Decaying Pillsbury mill in Illinois that once churned flour into opportunity is now getting new life

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — It was the dog, stuck atop skyscraping grain silos on Springfield’s northeast side in 2019, that forced Chris Richmond’s hand.

The stray had found its way to the top of the behemoth Pillsbury Mills, for decades a flour-churning engine of the central Illinois city’s economy but now vacant more than 20 years. Rescue was too risky amid such decay, officials said.

The brief but precarious appearance by the dog, found dead at ground level days later after ingesting rat poison, represented the hopelessness posed by the vacant campus, Richmond recalled.

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

A year later, Richmond and allies emerged with a nonprofit called Moving Pillsbury Forward and a five-year, $10 million plan to raze the century-old plant and renew the 18-acre (7.3-hectare) site.

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

Having already razed two structures, the group expects the wrecking ball to swing even more feverishly next year. Next door to a railyard with nationwide connections, they envision a light industrial future.

Meanwhile, Moving Pillsbury Forward has managed to turn the decrepit site in Illinois’ capital city into a leisure destination verging on cultural phenomenon.

Tours have been highly popular and repeated. Oral histories have emerged. Spray-paint vandals, boosted instead of busted, have become artists in residence for nighttime graffiti exhibitions, which more than 1,000 people attended.

Retired University of Illinois archeologist Robert Mazrim has mined artifacts and assembled an “Echoes of Pillsbury” museum beneath a leaking loading dock roof. This month, the plant’s towering headhouse is ablaze with holiday lights.

Perhaps the exuberance with which Moving Pillsbury Forward approaches its task sets it apart. But in terms of activist groups pursuing such formidable reclamation aspirations, it’s not unusual, said David Holmes, a Wisconsin-based environmental scientist and brownfields redevelopment consultant.

Government funding has expanded to accommodate them.

“You find some high-caliber organizations that are really focused on the areas with the biggest problems, these most-in-need neighborhoods,” Holmes said. “A lot of times, cities (local governments) are focused on their downtowns or whatever gets the mayor the ribbon cutting.”

Minneapolis-based Pillsbury built the Springfield campus in 1929 and expanded it several times through the 1950s. A bakery mix division after World War II turned out the world’s first boxed cake mixes.

There is circumstantial evidence that the Pillsbury doughboy, the brand’s seminal mascot, was first drawn by a Springfield plant manager who eschewed credit, not, as the company maintains, in a Chicago ad agency.

Pillsbury sold the plant in 1991 to Cargill, which departed a decade later. A scrap dealer ran afoul of the law with improper asbestos disposal in 2015, prompting a $3 million U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cleanup. After the dog’s cameo, Moving Pillsbury Forward persuaded the EPA to drop a lien for its cleanup costs and purchased the property for $1.

Now, all that’s left is to sweep up a the remaining asbestos and lead paint chips before pulling down more than 500,000 square feet (46,450 square meters) of factory, including a 242-foot (73.8-meter) headhouse that’s the city’s third-tallest structure and 160 silos, four abreast and standing 100 feet (30.5 meters).

“It’s daunting. Everything about this place is daunting,” Richmond concedes. “But a journey of 1,000 miles starts with the first step, right?”

The timing is right. There is more money than ever available to mop up America’s left-behinds, according to Holmes.

The 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act included $1.2 billion for brownfields cleanup, four times the typical annual allotment The Pillsbury group wants $2.6 million of the total added to what the group already has been promised by the federal, state and Springfield governments.

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

“It’s a tough sell but at some point, there are enough people who have a vision for what it could be that that’s a powerful incentive,” Poskin said. “It isn’t going to be anything until what’s there is gone. No developer is going to take on a $10 million cleanup job.”

The group also set out to preserve memories of the place they are working to tear down. Ex-workers and neighbors have clamored for spots in ongoing tours and posed for group photos.

In a historical seniority list on display, next to “Jackson, Ernest, 1937,” is the message, “Hi Grandpa. We are visiting your workplace of 42 yrs.” Richmond and Mazrim have collected more than a dozen oral histories from past employees. Photographers are documenting what remains for historical context.

And it’s become an unlikely canvas. Minneapolis-based graffiti artists who tag their work “Shock” and “Static” were surreptitiously decorating the place in September when Richmond and Mazrim confronted them. Instead of pressing a trespassing charge, Richmond invited them to stage an exhibition. The nighttime November showing proved so popular that Richmond added a second date.

Artist Eric Rieger, known to fans as HOTTEA, also took part, creating in a “cathedral-like” setting a huge, rectangular grid of black-light-lit neon strings of yarn suspended from the ceiling. His goal was “a sense of really positive energy” reminiscent of the fond memories employees experienced.

“They were so enthusiastic and that’s rare to find nowadays,” Rieger said the night of the first exhibit Nov. 9. “I really respect what they did for this community because they’re the backbone of America — they were feeding America.”

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Associated Press researcher Randy Herschaft in New York contributed.

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