Freeport Views Passenger Rail as Opportunity

Nov 19, 2012

Amtrak is set to resume passenger service across northern Illinois from Chicago to Dubuque in 2014.  Cities along the route are building new stations to handle the new Blackhawk Line. Some in Freeport see a chance to create much more than just a stop on the route.

In what used to be known as building E when the Rawleigh company was in business,  Freeport Alderman Tom Klemm points out some of the rehab work that’s going on in this part of the massive complex.

“The first floor of this has been all renovated. The second floor has been torn out as we look out here and is ready for renovation. The asbestos has been taken out. Lead paint has been taken out.”   

It’s been 25 years since the Rawleigh Company shut the doors of its household and food products business in Freeport, leaving a set of massive brick and concrete structures. Mayor George Gaulrapp says past attempts to redevelop the site have had limited success, but the announcement of the new passenger rail line, along with a renewed effort to use the space, makes him more hopeful.  Gaulrapp says the goal is to expand on those plans and bring in other development that will take advantage of the coming train service.

" Something that will entice people to get off the train. It’s one thing as to have a train station in your community, but you’re going to need to entice them off.”

The complex has its advantages. Remember the old saying that the three most important things in business are location, location, location? Gaulrapp says this site has that, in spades.

“We have the bicycle trail, we have Tutty’s crossing,  we have a boat launch. Our transit coordinator will facilitate the Freeport properties as well as countywide transportation.”

Freeport was already going to be the hub of a planned countywide transportation system. The Rawleigh site will now be the nexus of that, providing a direct link between the county’s service and Amtrak.  And supporters of a regional bicycle and walking trail are already preparing to connect it with the new station.

Tom Klemm sees the result as a win-win for everyone.

“It’ll allow people from other communities to come here to work, and it will also give us the reverse thing, like, we could go into Chicago to see out kids,  we could jump on a train.”

While the idea of a multi-modal hub is alluring, Freeport Community Development Director Shelly Griswold says the sheer size of the complex, close to 500 thousand square feet, means there’s a lot of potential to do other things.

“We also have a project that we’ve been  working with the University of   Illinois,  that’s a food enterprise center. It’ll have a commercial kitchen and a rural ag entrepreneurship center. We have a local manufacturer who is looking to expand and mover his operations into one of the buildings.”    

Griswold says these projects, along with the brownfield cleanup that accompanies them, brings an element of social justice to the city’s plans.

“It’s the area in the city where historically a lot of the manufacturing was, and a lot of that manufacturing has left. And in its wake it has left unemployment. So bringing economic development to this neighborhood is important, too, because it brings opportunities to people.”

Griswold adds that with no grocery stores nearby, the area around Rawleigh qualifies as a food desert, so the ag center will provide a direct benefit to the community in that way as well.

Klemm, Gaulrapp and Griswold agree that all these plans will take time and effort to come to fruition. But, they say, the problems of the Rawleigh complex, and for that matter Freeport, took decades to get to the point they are now, and no one expected them to be fixed overnight. What they see is an opportunity, to build something new, draw people in, and lay a foundation for future growth in the community.

Credit Guy Stephens