Report: Will County sees near-record job growth in 2021

Center for Economic Development head says county’s economy remained resilient through COVID-19 pandemic

Concstruction continues at the proposed Lion Electric school bus plant on Friday, May 7, 2021, at 3835 Youngs Road in Joliet, Ill. Governor JB Pritzker announced at a press conference on Friday morning that Lion Electric will be building a factory to produce electric school buses in Joliet. This will be the company's first factory in the United States.

Job growth in Will County is approaching all-time highs through the end of 2021, according to a recent report.

John Greuling, the president and CEO of the Will County Center for Economic Development, delivered an annual report last week recapping the state of the county’s economy.

Will County added more than 5,600 jobs this year. About 1,200 new single-family homes were added, which leads the state. More than 90% of industrial, retail and office property in the county is occupied, rates which are also near all-time highs.

Greuling said the positive data points show the “resiliency” of Will County’s economy.

He attributed that largely to the types of industries that have grown in the county, specifically distribution, logistics, health care, and energy. He pointed out these essential sectors were not as impacted as others by the measures taken to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“All of them have done well over the last 18 months,” he said in an interview.

Wait staff delivers plates of food on Wednesday, March 10, 2021, at the Old Fashioned Pancake House in Joliet, Ill. Last March the Herald-News spoke with local restaurants on the day Governor Pritzker delivered a stay-at-home order, and one year later these restaurants have found ways to adapt to the pandemic restrictions.

His report also pointed to the myriad new developments announced over the past year throughout the county.

Notable projects include a $1 billion investment near Elwood for a new power plant by Jackson Generation, a new Tesla parts distribution center in Lockport, and a 1.2 million square-foot Wayfair facility in Romeoville, just to name a few.

Perhaps the most highly touted investment will come from Lion Electric Company, which announced a new manufacturing facility in Joliet to build electric buses and other vehicles. State and federal officials lauded the move to create about 1,400 jobs in Will County.

Greuling said new manufacturing opportunities such as the Lion Electric for electric vehicles represent a forward-looking approach to the economy of the future.

“It’s going to become, I believe, one of our backbone industries,” he said.

The Will County CED also has been active in advocating for government investments in local infrastructure, culminating in the passage of a state capital program that includes about $1 billion in improvements to a key stretch of Interstate 80 running through the county.

This year, Gov. JB Pritzker announced an ambitious construction timeline to get that work done by about 2027.

Traffic backed up on Oct. 9 on I-80 when lanes were closed after a hole developed in a bridge over Rowell Avenue in Joliet.

Greuling said both Will County and Illinois are poised to greatly benefit from the recently passed $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure package. He said the CED and its investors will work to prioritize big infrastructure projects next year, especially for water needs as Joliet and other communities plan for alternative water sources.

Still, there are other economic factors Greuling said he feels should be addressed.

For one, he said there needs to be significantly more housing built in the county to accommodate its growing population and development. While Will County leads the state in building housing, Greuling said there needs to be more, including different types of housing.

He argued the “successful communities of tomorrow” are aiming to “create a lifestyle” to attract new workers, especially as millennials look for options beyond single-family homes.

Even the difficulties with the country’s supply chain could turn into benefits for Will County, Greuling said. With companies seeing how precarious it’s been to ship goods from overseas to their customers, maybe some will reconsider making those products so far away.

Greuling said a majority of U.S. companies probably won’t attempt a big shift to repatriate its production. Those who do may see Will County as a great spot to relocate. That’s because of the county’s geographic advantages and transportation offerings.

“Our hope is that this is the place where they’re going to put all the pieces together before they go out to market,” he said.