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Austin, Garfield Park, North Lawndale

$10 Million Aspire Initiative Would Bring State-Of-The-Art Facilities, Buildings And Infrastructure To Austin

The Aspire Initiative is a finalist for the $10 million Chicago Prize that would fund parts of the Austin Quality of Life Plan.

Austin Coming Together executive director Darnell Shields at the Austin Community Summit celebrating the first year of the Austin Quality of Life Plan.
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AUSTIN — Building from the momentum of the award-winning Austin Quality of Life Plan, a project named the Aspire Initiative is one of six competitors for the $10 million Chicago Prize funded by the Pritzker Traubert Foundation.

If selected as the Chicago Prize winner, the Aspire Initiative would fund four strategic investments in facilities, buildings and infrastructure within the Austin Quality of Life Plan.

The Austin Quality of Life Plan, released in 2018, 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 Aspire Initiative is a project submitted by Austin Coming Together and the Westside Health Authority. The facilities to be funded with the award were selected from the neighborhood plan because they would help catalyze further investment and create state-of-the-art buildings that would allow other parts of the plan to be implemented in the future.

According to Austin Coming Together executive director Darnell Shields, neighborhood leaders decided to create the initiative and pursue the Chicago Prize money after it became apparent that Austin was in need of new facilities to house the health, education, workforce and economic development programs that the ambitious neighborhood plan hopes to bring to the area.

“If you only just think about programmatic things but not necessarily the physical redevelopment, then you don’t take into account the facilities you need and the infrastructure you need to actually bring innovative programs to bear,” Shields said.

Shields added that the investments that make up the Aspire Initiative “intersect and affect a number of different actions simultaneously,” and that many parts of the quality of life plan depend on the new facilities.

Take for example the Emmet Elementary School redevelopment project, one of the cornerstones of the quality of life plan that is included in the Aspire Initiative. The project would transform a vacant school shuttered in 2014 at 5500 W. Madison St. into a career development and vocational training center that would become a home base for programs that would be a springboard for economic development, education and entrepreneurship in the neighborhood.

In addition to mixed-use amenities like a café, a financial service center and a grocery store, the site would also include facilities and equipment for workforce training in sectors like manufacturing and technology.

Credit: Google
Emmet Elementary School at 5500 W. Madison St. closed in 2014.

“An advanced manufacturing training center, that was a specific action lifted in the plan by the community. … They want access to that training and they want it at the highest level. And so having a facility that is state-of-the-art designed to be able to administer that type of programming, those are the kinds of things we want to see,” Shields said.

Other projects in the Aspire Initiative would tackle housing, health and education in the neighborhood.

One priority of the quality of life plan is to increase homeownership in the neighborhood. To meet that goal, the Aspire Initiative includes investments to produce at least 60 additional units of affordable housing for purchase. Shields said adding to the affordable housing stock and increasing homeownership would “ensure that individuals in the community have more wealth-building opportunities.”

Another investment under the initiative would go towards improving Austin College and Career Academy, 231 N. Pine Ave. The investment would reinvent the neighborhood school as a major community asset by improving enrollment rates and graduation rates.

According to Shields, the effort would develop facilities that would allow the school to offer improved Career and Technical Education programs, an International Baccalaureate curriculum, and job training.

“All of those things that would allow individuals to be better prepared, and thinking about it as a whole pipeline that syncs up really well with the quality of the elementary school,” Shields said. A key goal for the initiative is to create a “cradle-to-career” educational system that would catalyze long-term employment and economic growth in the area.

The final investment under the Aspire Initiative would develop a combined early childhood education and health and recreation center. The center will be designed to help neighborhood families access early learning opportunities while incorporating holistic wellness that encompasses social, emotional and physical health.

Development of the early learning and health and wellness center is being led by the By The Hand Club For Kids, which has experience in developing facilities in Austin that catalyze growth. By The Hand built two state-of-the-art youth centers at the corner of Laramie Avenue and Kinzie Street that executive director Donnita Travis said sparked a revival in the surrounding area.

“There’s both a practical as well as an emotional benefit,” Travis said about the additional businesses and investments that began to spring up around the two youth centers. “The investment gives the children and families hope for the future. It has to do with people believing in them and investing in them and investing in their in their futures.”

Austin recently celebrated the first anniversary of the release of its five-year neighborhood plan, which marked 20 percent completion of the quality of life plan and millions of investments. Implementing the entire plan in central Austin is estimated to cost upwards of $100 million, and Travis said the Chicago Prize is an excellent avenue for drawing in additional investment for all the projects included in the Aspire Initiative, and even those that aren’t.

“We know that this type of investment and this kind of attention to the work that we are doing will help accelerate the completion of the great work that we are all doing. But it’s going to happen with or without the Chicago Prize. We’re committed. We are doing the work. We have been doing the work,” Travis said.

The winners of the Chicago Prize are expected to be announced this spring or summer.

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.

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