SOUTH SHORE — A program offering money, knowledge and clout to three South and West Side community groups is aiming to help local leaders propel economic development in their neighborhoods.
The South Shore Chamber‘s community development corporation, Teamwork Englewood and the Puerto Rican Cultural Center in Humboldt Park are the first beneficiaries of the $2.7 million-Neighborhood Developers Initiative. It is run by Community Desk Chicago, a program through the Chicago Community Trust.
Each group will get nearly $900,000, Community Desk Chicago director Ja’Net Defell said. The money will be used as seed capital for a real estate project, to cover a development staffer’s salary for two years and to pay for project planning costs.
Beyond the funding, the initiative will help local leaders translate their ideas into action; connect them to philanthropists and city officials; and advocate for lenders to invest in the groups’ development projects, Defell said.
Business corridors in Chicago’s disinvested neighborhoods “have been looking the same way for as long as I can remember,” she said. “Until we can provide a vehicle and support to get these assets into the hands of the community, they’re not going to change.”
The groups selected to participate in the initiative weren’t required to have finalized proposals in place, as the first phase of the program focuses on building the skills necessary to successfully develop projects, Defell said.
“We’re not specifically asking them today what their project is for the Neighborhood Developers Initiative,” Defell said. “They can spend the time to go on the learning journey, then decide what they want to work on.”
The Puerto Rican Cultural Center will be able to continue building up the Puerto Rico Town cultural district in Humboldt Park, chief operating officer Juan Calderón said.
Gov. JB Pritzker signed a bill last fall naming Division Street between Western and California avenues a state-designated cultural district, meaning Illinois will provide resources to preserve and promote culture along the stretch known as Paseo Boricua.
That designation was the first step in “fulfilling our vision” for the district and the surrounding community, Calderón said. The Neighborhood Developers Initiative will support the housing and economic development aspects of a wide-ranging plan for Puerto Rico Town, he said.
“We have multiple projects we’re exploring that we’re working with the Neighborhood Developers Initiative to hopefully increase the number of affordable housing units,” Calderón said.
The plan also includes a focus on health and education, and extends beyond Paseo Boricua. Puerto Rico Town’s proposed boundaries stretch from Bloomingdale to Chicago avenues and from Pulaski Road to Western Avenue.
Humboldt Park is home to Chicago’s largest Puerto Rican population and is a center of Puerto Rican culture in the Midwest. In recent years, home prices in Humboldt Park have skyrocketed as the neighborhood has gentrified, in part because of The 606’s Bloomingdale Trail.
It’s “very difficult” for community organizations like the Puerto Rican Cultural Center — even if they have development experience — to buy property and build in their backyards without major investments, Calderón said.
“With these specific funds, we can partner up with the entire community … to build our organization’s capacity and infrastructure,” he said.
Teamwork Englewood was chosen because the nonprofit represents the neighborhood’s talented residents who work to shift the perception of their community from one that’s “dangerous and violent,” Defell said.
Teamwork Englewood has been involved in community development before, from its leadership in a 2016 quality of life plan for the neighborhood to its involvement in the Englewood Square project and the Go Green on Racine collective revitalizing 63rd Street.
The Neighborhood Developers Initiative will not only help the nonprofit build on that experience, but better allow it to share knowledge with its neighbors and partners in Englewood, executive director Cecile De Mello said.
The initiative will also allow Teamwork Englewood to hire a staffer with expertise in property acquisition, financing and other aspects of the development process, De Mello said.
“What we want to do is to learn and bring those learnings and best practices to our community,” she said. “This allows us to have that opportunity.”
The South Shore Chamber’s community development corporation was selected because “71st Street is primed to be a district [where] folks can shop and dine” with the Obama Presidential Center’s construction in nearby Jackson Park, Defell said.
The resident-led collective that redeveloped a vacant apartment building and the INVEST South/West program’s presence in the neighborhood also contribute to South Shore’s “development momentum,” she said.
The chamber’s corporation will use the initiative’s resources to support existing and new projects, executive director Tonya Trice said.
The corporation is buying a property to develop, but Trice declined to give details until that process is complete. Officials will work with South Shore residents to determine how the property can enhance the quality of life in the neighborhood, she said.
“I think South Shore is well-positioned for revitalization of its commercial corridors,” Trice said. “The momentum is there, given the proximity to the Obama Center and the lakefront.”
The Neighborhood Developers Initiative is a two-year program, but it’s intended to set the community groups up to be successful developers in their neighborhoods far beyond 2024, Defell said.
“This is just the beginning for those three organizations and for those communities,” Defell said. “If we do this right, in two years these folks have the foundation and the skill set to keep the work moving forward.”
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