Tom Kacich: Kraft a mainstay from a boom year for C-U

Could there have been a better year for the Champaign-Urbana economy than 1963?

In no particular order that was the year of the opening of the spectacular, $8.35 million University of Illinois Assembly Hall; that production began at Kraft Foods' enormous plant in northwest Champaign; that construction began on downstate Illinois' first indoor shopping mall, the multimillion-dollar Lincoln Square in Urbana; that plans for the Interstate Research Park in north Champaign were unveiled; that Champaign got one of the 35 Kmart stores to open nationwide in 1963; that millions of construction dollars were earmarked for the still-incomplete Interstate 74 in the Danville and Champaign-Urbana areas; and that the Magnavox Co. plant in Urbana won its first major federal contract, a $686,000 deal with NASA.

It also was the year that the Legislature's Budgetary Commission approved a $171 million biennial budget for the University of Illinois, a figure that UI President David D. Henry said was "very austere." For academic staff, it called for 6 percent raises in the first year; 5 percent in the second. Nonacademic staff stood to get 5 percent raises the first year; 4 percent in the second year.

With all that prosperity in East Central Illinois, it's no wonder that Chicago-based Carson Pirie Scott & Co. was eager to open a department store at Lincoln Square, selling merchandise that was geared to upper-income and upper-middle-class shoppers, according to Charles Zipprodt of the Urbana Association of Commerce.

Fifty years later, Kmart and Magnavox are gone (the latter replaced by Solo Cup), Lincoln Square has evolved away from its exclusively retail beginnings, Interstate 74 is showing its age, and the Assembly Hall is headed for a big makeover.

But, not unlike its discreet beginnings 50 years ago, the largely unheralded Kraft plant just hums along.

Although the several-stage opening of the Assembly Hall (an open house on March 2, a first basketball game on March 4, and a formal dedication on May 3) grabbed most of the headlines that year, the more subdued start of business at Kraft, located on what was then a largely rural and remote corner of northwest Champaign, probably has had a much bigger impact on the local and Illinois economy.

The first employees arrived at the Kraft plant on March 4, 1963, but their job then was to install and test production equipment. Actual operations were to begin on April 1, but that was delayed. Early in April a story appeared in the old Champaign-Urbana Courier, reporting that smoke was seen floating over the plant. No, it's only "equipment testing," said a Kraft spokesman, no doubt disappointing the locals.

It's unclear when production began at the plant. Twenty years after the facility's opening a Kraft statement said only, "There was no first day fanfare in May 1963 when the production line started."

The company also was vague about exactly what would be produced at the plant although it was said to include liquid dressings, salad dressings, mayonnaise, mustards, margarines, tartar sauce and sandwich spreads. That led to concerns, including at least one letter to the editor of The News-Gazette, about whether the Kraft plant would foul the air like its next-door neighbor, the since-demolished HumKo plant.

"Is this to be a repeat of the offensive odor that is allowed to be put out by HumKo? Doesn't anyone care what the people who pay their taxes and try to maintain their homes in a way to compliment their community, have to put up with?" Mrs. W. F. Hayen of Champaign wrote of the smell of processed soybeans. "I have known days when the odor was so bad, I was actually sick to my stomach from it."

Kraft's odors were never as bad as HumKo's. And whatever fragrance emanated from the corner of Mattis and Bradley avenues was more the smell of money. It, after all, provided full-time wages and benefits for about 500 local residents by the end of 1963, and in some years was using 20 percent of all the soybeans grown in Illinois. Years later, the plant and various other Kraft operations in Champaign (including HumKo) meant employment for more than 2,000 people in the area.

The plant, 425,000 square feet when it opened, was said to be the largest of Kraft's seven production factories, replacing its main plant in downtown Chicago. Today, three major expansions later and at 1.2 million square feet, it remains Kraft's flagship facility. It employs about 1,200 people who make more than 500 different packaged products ranging from Kraft dinners, Velveeta and Kraft singles to those old standbys: Miracle Whip, mayonnaise and salad dressings.

Its economic impact, according to Kraft, is approximately $100 million annually in salary and benefits.

This year, to commemorate its 50 years of operation here, Kraft plans a two-day event on July 26 and 27. The first day, according to company spokeswoman Mary Anne McAndrew, will include a visit by corporate, government and community officials to mark the milestone, as well as a special donation to the Eastern Illinois Foodbank. On the second day, Kraft will host a carnival-style party for employees, retirees and their families.

Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Wednesdays and Sundays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at tkacich@news-gazette.com.

Sections (2):News, Business
Topics (1):Economy
Tags (2):Tom Kacich, Kraft

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