Fed-up retired fire marshal launches nonprofit to rejuvenate Pillsbury mill vacant for 20 years

December 27, 2023 | by


In a remarkable effort to revitalize a long-abandoned Pillsbury mill in Springfield, Illinois, a retired fire marshal named Chris Richmond has launched a nonprofit organization called Moving Pillsbury Forward. Motivated by the sight of a stray dog trapped on top of the decaying mill, Richmond and his allies have committed to a five-year, $10 million plan to demolish the century-old structure and transform the 18-acre site into a thriving hub of light industry. With $6 million already secured and more funding opportunities available, the group aims to not only remove the blight of the vacant mill but also create economic and environmental justice for the surrounding community. Despite the challenges and daunting scale of the project, Moving Pillsbury Forward has already seen success in transforming the site into a cultural phenomenon, hosting popular tours and graffiti exhibitions. With the backing of government funding and a committed community, Richmond and his team are determined to see their vision of renewal become a reality.

Fed-up retired fire marshal launches nonprofit to rejuvenate Pillsbury mill vacant for 20 years

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The vacant Pillsbury Mills plant in Springfield, Ill.

The Pillsbury Mills plant in Springfield, Illinois, has been vacant for over 20 years, leaving behind a decaying and deteriorating structure. Once a thriving flour-churning engine of the city’s economy, the plant now stands as a symbol of hopelessness and neglect. It was the sight of a dog stuck atop the grain silos in 2019 that prompted retired fire marshal Chris Richmond to take action. Unable to rescue the dog due to the dangerous condition of the plant, Richmond was determined to restore the site and bring life back to the community.

Retired fire marshal Chris Richmond’s motivation to launch the nonprofit

Chris Richmond’s personal connection to the plant made the decay and abandonment even more unbearable. Richmond’s father had worked at the Pillsbury Mills plant, and the income from his job had enabled Richmond and his brother to become the first-generation college graduates in their family. With a deep sense of gratitude and a desire to give back to the community, Richmond was motivated to launch a nonprofit organization that would rejuvenate the plant and revitalize the surrounding area.

Formation of Moving Pillsbury Forward

Launch of nonprofit organization

In response to the dire state of the Pillsbury Mills plant, Chris Richmond, along with Polly Poskin and Tony DelGiorno, launched the nonprofit organization called Moving Pillsbury Forward. The organization’s mission is to bring about the renewal of the plant and the 18-acre site it occupies. With a five-year, $10 million plan in place, Moving Pillsbury Forward aims to remove the century-old plant and create a new future for the area.

$10 million plan to rejuvenate the mill

Moving Pillsbury Forward has developed a comprehensive plan to rejuvenate the Pillsbury Mills plant and transform it into a thriving hub of light industrial activity. The plan involves the demolition of the existing structures, followed by the cleanup and preparation of the site for redevelopment. The $10 million budget includes costs for demolition, asbestos and lead paint removal, and the implementation of the light industrial plans.

Fed-up retired fire marshal launches nonprofit to rejuvenate Pillsbury mill vacant for 20 years

Current Progress

$6 million in commitments and funding

Moving Pillsbury Forward has made significant progress in securing funding for its ambitious plan. The organization has already secured $6 million in commitments and funding from various sources, including federal, state, and local governments, as well as private donors. This financial support is a testament to the widespread recognition of the importance of revitalizing the Pillsbury Mills plant and its potential to bring about positive economic and environmental change.

Razing of two structures

As a tangible demonstration of their commitment to the project, Moving Pillsbury Forward has already begun the demolition process. Two structures on the site have been razed, and this initial progress symbolizes the organization’s determination to move forward with their rejuvenation efforts. The demolition of these structures paves the way for the next phases of cleanup and redevelopment.


Expectations for future demolition

Moving Pillsbury Forward’s demolition efforts will not stop at the removal of the first two structures. The organization has set high expectations for future demolitions, aiming to bring down over 500,000 square feet of factory space, including the city’s third-tallest structure, a 242-foot headhouse, and 160 silos. This ambitious undertaking showcases the scale of the project and the commitment of the organization to transform the site.

Vision for a light industrial future

With the demolition and cleanup underway, Moving Pillsbury Forward envisions a light industrial future for the site. Situated next to a railyard with nationwide connections, the organization sees great potential for attracting businesses and industries that can bring jobs and economic growth to the area. By creating a vibrant and sustainable light industrial hub, Moving Pillsbury Forward aims to revitalize the community and provide opportunities for local residents.

Transforming the Site

Leisure destination and cultural phenomenon

While the rejuvenation efforts at the Pillsbury Mills plant are ongoing, Moving Pillsbury Forward has already succeeded in transforming the site into a destination for leisure and cultural experiences. The decay and history of the plant have intrigued visitors, and tours of the site have become highly popular. People from the community and beyond have flocked to witness the transformation firsthand and learn about the rich heritage of the plant.

