How Legal Pot Is Reviving A Rural Illinois City Named For Anti-Booze Crusader

Photo: Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Empty storefronts and shuttered restaurants line the main drag along Locust Street in Delavan, a sleepy enclave just south of Peoria.

But on the outskirts of town, business is booming — or, rather, blooming. Inside a nondescript warehouse behind a razor wire fence sit thousands of marijuana plants being grown for medical use.

And recently, as the state eyes making recreational use of marijuana legal, officials in this city of 1,600 are hoping full legalization will help revive the town, about 170 miles southwest of Chicago, that was built 182 years ago with funding from a leader of the anti-alcohol movement.

So far, the cultivation facility, operated by Elmhurst-based Revolution Enterprises since 2015, has created dozens of local jobs and generated a flood of much-needed tax revenue.

“It’s a big boost to our economics here in town,” said Sheila Lay, a longtime Delavan resident whose daughter works at the Revolution facility.

Delavan’s history is rooted in prohibitionism. Founded in 1837 by settlers from New England, the city was named for Edward Cornelius Delavan, a teetotaler and land speculator from Albany, N.Y., who used his personal wealth to both finance the town’s construction and establish the American Temperance Union.

Bustling corn-belt city
Delavan grew into a bustling corn-belt city over the next hundred years.

“Trade that is dying out in small cities since the advent of hard surfaced roads is still alive here. Well-stocked stores serve the community,” reads one passage in a centennial retrospective compiled in 1937 that offers a stark contrast to modern Delavan.

Delavan’s population grew and its downtown business district was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1991.

But things had already started going downhill before that. A department store, barber, dress shop and adult film theater closed in the 1980s, while the last grocery store burned down in 2014. In 2017, the owner of several downtown spots fell ill and her family eventually closed her restaurant, tavern and other businesses.

“That was a real blow to the community and the downtown,” Mayor Liz Skinner said.

Now most of the main strip’s 26 buildings along a two-block stretch of Locust Street are vacant.

In 2016, Delavan residents had a median household income of $54,318, which lagged behind both state and national averages, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures compiled by Data USA. And in December, Tazewell County had an unemployment rate of 5.4 percent, which was a percentage point higher than the state average and well above the national average of 3.7 percent, according to the Illinois Department of Employment Security.

While some folks work on local farms and others are employed at a Caterpillar plant on the edge of town, most residents are forced to find jobs elsewhere. Lay said many Delavanites “go to either Peoria or Springfield or Bloomington, somewhere other than here, to find jobs.”

So when Revolution came to Delavan with plans to grow both weed and the ailing economy, Skinner jumped at the opportunity. Surprisingly, Skinner said the proposal received little pushback from members of Delavan’s tight-knit, largely Christian conservative community.

“They were very much in favor of it,” Skinner said.

Revolution’s 75,000-square foot grow operation cultivates up to 10,000 marijuana plants at any given time and employs 56 people, 10 of whom are natives of either Delavan or the surrounding area. Since the facility opened, the city has created a tax increment financing district to use the company’s property tax dollars to fund infrastructure and redevelopment projects, including the construction of a new public high school.

$300,000 for the town
“The city is getting right now about $300,000-plus a year. The school district is getting about $70,000-plus dollars a year,” Skinner said. “So for a small community like ours, that’s very substantial.”

With Gov. J.B. Pritzker pushing to legalize pot for recreational use in the coming months, de Souza — who served on Pritzker’s agriculture transition team — said Revolution is just getting started in Delavan.

A study published in November by the Illinois Economic Policy Institute and the Project for Middle Class Renewal at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that recreational pot legalization could create over 23,600 new jobs and $525 million in tax revenues, including $505 million for the state and $20 million for local governments like Delavan.

To prepare for an expected increase in demand, Revolution is shelling out more than $100 million to build an adjacent facility on a plot of land that’s seven times larger than the current cultivation’s center 10-acre site. The new building will be used to grow recreational weed, while the existing structure will continue to cultivate medical marijuana, de Souza said.

He estimated that Revolution could employ up to 300 people in Delavan once the expansion is complete. Meanwhile, the company is working with city officials to revitalize the beleaguered main drag and open a grocery store.

“As we grow, we look at growing the community hand in hand. We see that as a little bit of a social responsibility,” said de Souza, who noted that Revolution also plans to buy up land in downtown Delavan for employee housing.

Skinner said she wants Delavan to reap the rewards of full-on legalization, which she views as an inevitability.

“If it’s gonna be a done deal, which I believe it is, then we would certainly want our facility to be a part of that and to have additional jobs and tax money come to our community,” she said.

But some community leaders have expressed concerns about lifting the statewide prohibition on pot.

Ernest Garber, a former Tazewell County Board member, said he’s still conflicted about legalization despite acknowledging the economic benefits and the drug’s healing effects on his son, who uses cannabis oil to treat cancer that spread from his rectum to his lungs.

“If the state approves that, it’s gonna employ some people around here — but is it good for the people?” Garber asked as he nursed a drink recently at The Farmhouse, a divey tavern just off the main strip. “It ought to be good for the state because they’ll have a lot of money coming in.”

Could things get wacky?
Nevertheless, Garber said he’s concerned that legalization could have negative social effects, like an increase in car crashes and increased marijuana use making Illinoisans “a little wacky.”

Before Revolution can start growing recreational pot, lawmakers in Springfield first have to legalize the drug and the company will have to get a license to grow it for something other than medical use as well as potentially other state and local approvals.

Should all these cards fall in place, Skinner said the company would likely be free to start growing recreational pot in Delavan.

“Once that’s legalized, and they have a facility, I don’t believe the town has to give any approval,” Skinner said.