THE ENTERPRIZE ZONE
In 2006, Coca-Cola was searching for a new home for its distribution center due to the expansion of Benito Juarez Community Academy next to its facility at 1440 W. Cermak in Pilsen.
The school wanted Coca-Cola’s property, and, according to a February 2006 Chicago Community Development Commission staff report, “the mayor’s office main concern was to keep the quality jobs that Coca-Cola provides in the city.”
As a result, the city authorized paying more than $3.22 million to the project’s developers, MLRP Merlin LLC and Coca-Cola Enterprises, as an incentive to relocate the distribution facility to Austin, which is in the Northwest Industrial Corridor TIF District.
The site chosen was once a distribution facility of Helene Curtis Industries, a cosmetics and beauty firm that ceased operations in 1996. About 140 jobs were eliminated as a result, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
The project included renovating roughly 208,000 square feet of the existing building, improving truck stall access, adding parking and making other structural changes, according to the project’s redevelopment agreement the city is required to post online.
Coca-Cola committed to the “creation and/or retention” of a minimum of 240 jobs, according to the commission’s report. The Cermak facility’s 120 employees were to be relocated to the new distribution center. The remaining 120 jobs were to be created by moving employees from other Coca-Cola facilities in the suburbs to the Austin site.
Morris Smith, Coca-Cola’s public affairs and community relations manager, said he did not know about the minimum job requirement and that closer to 200 employees were transferred from the Pilsen location, while 150 jobs were transferred from other facilities in Chicago.
Currently, the Austin location has 325 employees, Smith said. Since opening, the distribution facility has had 20 employees from the 60644 Austin zip code, Smith said.
The project’s certificate of completion – the city-issued document certifying that all the requirements in a redevelopment agreement have been met – was issued in 2007.
The certificate triggers payment of the city’s commitment to 15 annual installments of $215,000 to the developer. The installments are due each Feb. 1, according to city spokeswoman Sullivan. As of late June, $860,000 – or four of the installments – has been paid to the developer, she said.
The Housing and Economic Development Department declined to comment further on its payment process after a certificate of completion is issued; that includes refusing to reveal who at the city monitors the developer to make sure it complies with the agreement.
Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) declined to be interviewed about the facility, which is located in her ward.
But her staff responded to some questions by e-mail, touting the 1,200 jobs she says she has brought to the ward since 2006 using TIF money and other financial incentives. The e-mail cited last year’s opening of an Aldi grocery store at 1440 N. Kostner, and the recent opening of discount apparel Forman Mills at 1450 N. Cicero.
Mitts’ staff declined to answer how many residents of the 37th Ward work those 1,200 jobs.
Coca-Cola’s impact on the neighborhood
The Coca-Cola facility at 1401 N. Cicero is located just south of the new Forman Mills clothing store. Other retailers in the immediate area include Food 4 Less, Skechers and Game Stop.
Coca-Cola’s Morris Smith, said the distribution facility has “positively impacted” the neighborhood by providing jobs and other services to the community.
Due to the company’s growth, retirements, promotions and transfers, the facility often has jobs to fill, he said. Coca-Cola’s “talent acquisition department” that recruits employees works with Ald. Mitts to employ Austin residents, added smith, who lived in Austin as a child until he graduated from college and whose family still resides on the West Side.
“We are always trying to hire people from the Austin community.”
Smith could not provide a more current number of Austin residents employed at the facility, because “it’s an ongoing number.” Coca-Cola did not respond to requests seeking an interview with any of the 28 Austin-area employees documented as working at the facility in 2009.