Popular tours and oral histories

Moving Pillsbury Forward has organized guided tours of the site, allowing visitors to explore the remnants of the plant and learn about its history. These tours provide a unique opportunity to see firsthand the scale of the plant and the challenges faced in its rejuvenation. Additionally, the organization has collected oral histories from past employees, capturing their experiences and memories of working at the Pillsbury Mills plant. These stories enrich the historical context of the site and provide a personal connection for visitors.

Nighttime graffiti exhibitions

One unexpected development that has enhanced the cultural significance of the Pillsbury Mills plant is the emergence of nighttime graffiti exhibitions. Local graffiti artists have transformed the decaying structures into vibrant and thought-provoking art installations. Moving Pillsbury Forward embraced this unexpected form of expression and invited the artists to stage formal exhibitions. These nighttime events have attracted over 1,000 attendees, creating a unique fusion of urban art and historical preservation.

Archaeological museum

The Pillsbury Mills plant holds a rich archaeological history, and Moving Pillsbury Forward has partnered with retired University of Illinois archaeologist Robert Mazrim to preserve and showcase these artifacts. Mazrim has curated an “Echoes of Pillsbury” museum, which displays the artifacts unearthed during the cleanup and demolition process. This museum provides visitors with a glimpse into the past and highlights the historical significance of the Pillsbury Mills plant.

Holiday light display

As a testament to the progress made by Moving Pillsbury Forward, the organization has adorned the plant’s towering headhouse with a holiday light display. The illuminated structure serves as a symbol of hope and transformation, lighting up the night sky and reminding the community of the positive changes taking place. This holiday light display has become a local attraction, drawing visitors from far and wide to witness the beauty of the rejuvenated site.

Fed-up retired fire marshal launches nonprofit to rejuvenate Pillsbury mill vacant for 20 years

Activist Groups and Reclamation

Availability of government funding

Moving Pillsbury Forward’s ambitious reclamation project has been made possible in part by the availability of government funding. In recent years, there has been an increase in funding for brownfields cleanup, allowing organizations like Moving Pillsbury Forward to pursue their goals. The 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, in particular, allocated $1.2 billion for brownfields cleanup, four times the typical annual allotment. This funding has provided crucial support for the organization’s efforts.

Focus on areas with the biggest problems

Moving Pillsbury Forward’s reclamation efforts align with a broader trend of activist groups focusing on areas with the greatest challenges and needs. Rather than solely prioritize downtown areas or projects that yield immediate political benefits, these groups are committed to addressing long-standing issues in neglected neighborhoods. By directing resources to areas suffering from economic and environmental injustice, organizations like Moving Pillsbury Forward aim to bring about positive change where it is most needed.

Bringing economic and environmental justice

One of the key objectives of Moving Pillsbury Forward is to bring about economic and environmental justice for the community surrounding the Pillsbury Mills plant. The area in close proximity to the plant is home to approximately 12,000 people, many of whom face economic disadvantages. Through the rejuvenation of the plant and the creation of a light industrial hub, Moving Pillsbury Forward seeks to provide new opportunities for employment and economic growth. Moreover, the organization’s commitment to cleaning up the site and addressing environmental concerns demonstrates its dedication to fostering a healthier and more equitable community.

History of the Pillsbury Plant

Establishment and expansion of the Springfield campus

The Pillsbury Mills plant in Springfield, Illinois, was established in 1929 by Minneapolis-based Pillsbury. Over the years, the campus underwent multiple expansions, growing into a significant part of the city’s economy. The plant’s central location and access to transportation networks made it an ideal hub for flour production and distribution. The establishment and subsequent growth of the Pillsbury plant played a crucial role in supporting the local economy and providing jobs for the community.

Innovation in bakery mix division

One notable aspect of the Pillsbury Mills plant’s history is its innovation in the bakery mix division. After World War II, the plant became a pioneer in the production of boxed cake mixes. These convenient and easy-to-use products revolutionized home baking and became a staple in households across the country. The bakery mix division’s success at the Springfield plant brought recognition and prosperity to the local community.

Controversy over the Pillsbury doughboy

While the Pillsbury Mills plant enjoyed success and recognition, one aspect of its history remains a subject of controversy. The Pillsbury doughboy, the iconic mascot associated with the brand, has generated debate regarding its origin. The company asserts that the doughboy’s creation took place in a Chicago ad agency. However, there is circumstantial evidence that suggests a Springfield plant manager, who chose not to seek credit, may have been the artist behind the doughboy. This controversy adds an intriguing layer to the history of the plant and its connection to a beloved advertising symbol.

Fed-up retired fire marshal launches nonprofit to rejuvenate Pillsbury mill vacant for 20 years

Clean-up Efforts

Improper asbestos disposal and EPA cleanup

The Pillsbury Mills plant’s abandonment left behind hazardous materials, including asbestos and lead paint. In 2015, a scrap dealer found himself in legal trouble due to improper asbestos disposal on the site, prompting a $3 million cleanup by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This initial cleanup effort aimed to mitigate the immediate dangers posed by the asbestos and create a safer environment for future reclamation efforts.

