NORTH LAWNDALE — None of the city’s latest Neighborhood Opportunity Fund grants went to North Lawndale businesses, despite the neighborhood being one of the 10 areas the program is supposed to prioritize.
Applications for the next grants to help entrepreneurs on the South and West sides improve and expand their businesses are now open, and local leaders are encouraging previous applicants to refile their proposals and try again.
In the most recent round of applications, the city selected 32 finalists for more than $5 million in grants. The majority self-reported as minority-owned, and more than half of the businesses were Black-owned, according to Chicago Department of Planning and Development records.
Half of the projects were also in areas targeted by Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s INVEST South/West initiative, which aims to make good on her promise of equity by funneling development toward 10 historically under-resourced neighborhoods.
When the initiative launched in October, Lightfoot positioned the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund as one of its main tools. But at least one of the target neighborhoods — North Lawndale — didn’t receive any grant money this spring.
Businesses across the West Side submitted about 90 proposals for the grant, according to city officials, and other neighborhoods in the area were better represented among grant finalists.
In Austin, which is also a target community under INVEST South/West, 41 applications were submitted and five businesses were named as finalists. East Garfield Park businesses submitted two proposals and had no finalists. Eleven West Garfield Park businesses applied for the money, and one business was selected.
In Lawndale, none of the 16 proposals from neighborhood businesses were successful.
“Many potential applicants that weren’t quite ready for the last funding round are expected to reapply this round with more complete and stronger proposals,” a spokesperson for the planning department said in a statement.
The program continues to be refined to make the funding more accessible to entrepreneurs in targeted areas, the spokesperson said. Since the program prioritizes the most viable proposals that are ready to begin construction, the application process has an improved project readiness tool to help applicants better identify the strengths and weaknesses in their plans.
And the fund now accepts proposals twice per year, which the city expects will make it easier for businesses to prepare their applications in advance.
Rodney Brown, of the North Lawndale Chamber of Commerce, hopes the improvements will make the grants a more realistic option for local businesses. Even with the assistance of the chamber, local entrepreneurs struggled to apply for the grant.
“We’ve had some challenges with [the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund] in the past. I’m hoping the changes that have been made are such that the challenges can be eliminated,” he said.
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Brown is working with Lawndale’s entrepreneurs to maximize the flow of money into the neighborhood for the new round of Neighborhood Opportunity Fund grants. Since many of Lawndale’s main commercial corridors were damaged during civic unrest this summer, the chamber is focused on getting impacted businesses to the front of the line for public dollars.
“We got some projects that are … shovel-ready, that we think that we’ve primed for the city,” Brown said.
In past rounds, there have been several grantees in North Lawndale, and the awards have helped fund important projects in the neighborhood, said Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th). A recent award will help the North Lawndale Employment Network build a workforce development campus.
But in many cases, even those who were offered the funding in past rounds were unable to successfully complete their projects due to challenges of getting upfront funding, Scott said. Those business owners ended up having to pass on the grant opportunity.
“They were not able to get some of the things they needed to get — licensing, zoning and all those things — because of a lack of technical assistance,” Scott said.
At least 35 grant winners citywide since the program’s beginnings in 2017 have had to withdraw or terminate their projects, city records show.
Several businesses who previously applied feel burned by the process, though Scott and Brown encourage Lawndale entrepreneurs try again and to lean on them for support.
“Hopefully this round will show folks in communities that are undeserved and need this money desperately that there is an opportunity to be successful,” Scott said.
Scott said he also worked with the Lightfoot administration so businesses that were deemed viable investments in previous rounds but were unable to accept the funds will have an edge this time. Planning department officials confirmed previous finalists that withdrew will get special consideration.
Recent improvements to the structure of the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund are also designed to lower some of the barriers that kept such businesses from accepting the city dollars.
Lightfoot earlier this year expanded the grant to cover 100 percent of a project’s total cost if the owner and their employees are residents of the South or West sides. Previously, the grant was capped at 65 percent of costs. Award finalists now also have access to a pool of technical advisers to help them bring together financing and manage contractors.
Brown hopes the improvements and the city’s initiatives to promote equity in underinvested areas will build momentum behind the community-driven revitalization of North Lawndale.
“We know that there has been a strategic disinvestment and abandonment of North Lawndale over the last 50, 60 years,” Brown said. “Now is the time for North Lawndale. We really do need to be at a place where that investment returns to the community.”
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
The “Lens On Lightfoot” project is a collaboration of seven Chicago newsrooms examining the first year of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration. Partners are the BGA, Block Club Chicago, Chalkbeat Chicago, The Chicago Reporter, The Daily Line, La Raza and The TRiiBE. It is managed by the Institute for Nonprofit News.
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