KANKAKEE — A 29-year-old immigrant is making a large investment to help bring back at least a portion of Kankakee’s eastside with the purchase of a vacant commercial property.
Gheorghi (better known as George) Turcanu, 29, of the Republic of Moldova, who immigrated to the United States in 2010, will soon be opening his trucking company, G.T. Express Inc., within the next 60 days at 1781 E. Risser St.
The site, formerly the home of ABC Supply and Kankakee Concrete, was purchased for $280,000 in October 2018 and a sizable investment has already been made in site upgrades. The trucker turned businessman expects to invest in excess of $1 million in coming months.
The tall, slender Turcanu has been operating his trucking company in Mokena since 2012. However, he sought out a location to call his own and after touring about 20 prospective locations in Illinois, he found Kankakee’s to be a perfect fit. He said the lot size, the large building already there and the location’s proximity to Interstate 57 as the key factors in investing in Kankakee.
With Kankakee’s 7th Ward as his hub, Turcanu will be operating his approximate fleet of 135 trucks and 600 trailers. The fleet and the more than 100 drivers deliver products across 48 states each and every day of the year.
Turcanu, of Orland Park, purchased the approximate 8-acre complex — immediately south of the East Court Street McDonalds restaurant — but had been too busy running the business to devote much attention to the site.
In recent months he has stepped up renovations to the site and has had several trucks and numerous flatbed trailers delivered to the location.
“The place was full of trees. It was dirty,” he said when crews arrived. “We are still painting and doing repairs. We are bringing this back to life.”
He said his company is still looking for additional drivers, as well as on-site staff. He noted he has hired drivers mainly from Illinois, Indiana and Michigan.
In addition to reinvigorating the site, he is also hoping local companies will use his trucking fleet to transport their products. He noted his trucks have transported Nucor Steel products as a third-party vendor. He is hoping to establish a much closer relationship with the steel company.
The company, he notes, hauls anything that can fit on a flathead trailer, but largely hauls machinery, pallets, construction material and steel.
Kankakee Alderman Fred Tetter, D-7, who is also the chairman of the Kankakee City Council’s Economic Development Committee, met with Turcanu and toured the location. He listened to the businessman’s plans as well as his hopes. He also informed him of the development tools available because the property is located in the newly expanded Kankakee East Court Street Tax Increment Financing District as well as the Kankakee River Valley Enterprise Zone. Both tools aid property upgrades and development.
“Given all that’s going on in the world right now and to have a company relocate here is tremendous,” Tetter said. “He’s basically bringing his entire operation here. There is a tremendous amount of opportunity here and he has made it known that he wants to be a good neighbor.
“Any way we can assist, we stand ready. This is great news. This is great for the city and great for the county,” Tetter said.
Once a hub of business — commercial and retail — the city’s eastside has been largely forgotten. Tetter hopes this new energy from an out-of-town businessman will create a spark here.
He’s certainly not alone. Tim Nugent, Economic Alliance of Kankakee County president and CEO, noted new money coming into the region can have a great effect.
“It’s great to an out-of-town investor seeing Kankakee as a great place to put their money. He’s making a substantial investment and the ongoing investment is so important,” he said. “This location had a big life years ago. This location could now have more great years ahead.
“He is someone who saw a great deal. This is great for the city and our economy.”
FROM MOLDOVA TO KANKAKEE
So how did Turcanu get here? That adventure began when he finished his first year of mechanical engineering studies in Moldova, an eastern European country of 3.5 million, which was a former Soviet republic. It gained its independence in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Located between Romania and Ukraine, Moldova is one of the poorest countries in Europe.
He learned through a friend of a work and travel program to the U.S. At the age of 19, he came the summer following his first year of college. He was set to work in Baltimore, Md., Marriott Hotel.
When he arrived and went to the hotel to begin his employment, he discovered he had been tricked. Of the approximate 30 people who came to the U.S., only 10 had a job.
He eventually found a job as a lifeguard in Baltimore. He worked for a short time there, but a friend from his homeland was working as a trucker in Chicago. He talked him into coming to Chicago.
He wasn’t prepared to drive a truck so he was able to save money working a string of jobs which included being a butcher and a pizza delivery driver. He worked several side jobs as well.
When he turned 21, he tested and gained a commercial driver’s license. He began driving a truck. In 2012, he purchased his own 18-wheeler. He soon began adding to his fleet.
“I was very motivated. That’s how I got all of this to work.” He built his fleet to 16 trucks and was operating his own trucking service in Mokena. He was then encouraged to set out and establish his own location. That inspiration led him to Kankakee.
“Trucking is tough,” he said. “I work to have good relations with everyone. I have a hard-working team and I’m looking to improve our lives.”
The current COVID-19 crisis has impacted everyone’s daily lives at home and at work. It’s also going to impact how local government bodies can operate financially.
That expected impact was discussed during Tuesday’s Kankakee County Board meeting, that was held online using Zoom and streamed on the county’s website.
Board Chairman Andy Wheeler displayed a chart showing the county’s cash flow, dating back three years. In March 2017, the county had $3 million in Tax Anticipation Warrants (short-term borrowing) and roughly $980,000 in the bank. The county had to use TAWs to cover deficits that might occur before tax revenue arrived.
This year, as of April 10, the county had no outstanding TAW loans and had $4,208,749 in the bank. Wheeler says it might be enough to offset the expected shortfall in revenue from income and use tax and sales tax.
“At times it’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle where the pieces haven’t been cut out yet,” Wheeler said. “It’s hard to put that picture together when all the facts don’t exist or they change from day to day, which is what we’ve seen.”
