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Logan Square, Humboldt Park, Avondale

Congress Theater Developer Should Make A ‘Good Jobs Commitment’ Before Getting City Help To Fund Overhaul, Union Says

Workers with UNITE HERE Local 1 are urging neighbors to oppose the project's $20 million city subsidy if the developer won't commit to offering good-paying jobs to theater workers. Baum Revision says it's listening.

The Congress Theater, taken Feb. 24, 2020.
Mina Bloom/Block Club Chicago
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LOGAN SQUARE — Hospitality workers from a local labor union are calling on the developer behind the $70.4 million Congress Theater rehab project to commit to offering good-paying jobs to theater workers.

The workers, with UNITE HERE Local 1, are urging neighbors to oppose the $20 million city subsidy for the project if the developer and the city don’t put a “good jobs commitment” in writing. They spoke at a community meeting Monday and put up flyers around the neighborhood.

Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st) on Monday said he’s working on bringing a “card check” agreement to the city-backed project. The agreement would prohibit the theater operator — AEG — from interfering should workers decide to unionize.

Because the project involves a public subsidy, developer Baum Revision plans to use union labor during construction, La Spata said. But the alderman said while he hopes to see “good, strong jobs” come out of a redeveloped Congress, there’s no guarantee retail and theater workers will be protected by a union.

The city doesn’t typically enforce wages and hours in redevelopment agreements, even with projects involving public subsidies, and ultimately the decision of whether to use union workers will be left up to business owners and the Congress operator, La Spata said.

“We’re continuing to engage with the labor unions, the Mayor’s Office. We want to make sure that everyone feels that this is a great development, not only for the 1st Ward and for Logan Square, but for the whole of the city,” La Spata said.

Baum is counting on La Spata’s and the rest of the City Council’s support to bring the long-vacant Congress Theater back to life with $20 million in tax-increment finance funds from the Milwaukee/Fullerton TIF district. The allocation received approval from the city’s Community Development Commission last month. It still needs final approval from the full City Council.

With the funding, Baum aims to give the entire Congress building — the venue and surrounding apartments and retail — a facelift. The developer’s project calls for 20 apartments — 14 of them affordable for people earning 40-80 percent of the area median income — as well as affordable commercial space for local nonprofits and artists, and retail and restaurant space.

Baum is the second developer to take on the Congress in recent years. Michael Moyer’s redevelopment project fizzled in 2020, which left the theater in the control of a court-appointed receiver.

La Spata has said the benefits of Baum’s project are twofold: It will revive a historically significant music venue that has sat empty for a decade, and it will provide housing and commercial space to locals at risk of being displaced from gentrifying Logan Square.

Without explicitly addressing the union campaign, La Spata on Monday emphasized that the TIF funding is critically important to the project, saying it’s a use-it-or-lose-it scenario because the funding expires in 2024.

“The conditions are such, economically in terms of the condition of the building, that if we do not put public subsidy into this development, it will not move forward,” La Spata said.

Diana Mendiola was one of several hospitality workers and neighbors who raised concerns about jobs at the community meeting.

Mendiola said she worked as a housekeeper at the Drake Hotel for five years “with great pay and benefits” before she was laid off due to the pandemic. Now, she makes $15 an hour and is struggling to pay for health insurance, she said.

“We are in debt trying to survive in this community, and we may have to move out due to low wages. We need good jobs in the community — not more low-wage jobs,” Mendiola said.

Other neighbors used the meeting to inquire about the development, including the redevelopment agreement and the scope of the restoration work.

Scott Goldman, one of the principals of Baum Revision, said his team recognizes the responsibility that comes along with redeveloping the Congress, a “centerpiece” of the community.

Built in 1926 by Fridstein & Co. as an ornate movie palace, the Congress was one of the city’s treasured music venues before the city shut it down in 2013 because of safety and code violations.

“We’ve been developing for a long time, and we plan to continue developing for a long time. And we know the expectations for this project and the follow through on what everyone is communicating is of critical importance,” Goldman said.

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