Kurt Summers is only 37, but he is impatient. “I have been looking at this my entire life. For the better part of 40 years.”
“This” is the economic devastation of Chicago’s South and West sides.
Two years ago, during his first run for office, the city treasurer showed me around the Bronzeville neighborhood where he grew up.
“Much of it looks the same as it did 30 years ago,” he reminded me when we talked the other day. “Empty lots, people in despair, and that challenge has now existed over generations.”
“I’m frustrated with almost 40 years of a lack of change. And almost 40 years of communicating to me and people like me in communities in this city that we are that not worthy of investment and nothing is going to change that.”
The Harvard University MBA was a honcho at a top capital management firm. He has forged tight connections with Chicago’s power brokers. In October 2014, Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed him treasurer; he was elected a few months later.
Emanuel has issued a “blueprint” calling for new vigor in the city’s battle against pervasive violence. It was a “courageous step,” Summers said.
Emanuel has tackled “a multi-generational issue of how we address policing in this city and the need to have people from the communities, that are invested in the communities. …”
Summers adds: “There is no amount of police officers, detectives or training that happen that will change the economic conditions of black, brown and poor people in communities in this city.”
It goes to the “root cause.” The economic devastation that plagues Chicago neighborhoods, fertilized by hundreds of years of slavery, oppression, systemic racism and criminal injustice.
Summers manages the city’s $6 billion-plus investment portfolio. He is pitching a city ordinance that would allow him to move some of that cash into investment funds to support infrastructure improvements, stimulate job creation and development; and catalyze commercial, residential and industrial growth in underserved neighborhoods.
I am a tad older than Summers (heh-heh). I grew up all over the South Side, in Oakland, Washington Park, Park Manor, South Shore. I saw plenty of yawning, empty lots, corroded storefronts and jobless youth. They’re still there.
There was the Great Society, Empowerment Zones, Enterprise Zones, housing transformation funds, recovery and reinvestment funds. Hundreds of millions of government dollars poured into Chicago over decades. Little changed.
Chicago must invest in itself, Summers argues. “We have a mandate to invest everywhere in the world but our own backyard. We have a mandate to invest in South America, the Middle East, Western Europe, East Asia, everywhere but the third largest market in the largest economy in the world.”
We can’t wait for still another big government Band-Aid. Big corporations aren’t rushing to the inner city anytime soon.
Emanuel has lured nibbles of opportunity. Last week a Whole Foods opened in Englewood. A Mariano’s grocery is coming to Bronzeville.
Summers put $50,000 from his economic development fund into Invest Chicago, spearheaded by Goodcity. Over the next three years, the business incubator will plow $25 million in seed grants and investments to encourage innovation among female and minority social entrepreneurs and nonprofits.
Summers wants more. Emanuel is generally supportive, he said, and Summers is negotiating the details of his ordinance with the mayor’s office, and hopes to move it through the Chicago City Council over the next several weeks.
Impatience and ambition are a potent brew.
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