Collaborative Connections and LISC-Chicago hosted the first of five meetings on Aug. 31 regarding the development of the Mars Chocolate Factory, 2019 N. Oak Park Ave., in Galewood following its closure in 2024.
The virtual meeting focused on giving community members an opportunity to share how they believe the space should benefit their neighborhood.
Ben Anders, the sponsorship and engagement manager at Mars, said the company is donating the factory rather than selling it to give back to the community that has served them for nearly 100 years. The site is 81,000 square feet, surrounded by Galewood, Austin, Mont Clare and Belmont-Cragin.
At the first meeting, attendees were placed into different groups, each of which represented their neighborhood, and discussed the community’s needs and how the Mars site might accommodate those necessities.
The Mars Chocolate Factory includes unique features like the front façade and landscaping as well as a dedicated rail line on the east side to help deliver ingredients, Anders said.
Prior to discussion of its uses, residents asked questions that will be answered throughout the meeting series, such as “What will happen to the equipment?” and “Are the next owners going to be as good of a neighbor and offer economic gain?”
Austin community members took a look at Austin Coming Together’s Quality of Life Plan to evaluate the area’s most critical needs. The categories of the plan include Community Narrative, Economic Development, Education, Housing, Public Safety and Civic Engagement.
Recognizing how those priorities impact the use of the Mars factory for Austin, residents decided the site could fulfill access to jobs and training, arts and culture opportunities, green space and a major commercial anchor.
“It’d be great to have a job training facility, especially for jobs of the 21st century,” Austin resident Sharon Hartshorn said.
Ideas for the space included a multi-use art center, a library, affordable housing for young adults and a nature center. Austin residents also decided a candy museum encouraging education and fun would be beneficial or a walking trail to take advantage of the land near the factory.
When listing what issues Austin currently faces, residents mentioned the fact that their tax dollars go to Oak Park because of the lack of certain amenities. They also said gentrification and the scarcity of positive employment opportunities and activities for the youth were an issue.
“[The youth] think [Austin] is where their world begins and ends and that’s just not true. The world is much bigger than just the Austin community,” Hartshorn said.
When the Mars Chocolate Factory closes in 2024, 280 jobs will be lost. Anders said Mars has worked with associates to line up with their career paths and direct them to opportunities at other Mars market sites in Chicago.
To share your thoughts on how the Mars site should be utilized, fill out the Galewood Neighbor’s survey.
Future meetings will address issues such as taxes, landmarks and history, and they will be located throughout the affected neighborhoods to hear everyone’s voices, said Seva Gandhi, executive director of Collaborative Connections.
The second meeting will take place at Rutherford Sayre Park Field House, 6871 W. Belden Ave., on Sept. 24 at 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. At that meeting, participants will discuss the history of the Mars site. Pre-register for the next four meetings here.