AUSTIN — Under a new program, the city will be directing $750 million to develop the South and West sides over the next three years, Mayor Lori Lightfoot recently announced. And now corporations are backing the plan, too.
The city’s INVEST South/West program aims to align the city’s planning department with corporate and community partners to invest in 10 community areas on the South and West sides. The announcement coincided with the first corporate backer of the initiative, BMO Harris Bank, donating $10 million to the United Way of Metro Chicago’s Neighborhood Network program, which works to reduce economic disparity and create inclusive growth in neighborhoods.
The bulk of the donation will benefit the Austin neighborhood and will be implemented by neighborhood group Austin Coming Together. The group will use the funding to implement the revitalization strategies outlined in the Austin Quality of Life Plan that was released in late 2018.
The Austin Quality of Life Plan is a blueprint built from community-driven strategies that aims to tackle key issues in the neighborhood including economic and workforce development, housing, education and public safety.
The cost of implementing the plan just within the central part of Austin is steep, estimated to be around $100 million. But with the new funding, Austin Coming Together will be able to implement the strategies and development projects that residents have identified as their own top priorities.
“Instead of one megaproject that an outside person says, ‘This is what Austin needs,’ we want to see dozens of projects in housing, in the business corridors, in social service programs, in transportation, in job creation… so it’s a bottom-up approach,” said Jose Rico, chief partnerships and initiatives officer at United Way of Metro Chicago.
“The city investment is really important because they’re going to be able to do some infrastructure work,” Rico said of the $750 million the mayor committed to the South and West sides.
But he said the neighborhood-driven hyperlocal projects facilitated by Austin Coming Together and the Neighborhood Network are essential for helping the community’s businesses, organizations, schools and families gear up to be able to take advantage of those improvements.
“What this money is going to be used for is to increase the capacity of residents from Austin to do dozens of economic development projects. So then there could be increased ownership and wealth generation in Austin by residents in Austin,” he said.
Austin Coming Together Executive Director Darnell Shields said the inflow of funding will allow the organization to make tremendous strides in achieving the goals laid out in the Quality of Life Plan.
Shields hopes that by focusing on some key projects, the community will be able to strategically invest their portion of the $10 million dollars and use it to “create sort of a windfall to be able to attract the other $90 [million] that is needed … to bring even more development even beyond the central area of Austin.”
Emmet Elementary redevelopment
One of the projects Shields has his eyes on is the redevelopment of Emmet Elementary School, which was shuttered in 2014. The school facility was purchased by the West Side Health Authority in 2018 and became a focal project of the Austin Quality of Life Plan as a way to revitalize two commercial corridors in the neighborhood that intersect with the school — Central Avenue and Madison Street.
The plan would transform the school into a community center that offers career development programs, vocational training, entrepreneurship resources and apprenticeships for high-demand fields like health care and manufacturing.
“It would actually create opportunity around employment and training and access to different supports that would help individuals really start to change their economic situation,” Shields said.
Austin Coming Together is also looking at other projects that would reinvigorate Central Avenue, along with Chicago Avenue, one of the major east-west business corridors in the area. Shields said developing those avenues is key for improving the commercial viability of Austin, but also for fostering a unified identity for the community with a new streetscape.
The goal is to have the corridor “be a central draw for everyone in the community,” Shields said.
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
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