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Emanuel’s share-the-wealth fund on road to $100M as Round 2 grants begin

“Every resident of Chicago deserves a great place to call home, and this new department will give the City a specialized resource to ensure housing remains affordable for anyone who wants to live, work and raise a family in Chicago,” Emanuel was quoted as saying in a press release. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file photo

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to let downtown developers who share the wealth with impoverished neighborhoods build bigger and taller projects in a broader downtown area has raked in $47.8 million in just 18 months, with an additional $60 million in the pipeline.

The embarrassment of riches — from 24 downtown construction projects and 23 more pending approval — was disclosed as Emanuel prepared to dole out the second round of grants ranging from $15,000 to $250,000 to small neighborhood businesses.

Twenty-five grant winners have been chosen from a pool of 800 applicants. They include such enduring neighborhood staples as Army & Lou’s Restaurant, $150,000 to revive the landmark soul restaurant at 416-to-24 E. 75th St. with a rooftop patio, and the Little Black Pearl Workshop, 1060 E. 47th St., $75,000 to bankroll a kitchen expansion for Carver 47, a “new experimental” cafe owned and operated by Little Black Pearl and used as a “rental venue space.”

Latinos Progresando, 2724 W. Cermak, will get $250,000 to purchase and redevelop a vacant library building for a new immigration legal clinic. Another $250,000 will go to Etcetera, 2674 W. Madison, for a “start-up American comfort food restaurant and sports bar.” The Inner-City Muslim Action Network, 1207-11 W. 63rd St., is also in line for a $250,000 grant to cover the cost of creating Healthy Marketplace, billed as a “model corner store that will exemplify best practices in retail and community engagement for the group’s “network of 62 corner store operators.”

The mayor’s office insisted that politics played no role in the selection. Instead, the grants were awarded on the potential to create “catalytic change along commercial corridors” on the city’s South, West and Southwest Sides.

The Neighborhood Opportunity Fund doled out its first round of $100,000 grants, totaling $3.2 million, to 32 organizations in 16 different wards last summer.

“This initiative is about ensuring that, as one part of Chicago grows, we all grow together,” the mayor was quoted as saying in a press release.

Two years ago, Emanuel blamed his dismal showing among African-American voters in a New York Times poll on “40 years” of disinvestment on Chicago’s South and West Sides.

The share-the-wealth program was just one of several steps the mayor has taken to try to reverse that trend and win back support from black voters who believe their unsafe neighborhoods have been left behind.

So was the creation of a $100 million Catalyst Fund to bridge the funding gap outside the downtown area and the hiring of former Chicago Urban League President Andrea Zopp as Chicago’s $185,000 a year deputy mayor and chief neighborhood development officer. Zopp has since doubled her salary as CEO of World Business Chicago.

Chicago aldermen have likened the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund to an Emanuel “slush fund” with politics determining who gets “gap financing for key investments in struggling commercial corridors.” They have bemoaned the fact that the City Council has no control over grants of less than $250,000.

Planning and Development Commissioner David Reifman has insisted that politics plays no role in the decision-making.

When the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund was created, Reifman had high hopes that it would generate $10 million a year.

Instead, the fund is well on its way to topping the $100 million mark in just 18 months.

In no small part, that’s thanks to the development boom on previously protected industrial land in Chicago’s North Branch Corridor.

Earlier this year, the North Branch boom kicked into high gear in a way that could boost the city’s bid to attract Amazon’s second North American headquarters.

The City Council granted sweeping zoning approval for a massive development — with 4.5 acres of open space and a picturesque walkway along the Chicago River — on a site owned by Tribune Media at 640 to 740 W. Chicago Ave.

The site is one of 10 in the city and suburbs presented to Amazon as part of the Chicago area’s $2.25 billion bid for the 50,000 job economic development prize known as “HQ2.”

Last fall, the City Council increased by $3.5 million the funding limit for the booming Neighborhoods Opportunities Fund.

At last week’s City Council meeting, Emanuel proposed increasing the funding limit for so-called “Group 1” grants from $6 million to $12.5 million. That would enable the Department of Planning and Development to “disperse additional Group 1 grants,” the ordinance states.

The grants cover up to 65 percent of total project costs. Interested applicants are asked to visit the city’s website at www.neighborhoodopportunityfund.com.

Eligible projects must be located in low-to-moderate income census tracts. Priority is given to South, Southwest and West Side projects that bring retail to struggling commercial corridors, grocery stores to food deserts and cultural amenities to neighborhoods without them.

City Council approval is required for grants exceeding $250,000.