A CREATE conference attendee talks with representatives from Canadian Pacific, one of 40 exhibitors participating in Thursday's event at Kennedy-King College. Credit: Jamie Nesbitt Golden/Block Club Chicago

ENGLEWOOD — A group trying to open more doors for minority-owned firms trying to land construction contracts gathered in Englewood as part of a new series.

The Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency, a multiagency, public/private initiative developed to improve rail infrastructure in underserved areas, welcomed over 200 participants to its first “distressed business enterprise” networking event Thursday at Kennedy King College, 740 West 63rd.

The business to business event is the first in a series of plans to widen access for minority-owned firms to pursue contracts to work on the 75th Street Corridor Improvement Project, a massive, multi-year, multimillion construction project aimed at untangling commuter and freight railroad lines that run through Englewood and surrounding neighborhoods.

The group, which goes by the acronym CREATE, is the first collaboration of its kind, with public and private agencies (U.S. Department of Transportation, State of Illinois, Cook County, City of Chicago, Metra, Amtrak and national freight railroads) investing billions of dollars to not only address existing infrastructure problems, but economic ones as well. It aims to broaden access to entrepreneurs typically overlooked.

Samuel Tuck III, bureau chief of the Illinois Dept. of Transportation’s CREATE and Freight Rail program, said a $132 million Infrastructure For Rebuilding Grant received last spring has let them get a jump on publicizing other upcoming projects so that those interested can participate.

“We want to make sure we adhere to the environmental mitigation of doing the community benefits, learning from our past experiences where elected officials said, ‘we need to see people who live in communities working, we need to see more people like that having opportunities,'” said Tuck. “So, lessons learned, we got ahead of the curve and we’re moving forward so that we can address all of those issues.”

Samuel Tuck, III, Bureau Chief of IDOT’s CREATE and Freight Rail program, chats with attendees.

Getting federal reimbursement for job training was also a major win for the program. Tuck credits his team with making a stronger push for it to be included in the initiative, which allows them to improve their community outreach.

“We’re also looking at trying to do STEM programs within our community, having representatives go out there and speak to the kids to let them know there’s a possibility that you can be a person that’s running the show,” said Tuck.

Metra, one of the partners, will be leading the second phase of the 75th Street project, helping small business owners understand the different components of the project. Janice Thomas, Metra’s Senior Division director for business diversity and community relations, believes that assistance will better equip them to navigate the bidding process.

“They’ll understand who the players are, and from that position they’ll know that they’ll have to get certified as a DBE (Distressed Business Enterprise), and partner with engineering firms, because now we’re going into the engineering phase, and then there will be the construction phase,” Thomas said. “So now it’s about getting the word out, and getting people excited, and getting them to start asking questions. It’s one thing to be aware; it’s another to have access.”

Among those hoping to gain access is South Side native Michael Bempah, president of Pinpoint Precision Engineering. Bempah attended a number of networking events, but felt encouraged by the diversity of the crowd.

“So far, it’s a good event. A lot of good agencies here,” said Bempah, who has taught youth engineering courses across the city. “This event is definitely more diverse than events I’ve been to in the past. This is the first step, but it definitely doesn’t guarantee you being utilized or winning a project.”

“Sometimes these primes [contractors] already have their teams set, even before coming out to outreach events like this, so it’s challenging for small firms and minority firms to really get a foot in the door,” said Bempah. “But we remain hopeful. That’s why we’re here.”

According to CREATE, over $1.6 billion has been committed so far, but they’ll need an additional $2.8 billion to finish all 70 projects planned. Twenty-nine have reached completion, with five currently under construction and four in the final design phase.

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