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Bid to swap county land ignites political battle

Sunday, May 01, 2005
Daily Southtown
by Phil Kadner

On the one hand you have jobs, tax revenue and industrial growth.

On the other, environmentalists and preservationists.

Smack dab in the middle are the rest of the people of Cook County, particularly south suburban residents who travel some of the longest distances in the nation to get to work.

Did I mention they also pay some of the highest property tax rates in the state?

Cook County Commissioner Michael Quigley (D-Chicago) says he sympathizes with the poor folks in the south suburbs, but he doesn't trust his own colleagues on the board, "which has a long history of corruption."

A steel company in Riverdale wants to swap 31 acres of land it owns for 21 acres of Cook County Forest Preserve land.

If the deal is approved, the steel company allegedly would launch a $200 million expansion of its existing manufacturing plant, generating $33 million in construction wages and 75 new jobs at the steel plant.

For Riverdale, the project would be a windfall.

In 1998, Acme Steel filed for bankruptcy, threatening the jobs of hundreds of employees and the economic viability of Riverdale, where it was the largest taxpaying business.

Local politicians, such as U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-2nd) of Chicago, tried desperately to work out a financial bailout or find a new company to purchase Acme's assets.

But in 2001, the Acme Steel plant in Riverdale shut down. The future looked bleak.

In October 2002, International Steel Group purchased Acme's thin-slab caster and hot-strip mill. The caster, built at a cost of $400 million in 1997, was considered state-of-the-art technology, and ISG purchased it at the bargain-basement price of $65 million.

The company established a niche market for high-quality steel.

And over the past three years, business has boomed.

Apparently, Acme Steel realized from the beginning it would need twin casters to maximize the plant's capacity.

But the plant abutted Cook County Forest Preserve District property and couldn't be expanded.

Acme offered money for the land and was turned down. It offered a land swap and was turned down.

ISG, the new owners, began campaigning for the swap all over again.

Cook County Commissioner Deborah Sims (D-Chicago), who represents the Riverdale area, realized the south suburbs have lost thousands of steel manufacturing jobs over the past 30 years.

She has seen economic devastation throughout the south suburbs.

She's all in favor of the swap.

Quigley and a number of preservation groups see things another way.

In 1915, he said, the Forest Preserve District Board, which also is the Cook County Board, established a policy of no swaps and no sales of forest preserve land.

But a few years ago, the county board violated that policy.

Rosemont Mayor Donald Stephens wanted some forest preserve land to build a parking garage for a riverboat casino.

Stephens never got the casino, but he paid the county $2.9 million for 2.4 acres of forest preserve land, which Cook County was supposed to use to purchase 31 additional acres of property near Orland Park.

Stephens never got his casino but built the parking garage.

"It was the crookedest deal we ever made," Quigley said. "I voted against it.

"Once you set a precedent like that, there's no stopping Cook County commissioners from selling off the forest preserves."

Quigley said Cook County has the highest rates of chronic asthma in the country because it has too much pollution and not enough trees.

"People are more important than trees," Sims said. "I love trees. But people will always come first. And people need jobs."

And just as the battle was about to be engaged, Mittal Steel Co. of Holland, the largest metal manufacturing company in the world, announced it was merging with ISG.

The acquisition was completed April 15.

Wednesday, the Cook County Board is supposed to vote on the land swap.

I happen to think the deal is a good one for Cook County, if it's done right.

With new owners in place, the county must insist that the 31 acres owned by the steel company be cleaned up at the expense of the company. (I am told there are some chunks of concrete lying around, but soil tests have indicated no contamination).

The new owners should be made to put in writing that they will follow through on plans to expand the plant, if given the property.

As for the county's policy against swaps, a policy that doesn't allow for flexibility and common sense is foolish.

If the county can get more land for preservation and create jobs at the same time, commissioners ought to be open to the idea.

I realize environmental purists will object.

My guess is they have jobs. There aren't enough of those in the south suburbs.

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