Undoubtedly, the county is in better position than it was even a year ago. In March 2019, it had $2.5 million in TAW loans and just more than $2.7 million in the bank. Will it be enough to offset the loss of expected tax revenue due to the pandemic?
“We have more cash in the bank this time of the year than we’ve had as far back as I can tell — maybe 2012 or 2010, since the crash of ’09,” Wheeler said. “I just want to put up a little perspective. That doesn’t mean that everything is OK or it’s going to be OK in three months.
“As far as what we’ve done up until this point, we’ve put ourselves in a [good] position. If this would’ve happened — what’s going on with COVID — two years ago, I don’t know if we could’ve weathered that. Now I think we’re going to be able to get to the point where we’re looking at being able to not make knee-jerk reactions and overreact, and really act when it’s appropriate.”
Todd Sirois, board vice-chairman, said he’s happy with the amount of money the county has in the bank.
“Going forward, I don’t think any of us know what that’s going to entail, but I’m happy with the work that was done in the past to provide these numbers currently,” he said.
“I think that cash-flow update is an excellent visual to help us understand where the county stands financially,” said board member Stephen Liehr.
Wheeler said it’s difficult to estimate how much revenue the county will receive. It will be three months from now before the county will know exactly how much tax revenue it will receive.
“You can look at what’s going on in retail and the restaurants, but it doesn’t tell the whole picture,” he said. “We’ve had an insane amount of people filing for unemployment. Who knows if they’ll be back next month. When I say next month, in couple of weeks, we hope they are. Obviously, we all do, but there’s no predicting any of that. We’ll just have to ride this out and know that we have the resources to ride it out.
“I have Steve McCarty [finance chairman] looking at cash flow all the way through September to make sure that if in fact our first distribution is impacted, what impact could we live with in order to still provide the same services with the employment levels at the county that the public expects?”
Grocery buying has increased, but there’s likely going to be less tax revenue on other goods.
“Are people still going to buy TVs and clothes?” Wheeler said. “Are they buying at the brick-and-mortar locally or are they going online? I have a feeling that may have slowed to half of what it normally is. As I’ve had to go in for emergency stuff at grocery stores that also sell hard goods, I see people with TVs in the cart. There is still shopping going on along those lines. It’s just something I watch on a daily basis.”
More than $250,000 will be distributed to 16 organizations in Kankakee and Iroquois counties to those most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The distribution is part of the first round of grants awarded from the Kankakee and Iroquois Counties COVID-19 Community Response Fund established by the United Way of Kankakee and Iroquois Counties and the Community Foundation of Kankakee River Valley.
The two organizations have raised more than $320,000 since the fund’s launch in late March, including a $250,000 grant from the Illinois COVID-19 Response Fund.
The local response fund provides flexible funding to local organizations that supply essential resources to those affected by the impact of coronavirus-containment efforts, according to a press release.
“As a locally based Community Foundation and United Way, we regularly interact with the key frontline organizations providing round-the-clock services to our most vulnerable citizens,” said Nicole Smolkovich, executive director of the community foundation. “This is an all-hands-on-deck moment.”
Receiving the grants are local agencies that provide immediate resources to people in need as well as those that make preparations for the mid- to long-term impact on individuals and families, said Kerstin Rust, executive director of United Way.
She added that the recipient organizations are helping people who have children out of school without child care, the homeless population, the elderly who don’t have access to food, or those living paycheck-to-paycheck who are experiencing a gap in earnings.
Help for the homeless
Among the organizations receiving a first-round grant is Fortitude Community Outreach, which works with the local homeless population.
Since the nonprofit announced the closure of its homeless shelter program in March as a result of restrictions put in place to limit the spread of coronavirus, it has been providing hotel rooms for those needing a place to stay.
Executive director Dawn Broers said it’s a dramatically more expensive means of providing the service.
“We can run the shelter for $300 a night for 20 people,” she said. “Sheltering those same people in hotels is about $1,500 a night.”
Fortunately, she said, the organization received a portion of the $6 million in emergency sheltering funding from the state established when Gov. JB Pritzker put “stay at home” restrictions in place. That funding will also help ensure the organization’s shelter program will restart in October.
But that funding does not take care of other immediate needs of the homeless, she said, adding that’s why receiving the grant from the local response fund is so important.
“Right now, there is a significant amount of challenge because they are not able to access laundry services or clothing or shoes that are free or affordable,” she said. “Typically, they would get shoes from the shelter, which is closed, or from thrift stores, which are also closed.”
Access to laundry services and clothing is important because “they carry everything they own with them,” she said. “They only have a few articles of clothing and the shoes on their feet.”
The grant funding will allow Fortitude to provide those they serve with laundry services and more seasonally appropriate footwear, replacing the winter boots many are still wearing from earlier donations. It will also allow for continuation of food and meals programs, as well as possibly offsetting any shortfalls should the organization’s annual gala, its largest fundraiser of the year, not be able to go on as planned in May.
More help coming
More than one-third of Kankakee and Iroquois households could not afford basic needs prior to the pandemic. The need for additional services and support will likely persist for months to come as the number of cases rise and the ripple effects of the virus are felt throughout our economy and health-care system.
As such, there will be additional rounds of grants from the local response fund in the coming weeks aimed at addressing needs as they evolve.
Donations can be made with a credit or debit card by visiting myunitedway.org or at cfkrv.org. Checks can also be mailed and made out to The Community Foundation of Kankakee River Valley at 701 S. Harrison Ave, Kankakee, IL 60901. Please reference “COVID-19 Fund.”