Decaying Pillsbury Mill in Illinois, which once turned flour into an opportunity, is now getting new life

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — It was the dog that got stuck on the towering grain silos in northeast Springfield in 2019 that forced Chris Richmond into action.

The stray had found its way to the top of the gigantic Pillsbury Mills, which was a flour-processing engine of the central Illinois city’s economy for decades but has now stood empty for more than 20 years. The rescue was too risky given this deterioration, officials said.

The brief but precarious appearance of the dog, found days later dead on the ground after ingesting rat poison, reflected the hopelessness that the empty campus represented, Richmond recalled.

“That’s when I said, ‘This is just unacceptable in our community,’” said the 54-year-old retired city firefighter, whose father used his Pillsbury salary to make him and his brother first-generation college graduates.

A year later, Richmond and his allies formed a nonprofit called Moving Pillsbury Forward and a five-year, $10 million plan to demolish the century-old plant and renovate the 7.3-acre site.

Richmond, the group’s president and treasurer, vice president Polly Poskin and secretary Tony DelGiorno have $6 million in commitments and goals for collecting the balance.

Having already destroyed two buildings, the group expects the wrecking ball to swing even harder next year. In addition to a freight station with nationwide connections, they dream of a light industrial future.

Meanwhile, Moving Pillsbury Forward has managed to transform the run-down town in Illinois’ capital city into a leisure destination that borders on a cultural phenomenon.

The tours are very popular and are repeated. Oral traditions emerged. Vandals who use spray paint have been stepped up rather than arrested and have become artists-in-residence for nightly graffiti exhibitions attended by more than 1,000 people.

Retired University of Illinois archaeologist Robert Mazrim has unearthed artifacts and built an “Echoes of Pillsbury” museum under a leaky loading dock roof. This month, the plant’s towering main building is ablaze with festive lights.

Perhaps what sets it apart is the exuberance with which “Moving Pillsbury Forward” approaches its task. But when it comes to activist groups pursuing such massive redevelopment efforts, it’s not unusual, said David Holmes, a Wisconsin-based environmental scientist and brownfield redevelopment consultant.

State funding was expanded to accommodate them.

“There are some high-profile organizations that are really focused on the areas with the greatest problems, these neediest neighborhoods,” Holmes said. “Cities (local governments) often focus on their downtowns or whatever the mayor is cutting the ribbon on.”

Minneapolis-based Pillsbury built the Springfield campus in 1929 and expanded it several times in the 1950s. A baking mix department produced the world’s first boxed cake mixes after World War II.

There is evidence that the Pillsbury Doughboy, the brand’s groundbreaking mascot, was first drawn by a loan-shy Springfield plant manager, rather than, as the company claims, at a Chicago advertising agency.

Pillsbury sold the plant to Cargill in 1991, which left a decade later. A scrap metal dealer violated the law in 2015 by improperly disposing of asbestos, resulting in a $3 million cleanup by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. After the dog’s appearance, Moving Pillsbury Forward persuaded the EPA to place a lien for cleanup costs and purchased the property for $1.

Now all that remains is to sweep away the remaining asbestos and lead paint chips before demolishing more than 500,000 square feet (46,450 square meters) of the factory, including a 240-foot (73.8-meter) main building, the city’s third-tallest structure, and 160 silos, four adjacent and 100 feet (30.5 meters). ) high.

“It’s discouraging. “Everything about this place is intimidating,” Richmond admits. “But a journey of 1,000 miles begins with the first step, right?”

The timing is right. According to Holmes, there is more money than ever available to clean up America’s legacy.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 includes $1.2 billion for brownfield redevelopment, four times the typical annual allocation. The Pillsbury group wants $2.6 million of the total in addition to what the group has already promised from the federal, state and Springfield governments.

The application brings to bear the intangible benefits: economic and environmental justice that benefit the 12,000 people who live within 1 mile (1.61 kilometers) of the facility, only 25% of whom have a high school diploma and whose median household income is $25,000.

“It’s a hard sell, but at some point there are enough people who have a vision of what it could be that it’s a strong incentive,” Poskin said. “There will be nothing until what is there is gone. No developer is going to take on a $10 million cleanup job.”

The group also set out to preserve the memories of the site it is attempting to demolish. Former workers and neighbors have clamored for spots on ongoing tours and posed for group photos.

In a historical seniority list on display, next to “Jackson, Ernest, 1937” is the message: “Hello Grandpa. We visit your office of 42 years.” Richmond and Mazrim have collected more than a dozen oral histories from former employees. Photographers document what remains for historical context.

And it has become an unlikely canvas. Minneapolis graffiti artists who caption their work “Shock” and “Static” were secretly decorating the site in September when Richmond and Mazrim confronted them. Instead of filing a trespassing complaint, Richmond invited them to put on an exhibition. The evening performance in November proved so popular that Richmond added a second date.

Artist Eric Rieger, known to fans as HOTTEA, also got involved, creating a giant rectangular grid made of neon twine strings suspended from the ceiling, illuminated by black lights, in a “cathedral-like” setting. His goal was “a feeling of really positive energy,” reminiscent of employees’ fond memories.

“They were so enthusiastic, and that’s rare to find these days,” Rieger said on the evening of the first exhibition on November 9th. “I really respect what they have done for this community because they are the backbone of America – they fed America.”


Associated Press researcher Randy Herschaft in New York contributed.