By Rick Romano
A business incubator entrepreneur is counting on success breeding success in Bridgeport.
John Edel, president of Bubbly Dynamics, a sustainable urban industrial development firm named after Bubbly Creek (the south fork of the south branch of the Chicago River, which runs along the Stevenson Expressway), is obtaining final permit approvals to expand from the current Bubbly/Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center site at 1048 W. 37th St. into the space next door, the old Norwich Pharmaceutical Supplies building at 1100 W. 37th St. Edel will devote the site to continuing his mission of providing opportunities for creative professionals and offering space to businesses that make products.
To make the century-old building usable for tenants who will, as in the case of its next-door neighbor, use the space for non-retail manufacturing, Edel’s construction team has concentrated rehab efforts on the roof, windows, and masonry.
“This is going to be an extension of Bubbly,” Edel said, noting he expects the building will house about 11 businesses much like those in the current structure, which provide metal fabrication, bicycle frame construction, and other light manufacturing operations.
“We want to attract creative people who have ideas,” he said. “The purpose is to have them work in the same building, share ideas, and take advantage of us helping with things like insurance and distribution.”
He believes this cross-pollination business model can sustain itself over a longer term, saying, “We don’t operate on a traditional incubator model where we kick you out after a period of time.”
The model receives support from a tax incentive plan that aldermen approved in mid-March. Ald. Patrick D, Thompson (11th Ward) said the tax incentive is good City policy because, even with a lower rate, it garners more revenue for the City than if the building were empty. He added that, when the building is fully operational, tax collections will increase.
“We are very responsive to job creators,” Thompson said. “We feel very strongly about this type of repurposing of old buildings. The companies that were here moved out to large warehouse spaces outside the city.”
He said revitalization efforts have a ripple effect, helping local bars and restaurants. He also noted his commitment to ensuring the manufacturing community fits well with its residential neighbors.
“We always have community meetings so the community can know what’s going on and we can find out what the community thinks,” Thompson said. “It offers good two-way communication.”
The community is watching, said Ellen Grimes of Bridgeport Alliance.
“This is something that the neighbors see as good,” Grimes said. “I have friends who have gotten involved with the project on an architectural basis. John Edel has a track record and has shown to be responsible to the environment. I have an interest and background in environmental justice. They seem to be trying to do it right, testing things out. They do things like hire students for the summer, doing a good job of cultivating the kind of work that prepares people for the future.”
She added Edel’s investment is bringing small businesses that specialize in manufacturing hand-crafted items into the neighborhood. While not a retail operation, Grimes said it creates value in jobs and neighborhood pride.
“It’s a unique way of bringing the neighborhoods together,” she said. “You don’t see that happening in many other parts of the city.”
A mission emerges
Edel became an architect of this incubator business model through education and past professional experience.
“I have a master’s degree in fine arts and industrial design from the University of Illinois Chicago,” Edel said. “I was an art director for the video game industry, and I worked in television as a set designer. I have always been a builder and a dreamer. I have a longterm interest in industrial history.
“It’s very sad to see all these factories torn down and not being replaced with the same kind of manufacturing jobs, instead being replaced by service jobs,” he said. “It’s frustrating to see the lack of job training. The key is that we go where the factories are or where there is a workforce within walking distance and good transportation.”
Beyond the makers model
Before Edel’s expansion to 1100 W. 37th Street, in 2010 he acquired and converted the former Peer Foods manufacturing facility at 1400 W. 46th St. into what is now called the Plant, a research and production facility that groups small food businesses. They include indoor and outdoor farms, breweries, a baker, a cheese distributor, and a coffee roaster.
Bubbly Dynamics management describes the firm as “a social enterprise whose mission is to create replicable models for ecologically responsible and sustainable urban industrial development.”
The description also references the traditional makeup of a vintage industrial building’s infrastructure of stainless steel and copper as a “rip and strip” resale value to the buyer while noting Bubbly Dynamics went out of its way to preserve those features as amenities in a newly created business life.
Edel said that philosophy has driven his passion.
“The City tears down perfectly good buildings at an alarming rate,” he said. “We are fighting against that. There is a lot of old embodied energy in those structures. We are demonstrating that viability.”
“John’s doing a fabulous job, said Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago. “This really indicates a commitment to those original buildings. It’s important to repurpose them and preserve that important manufacturing district.”
Contact Bridgeport Alliance via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Call Bubbly Dynamics at (773) 357-7192 or log on to www.bubblydynamics.com. For Preservation Chicago, log on to www.preservationchicago.org. For Thompson, call (773) 254-6677.