CITY HALL — The Chicago Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection will next year oversee spending of about $46 million of federally sourced money for a suite of programs aimed at improving neighborhoods’ food options, boosting first-time entrepreneurs, padding the budgets of local nonprofits and more, officials told aldermen Tuesday.
During a Tuesday evening budget hearing, acting business affairs department Comm. Kenneth Meyer also touted some of the early dividends of a business relief ordinance the City Council approved earlier this year. And he made a pitch for the city to extend a pandemic-era program allowing restaurants to take over streets and parking lots.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot last month unveiled a plan to filter most of Chicago’s $1.9 billion share of the federal American Rescue Plan package into the city’s core operating budgets from 2021 to 2023, while taking out $660 million in new loans to net about $1.2 billion in “new initiatives” that will fuel her proposed multi-year Chicago Recovery Plan.
Meyer laid out his department’s $46 million slice of the windfall in “three buckets,” starting with an $18 million allocation to “revitalize our commercial corridors” and fund “responsive neighborhood programming.”
“I’ve worked with many of you on the vacant storefronts, and this [American Rescue Plan] money is a once-in-a-lifetime [chance] for us to take advantage of the federal support to hopefully jumpstart and revitalize these commercial corridors,” Meyer said.
Another $10 million will go into a category called “food equity,” which the commissioner said is designed to “help out our entrepreneurs that want to get into…providing healthy foods to our neighborhoods that really don’t have it.” Kenya Merritt, the department’s chief small business officer, said officials plan to use the money to launch a “food incubator” targeted at “early-stage entrepreneurs.”
Unlike the existing Hatchery incubator in Garfield Park, where participants are “in a middle stage of their entrepreneurial journey, the food incubator we’re thinking about is starting on the front end, where you’re ideating,” Merritt said. “You may make some great cookies in your home, but you don’t know how to get to that next step of starting your business.”
About $5 million of the “food equity” allocation will be set aside for budding entrepreneurs, and the other half will be dedicated to “urban…community farms that actually provide this food.” The money will be passed along “through probably 30 separate programs and neighborhoods,” Meyer said.
The remaining $18 million will be dedicated to local nonprofit groups — specifically those that “have historically never received support” directly from the city, Meyer said.
Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) praised the $10 million “food equity program,” saying she hopes it will “help [her] get a grocery store in the neighborhood” after one of the only supermarkets in her ward “left in the middle of the night and left the community with no groceries in that area.”
But Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) called into question the department’s plan to spend $18 million on sprucing up commercial corridors, saying his “preference would be…to see some more direct business assistance.”
“While I’m all for the city providing programming and support for these businesses, I think for the desperate small business owner, getting actual help in hand is the more critical piece right now,” Reilly said. “This is a unique opportunity…and it’s a unique time for our small business owners who are struggling mightily to pay their bills.”
Merritt said department leaders plan to issue a Request for Proposals next year to invite organizations to apply for the funds. The department will also enlist a “third-party grant administrator” to oversee the $18 million in planned disbursements to nonprofits, she said.
Separately during the Tuesday night hearing, Meyer cataloged early benefits from what he called the “historic reforms” enacted to the city’s business and labor regulations as part of the “Chi Biz Strong” ordinance (O2021-2183) approved by the City Council in June.
Officials said at least 10 restaurants have already taken advantage of a new expedited permitting process that was included in the ordinance to allow new eateries to open without having to wait months for a health department inspection.
And the department has set up payment plans with 340 different businesses since a new “debt relief program” went into effect in August, Meyer said.
“You could be just trying to help out your business and pay employees and pay the rent, and you could be accumulating some city debt,” the commissioner said. Whereas businesses previously needed to “put half up” to enter into a debt repayment plan with the city, they can now start with a $25 payment.
Finally on Tuesday, Meyer urged the City Council to renew the city’s Expanded Outdoor Dining Program, which allows restaurants to set up tables in streets and parking lots but is due to expire on Dec. 31. He said the city “should probably allow that plan to go on for another year” to sustain a lifeline to businesses and stay “competitive” with surrounding suburbs that are expanding similar programs.
Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th) said he thinks the outdoor dining program “should be extended indefinitely.”
“I think this is one of the things where the crisis showed us opportunity,” Vasquez said. “A lot of times people get into the habit of wanting to go back to how things were, but I think COVID showed us that this isn’t a ‘back to where things were’ scenario.”