AUSTIN — Efforts to revitalize the West Side after decades of disinvestment have not gone unnoticed.
Two innovative projects in Austin and East Garfield Park were recognized at a virtual ceremony for the Chicago Neighborhood Development Awards. The Austin Quality of Life Plan won the Chicago Community Trust Outstanding Community Plan Award and the Hatchery Chicago in East Garfield Park won the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Award for Outstanding Non-Profit Neighborhood Real Estate Project.
“These projects are just a snapshot of the incredible things happening all across Chicago’s neighborhoods,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in an address at the award ceremony, which was moved online because of coronavirus. “Our city’s future will be built on this kind of meaningful community engagement.”
The Austin Quality of Life Plan, called called Austin Forward Together, won for its tremendous community engagement efforts that guided the West Side neighborhood’s blueprint for the future, organizers said.
“The most impactful efforts are those rooted in the ideas and experiences and input of the community itself,” said Dr. Helene Gayle, CEO of the Chicago Community Trust.
The plan includes 23 community-driven strategies to address issues residents in the area want to improve, like economic development, quality education, affordable housing and civic engagement. A total of 36 community partners have signed on to help implement the plan’s strategies.
One focal project would transform the shuttered Emmet Elementary School into a workforce development, entrepreneurship and vocational education center.
One of the Austin Quality of Life plan’s earliest achievements was developing an International Baccalaureate (IB) program at Michelle Clark High School. The school’s college-level curriculum is the first IB program to come to Chicago’s West Side.
“This plan is really going to help us continue to have the momentum to further build out things in the community,” said Darnell Shields, executive director of Austin Coming Together, the group spearheading the community plan.
The Hatchery Chicago, also an award winner, is a food business incubator. It is a joint endeavor of Accion, a community development financial institution, and the Industrial Council of Nearwest Chicago.
The Hatchery gives startups the business training, private and shared commercial kitchen spaces and financial services they need to scale up their companies. For community residents, the Hatchery and the dozens of small businesses based at the state-of-the-art facility offer employment opportunities, culinary training programs and entrepreneurship workshops to help drive economic development in the area.
“The thing that the neighborhood lacked was really economic opportunity. Places to work and places to start your own business,” said Steve DeBretto, executive director of the Industrial Council for Nearwest Chicago.
The project is expected to create more than 900 new full-time jobs in the area within the first five years of opening, DeBretto said.
Also recognized at the awards ceremony was the North Lawndale Quality of Life plan, which is competing with Austin Coming Together as one of six finalists for the Pritzker Traubert Foundation’s $10 million Chicago Prize.
The Lawndale project would invest in affordable housing, a workforce development center, a series of public art installations and popups across the neighborhood, and the Ogden Commons mixed-use housing, healthcare and retail development.
“What’s impressive to me is that the plan we put together uses resources that are here in North Lawndale,” said Rodney Brown of the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council that designed the project. “We were able to pull from the brain power that exists here in North Lawndale to craft this plan.”
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
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