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Belmont Cragin Residents Ask Candidates How They Plan To Revitalize Neighborhood’s Business Corridors

The 29th, 30th and 31st wards all include parts of Belmont Cragin within their boundaries.

Left to right, top to bottom: Ald. Milly Santiago (31st), Colin Bird-Martinez, Felix Cardona Jr., Ald. Ariel Reboyras (30th), Edgar Esparza, Jessica Gutierrez, Zerlina Smith, Dwayne Truss and Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th).
Alex Hernandez/ Block Club Chicago
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BELMONT CRAGIN — Candidates who aim to represent the city’s 29th, 30th and 31st wards shared their plans to revitalize Belmont Cragin’s business corridors at an election forum last week.

The three wards all include parts of Belmont Cragin, and all nine candidates running for office in those wards were invited to attend the Northwest Side Housing Center’s forum Saturday at Northwest Community Church, 5318 W. Diversey Ave.

As a kid growing up in the neighborhood, business leader Robert Oraha said his family could shop for groceries, school supplies and other household necessities — all without leaving the neighborhood.

“All of those businesses have now closed,” he said.

Oraha asked what strategies the candidates would pursue to help existing small businesses in the neighborhood if elected.

Ald. Milly Santiago (31st) said she’s worked with businesses in her ward to form chambers of commerce to build on community’s strengths.

“I’ve also supported different initiatives in the City of Chicago … to support businesses and actually give them financial assistance,” she said.

Santiago sits on City Council’s Committee on Economic, Capital and Technology Development, which oversees the city’s approach to the annual and five-year capital improvement programs and tax incentives for commercial and industrial properties.

If elected, Colin Bird-Martinez, a 31st Ward challenger and founder of the 31st Ward Independent Political Organization, said he would aim to cut red tape for small businesses, including food trucks, making it easier to open new businesses in the ward.

“The city’s fees [for small businesses] are ridiculous,” he said.

Martinez would also push for a $15 minimum wage and would require businesses that receive TIF funds in Belmont Cragin to pay a “living wage,” or $23 an hour.

He’d push for affordable storefronts that would function similar to affordable housing, too, allowing mom-and-pop shops to pay a discounted rent in new developments.

Felix Cardona Jr., another 31st Ward challenger and director of incentive properties at the Cook County Assessor’s office, said he would pursue more tax incentives for small businesses and would push for a moratorium of liquor licenses.

“It’s going to stop with me. No more liquor establishments in the 31st Ward,” he said.

RELATED: The 30th Ward Deserves More Than A ‘Rubber Stamp’ Alderman, Young Challengers To Reboyras Tell Voters

Ald. Ariel Reboyras (30th) said redeveloping business corridors are key to growing tax revenue in TIF districts, which in turn help the community grow financially via the city’s small business improvement funds.

The five active TIF districts that overlap with or are adjacent to the 30th Ward’s boundaries —  Fullerton/Milwaukee, Avondale, Portage Park, Belmont/Cicero and Belmont/Central — had a combined balance of $39.8 million in 2017.

“You don’t have a small business improvement fund unless you have the TIF in that area,” he said.

But Edgar Esparza, the 23-year-old college student challenging Reboyras, said the current way TIFs and ward’s  $1.32 million in menu money are managed lack transparency.

“We have TIF districts, we have special service areas in this ward. Those types of programs and organizations are antiquated,” he said. “They’ve been here for years and it’s not fair that businesses, because they’re located in one area of Chicago, have to pay more in taxes for their own investment and infrastructure.”

Jessica Gutierrez, daughter of U. S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Chicago) who is also challenging Reboyras, said if elected she would implement a participatory budgeting strategy to decide how menu money and TIF funds are used.

“Chicago doesn’t have a funding problem. We have an allocation problem. We really need to start moving the money into the right directions,” she said.

Zerlina Smith, founder of Increase the Harvest Inc. who is challenging Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), said chambers of commerce in her ward are already working together to try and revitalize the ward’s business corridors.

“It’s gonna take a village. But let’s be realistic, we need some co-op stores,” she said. “We need our community to buy into the community.”

She worries incentivizing new businesses to open in the ward will hurt mom-and-pop shops that are struggling to stay open.

Dwayne Truss, a military veteran also challenging Taliaferro, said brick-and-mortar stores face stiff competition from online retail giants like Amazon.

“You can bring stores and development into the community, but you have got to look at the different market forces at play,” Truss said.

The city’s current grant programs for small businesses require too much upfront investment, he said.

Taliaferro touted the mayor’s creation of Neighborhood Opportunity Fund grants for the city’s West, Southwest and South Side commercial corridors as an achievement.

“[These funds] are making sure that our small businesses have tax benefits and tax incentives,” he said.

Videos of Saturday’s forum can be found here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.

Below are highlights from Block Club’s live coverage of the forum. The full tweet thread can be found here.

CHI.VOTE: Everything you need to vote on Feb. 26th

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