Mars, the manufacturer behind iconic candy brands like Snickers and M&Ms announced last week that it intends to close its nearly century-old Galewood candy factory, 2019 N. Oak Park Ave., in 2024. The company appears to be letting community members decide what happens to the site in the future.
The Galewood plant dates back to 1929, when company owner Franklin Mars moved his business from Minneapolis to Chicago. Mars built the factory on the site of the Westward Ho golf course next to what eventually became Metra’s Milwaukee District West line. The factory’s architecture was designed to echo the surrounding Galewood subdivision. The plant is directly served by Metra’s Mars station, which is also used by local commuters.
Mars did not go into details about the closure and company officials did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.
The company’s Mars Wrigley Confectionery division’s global headquarters will be located in Chicago’s Goose Island neighborhood and the company will retain plants in suburban Burr Ridge and Yorkville.
Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th) whose ward includes the plant and the surrounding portions of Galewood and Montclare, said that Mars is choosing to donate the land rather than sell it to another company.
He said that he and other area elected officials will convene community meetings to decide the future of the site. While some residents expressed cautious optimism about what happens next, others questioned why a company as successful as Mars would close the plant, disrupting the future of the factory’s 280 employees.
Taliaferro said that Mars representatives told him that “they have different growth plans” baked into their growth model.
“It’s sad that we’re going to lose Mars,” he said. “They hired over 280 people from throughout the city of Chicago and the surrounding suburbs. It’s sad we’re going to lose them as a community resource, but at the same time, I’m hopeful that we’ll bring something to this site that will benefit the community.
Taliaferro said that he and other area elected officials will be organizing community meetings so that residents of the Austin community area as a whole, rather than just Galewood specifically, will determine the future of the site.
Mars will donate the property to whichever developer or organization the community chooses. Taliaferro said that he didn’t have the precise timeline for when the meetings would happen. Given that the company won’t close the site until 2024, he said, they’ll have plenty of time to figure things out.
“I am excited that they’ve chosen that route of community engagement, especially since this is the facility Mars will be donating, at no cost, to a new tenant,” Taliaferro said.
Steve Robinson, the director of Northwest Austin Council and a Galewood resident who lives a few blocks from the plant, said that he was disappointed in Mars, especially since the candy company has been a good neighbor.
“We had to fight alongside Black Workers Matter to integrate [the currently Hostess-owned bakery] nearby [in Galewood, at 2035 N. Narragansett Ave.], but Mars has been a decent neighbor,” Robinson said. “The kids would go straight there on Halloween. I’m disappointed in Mars.”
Robinson pointed out the candy company’s reported $40 billion in revenues in 2021, according to Forbes, making Mars the fourth-largest private company in the United States.
“They don’t have to close,” he said. “Of course, it could be a ploy to extort the city like the Bears moving to Arlington Heights.”
Yvette McCallum, a member of Black Workers Matter’s governing committee, worked at the Galewood plant three years ago. While she alleged that she faced racial discrimination working at the Bimbo Bakeries plant in Cicero, she said she faced no such issues at the Mars plant.
“Mars was integrated,” she said. “People worked well together. I would have stayed but couldn’t handle the cold on the ice cream rotation.”
McCallum said that Black Workers Matter generally supports a more cooperative style, employee-owned model of factory ownership. Mars closing its plant demonstrates why they support those models, she said.
“Workers and the community should get a vote,” she said. “A few bosses or owners should not be allowed to dictate the fate of hundreds. People built whole lives around these jobs. Now, they’re being cast aside like trash by the Mars family. That’s a kind of stealing.”
Judith Alexander, the chair of The North Avenue District, said that the loss of the plant will reverberate on both sides of North Avenue.
“It will mean a loss of customers for our businesses,” she said. “For the community, it will mean the loss of jobs. It may well mean the loss of a handsome, well-maintained building, as well. In short, we are losing an important community asset.”
Alexander said she is nonetheless hopeful that community input will result in the replacement of the Mars plant with something that “will become a new asset to the community.”
Tom Drebenstedt is a member of Rutherford-Sayre’s Park Advisory Council and a steward of the park’s natural area located across the street from the Mars plant. He said that the plant’s closing “reinforces the reality that change is a constant in our lives,” adding that the site has plenty of potential.
“Can we work towards preserving the original building for public use?” he wondered. “Bring back a putting green? Extend the natural area east across Oak Park Avenue to link the homes south of the plant to our park? Bring in a transit-oriented development? Bring in small homes for seniors that desire to stay in a community they love? Many possibilities ahead. Industrial and retail usage is not the future. Time to get to work.”