Dropping of EPA lien and property purchase

Moving Pillsbury Forward successfully persuaded the EPA to drop a lien for the cleanup costs of the Pillsbury Mills plant. This significant achievement demonstrated the organization’s commitment to taking responsibility for the site and its determination to move forward with the rejuvenation project. As a result of their efforts, Moving Pillsbury Forward was able to purchase the property for $1, ensuring that the site remains in the hands of those dedicated to its revitalization.

Remaining asbestos and lead paint removal

Although significant progress has been made in the cleanup process, there is still work to be done to address the remaining asbestos and lead paint. Moving Pillsbury Forward recognizes the importance of thoroughly addressing these hazards before embarking on further demolition and redevelopment. By ensuring the removal of these hazardous materials, the organization is prioritizing the safety and well-being of future workers and visitors to the site.

Funding for Rejuvenation

Increase in available funds for brownfields cleanup

The availability of funding for brownfields cleanup has increased in recent years, providing organizations like Moving Pillsbury Forward with greater opportunities to undertake ambitious rejuvenation projects. The 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, in particular, has allocated $1.2 billion for brownfields cleanup, representing a significant increase in funding compared to previous years. This expansion of financial support has created a favorable environment for the revitalization of sites like the Pillsbury Mills plant.

Moving Pillsbury Forward’s request for additional funding

To support the ambitious reclamation efforts at the Pillsbury Mills plant, Moving Pillsbury Forward has requested an additional $2.6 million in funding from federal, state, and local governments. This funding would supplement the $6 million already secured by the organization and enable them to carry out essential demolition, cleanup, and redevelopment tasks. Moving Pillsbury Forward’s request emphasizes the economic and environmental benefits of the project, as well as the importance of addressing the needs of the community surrounding the plant.

Intangible benefits for the local community

In addition to the tangible economic and environmental benefits, Moving Pillsbury Forward highlights the intangible benefits that the project brings to the local community. The organization recognizes that the rejuvenation of the Pillsbury Mills plant offers a renewed sense of pride and hope for the residents living within a mile of the site. With education and income statistics well below the national average, the community will benefit from the opportunities that the revitalized plant and the accompanying economic development can bring. Moving Pillsbury Forward sees this project as a catalyst for positive change and as a means to improve the quality of life for the community.

Fed-up retired fire marshal launches nonprofit to rejuvenate Pillsbury mill vacant for 20 years

Preserving Memories

Inclusion of ex-workers and neighbors in tours

Moving Pillsbury Forward is committed to preserving the memories and personal connections associated with the Pillsbury Mills plant. The organization actively includes former workers and neighbors in the guided tours of the site. By allowing these individuals to revisit their place of employment or witness the transformation of their neighborhood, Moving Pillsbury Forward creates a sense of community engagement and appreciation for the historical significance of the plant.

Oral histories and historical context documentation

To further preserve the memories and personal experiences associated with the Pillsbury Mills plant, Moving Pillsbury Forward has collected oral histories from past employees. These oral histories provide invaluable insights and perspectives, adding a human element to the historical documentation of the plant. In addition to oral histories, Moving Pillsbury Forward has collaborated with photographers to document what remains of the plant for historical context. These initiatives ensure that the memories and stories connected to the Pillsbury Mills plant are not forgotten.

Artistic collaborations on the site

Moving Pillsbury Forward has embraced the artistic potential of the Pillsbury Mills plant, collaborating with local graffiti artists and renowned artist Eric Rieger, also known as HOTTEA. Rather than viewing graffiti as vandalism, Moving Pillsbury Forward recognized the artists’ talents and invited them to stage exhibitions at the plant. This collaboration between graffiti artists and the organization adds a unique and artistic dimension to the revitalization efforts, showcasing the power of art in transforming spaces and capturing the spirit of a community.

Future Plans

Continued demolition and cleanup

Moving Pillsbury Forward intends to continue its demolition and cleanup efforts until the Pillsbury Mills plant is completely transformed. The organization is determined to remove the remaining structures, including the headhouse and silos, as part of the comprehensive rejuvenation plan. By systematically addressing the demolition and cleanup process, Moving Pillsbury Forward lays the foundation for the future redevelopment of the site.

Implementation of light industrial plans

Once the demolition and cleanup are completed, Moving Pillsbury Forward will focus on implementing the light industrial plans for the site. The organization aims to attract businesses and industries that align with the vision of a vibrant and sustainable light industrial hub. By creating a favorable environment for economic growth, Moving Pillsbury Forward seeks to bring jobs and prosperity back to the community, thus ensuring a long-term impact on the local economy.

Long-term impact on the community

Moving Pillsbury Forward recognizes that the impact of their reclamation efforts extends beyond the physical transformation of the Pillsbury Mills plant. The organization’s commitment to economic and environmental justice, the preservation of memories, and the revitalization of the community contributes to a brighter future for the residents of Springfield, Illinois. By addressing the long-standing issues of neglect and decay, Moving Pillsbury Forward leaves a lasting legacy that promotes pride, opportunity, and prosperity in the community.

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