the community and recast its image.
“That is intentional,” said Stephen Davis, founder and chairman of The Will Group. “I just think there are some hidden treasures in communities that have been abandoned.”
His company manufactures and distributes lighting and electrical equipment. It has opened a 60,000-square-foot factory and warehouse at 4647 W. Polk St., the first of two buildings it plans on about 7 acres that have been vacant for decades. The company has hired more than 20 people so far and plans to have 100 more on-site. The Will Group specializes in contract manufacturing for customers such as ComEd, with products that include the LED fixtures used in Chicago’s street lighting modernization. Its services also include project management and distributing other firms’ products.
The gathering Monday will serve as a ribbon-cutting for the first phase, although the building has been occupied since last fall. The event will highlight the $500,000 grant Davis got for the project from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, part of $11 million the agency awarded last year to help minority-owned businesses.
The state money, plus help that included a Cook County property tax abatement for industrial development, helped him with extraordinary costs for building in K-Town, Davis said.
The Will Group, named for the “Where there’s a will, there’s a way” slogan, is based in Wheaton, and Davis knows that he could have gotten property cheaper in DuPage County. “I could have done this for $60, $70 a square foot in DuPage. Here it was north of $100 a square foot,” he said, mostly because the land needed an environmental cleanup that cost around $700,000. But he said he can have a much greater impact on the West Side. Citing support from ComEd, Wintrust Bank and others, Davis said, “It allows us to hire people at above minimum wage with health care and retirement benefits.”
Davis called himself “blessed beyond reason as an entrepreneur,” something he’s been at more than 30 years. It’s led him to include others’ needs in his calculation of profit and loss. Part of his mission is hiring ex-offenders so they can set their lives straight. “I think of our national ‘war on drugs’ and how it continues to decimate our community. We have to be more intentional about bringing manufacturing to our community and working with ex-offenders,” Davis said.
The state grant came from the Rebuild Illinois capital program. Sylvia Garcia, acting director of DCEO, said the grants supported 31 businesses and business incubators statewide and have come at an important time for entrepreneurs trying to survive financially during the pandemic. She said the agency is considering an allocation for the state’s coming fiscal year, which starts July 1.
“Gov. Pritzker is really focused on closing the equity gap as part of our five-year economic plan,” Garcia said. She said Davis’ project was selected for its potential on the West Side. “The project itself is really impressive, just the size and scale of it,” she said.
Work on the second building is expected to begin in 2022. It will give Davis 120,000 square feet altogether, part of which he might lease to others, depending on his own business needs. He sees potential growth in orders from federal consensus on an infrastructure bill. His company’s revenue was $50 million in 2019 and rose a bit during 2020 despite the pandemic, he said. A pivot to making disinfectant wipes and distributing masks helped.
Part of his space could be leased to a licensed cannabis grower, which Davis said could provide 30 to 50 jobs. He’s applied for a zoning change to allow that because he got an inquiry about the site. “We might look at the possibility. Right now, it’s not the plan,” Davis said.
But if it happens, he knows it would do more for K-Town than one use of the property before he bought it. “There was a meth lab” a few years ago, he said.