Rochelle Development Riding The Rails Into Lee County

Aug 22, 2018

Credit Guy Stephens/ WNIJ

Rochelle has leveraged its location, and resources like its municipal railroad, to spur a lot of business activity in its corner of Ogle County. Now it’s set to move into neighboring Lee County in a big way. 

You don’t have to go far anywhere in Rochelle to hear the sound of a train. Tracks belonging to the country’s two largest railroads, BNSF and Union Pacific, intersect here. Union Pacific also has an intermodal facility in Rochelle to move cargo between trains and trucks, taking advantage of the city’s proximity to Interstates 88 and 39.

Moving around Rochelle’s business parks, there’s another sound you might hear: a switch engine, a small locomotive used in railyards, releasing cars loaded with material for use in one of the many businesses served by the city’s municipal railroad. That city line links those companies with the big railroads, providing a direct connection to and from markets across North America, and eventually the world.

Jason Anderson is Rochelle’s Economic Development Director. He works with the Greater Rochelle Economic Development Corporation, which partners with the city on development. He also oversees the city’s railroad. He said the city’s location was just the start. The rail line, along with other infrastructure commitments, has made Rochelle an attractive place for business. But success didn’t come quickly, or without effort.

“21-inch sewer lines, 16-inch sewer lines, 138Kv power lines, you know, rail access to two Class 1 railroads, that doesn’t happen overnight," he said. "That’s something that takes a lot of vision, a lot of planning. And the leaders in Rochelle, Illinois for forty years have seen that and understood it.”

Area state representative Tom Demmer said the city has been so successful, it’s running out of industrial sites to develop. So an expansion of the infrastructure, including rail, is a necessity.

“It’s always important to be thinking about the future," he said, "and be thinking  about the  next project or the next developer who comes in here. You need to extend all those things out to the next set of land in order to make sure you’ve got good proposals to put forward when the next developer comes to town.”

So the plan is to create a thousand acres of business development next door in Lee County. The city has already built a water tower, and is extending utilities, including broadband internet access to the site. Linking it all will be an extension of the municipal rail line, along with new track and a railyard to handle thousands of additional rail cars.  

Lee County Administrator Theresa Wittenauer previously served as director of the Black Hawk Hills Regional Planning Commission, and has worked on a number of projects that led up to this one. She said, while Rochelle has been at the forefront, getting money for efforts like this requires working together.

The plan is for each site to have access to rail which is unheard of in the United States," she said. "So to have that type of a potential for development in our area is significant, and you can’t do that as just one city. It takes a regional effort.”

Anderson agrees. It also takes perseverance. He said the city has been  working on this for twelve years. It finally received several million dollars each from the U.S. Commerce Department and the Illinois Department of Transportation to help fund the rail expansion.

"And then," he said, "because it’s taken so long for us to raise the money, we’ve got a little piggybank at the Rochelle Railroad where we’ve been saving money for years, and we have a million dollars that we’re going to put in for ourselves.”

A switch engine moves past a rail car on part of the Rochelle Municipal Railroad
Credit Guy Stephens/ WNIJ

Lee County Board member Lirim Mimini lives in and represents the area where the development will occur. Right now this corner of Lee County is mostly rural, with a couple of very small towns, Steward and Ashton. He expects the development would mean more jobs in the area. That could lead to more growth. And even if those employees live elsewhere, he says, they’d still have an impact.

“We have a factory in Ashton, Crest Foods," he said, "and most of the people who work there are not from Ashton. But guess what? They come into my restaurant, they go into the store, they go into the computer shop, they go into the bank. It will still help.”

Wittenauer thinks ripple effects will extend to other parts of the county. And the increase in the tax base will affect everyone.

“Right now, in our county we are very limited in what we have access for industrial space," she said. "So to have sites like this of that magnitude will be such a huge benefit to us, and we can use that boost going forward.”

And State Representative Tom Demmer doesn’t think it will stop there.

“In today’s world," he said, "any project is going to have an impact far beyond just whatever geographic boundary it happens to fall in. I mean, already we see that projects and new jobs that have come to town.  Those jobs are taken by people who live within thirty, forty miles from here. And so it really has a regional impact.”

And, Demmer said, the cooperation between Rochelle, Lee and Ogle Counties in securing support for the development shows the need to think as a region in order to make such a big project happen.

Rochelle Economic Development Director Jason Anderson said there are already signs of interest in the site, though it’s too early to talk publicly about individual companies. But everyone seems to believe Rochelle’s track record, and the cooperation of its partners in the region, are reasons enough to be optimistic. So where soybeans now grow, a familiar sound - the sound of switch engines and railcars - will become another part of the landscape.