Development agency tackles poverty, factionalism in south suburbs

With startup money from Cook County, the Southland Development Authority looks to bring new businesses to the region.

SHARE Development agency tackles poverty, factionalism in south suburbs
A welder at LB Steel in Harvey works on a component to be used in Amtrak’s Acela high-speed trains on the East Coast.

A welder at LB Steel in Harvey works on a component to be used in Amtrak’s Acela high-speed trains on the East Coast.

LB Steel

The first step in dealing with a problem is to care enough to solve it. The second step is to figure out how to do so, perhaps by breaking it into pieces so fixing it doesn’t seem like one huge, hopeless task.

In the south suburbs, laced with poverty and abandoned or underused property, business and political leaders pass the caring test, although to what effect remains to seen. It’s certainly better compared with the 1980s and 1990s, when there was a general sense of disinvestment and despair caused in part by a shrinking industrial jobs base. The foreclosure crisis of about 10 years ago gave some towns another kick in the teeth.

Those in power are well into the second step of breaking down the problem. They’ve created a stew of public and private agencies working to improve what’s dubbed the Southland. But something was missing. Maybe it was a hard-core understanding of getting a development deal done. And there were still the town-to-town rivalries, some fed by racial tension and corruption in too many places. The jealousies were in full view as towns prepared their bids for a south suburban casino.

Chicago Enterprise bug

Enter a new agency, the Southland Development Authority, an independent nonprofit. It’s been launched with $300,000 in seed money from Cook County government plus $300,000 from The Chicago Community Trust and additional foundation support, including a share of $500,000 the MacArthur Foundation has committed to south suburban initiatives. The hope is the authority will be self-sustaining in a few years. It is envisioned as a hands-on promoter of key development sites with almost a broker’s role in seeking capital sources.

Its 16-member governing board represents diverse experience in the public and private sectors. One member is David Doig, president of Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives, which has drawn jobs to the city’s Pullman neighborhood. Doig said the agency will focus on three business sectors: logistics, advanced manufacturing and food processing.

All can draw on remaining economic strengths in the region plus its core attributes: lots of cheap land and ample rail, highway and waterway links for shipping, Doig said.

The graphic, taken from a 2018 report by the Community and Economic Development Association of Cook County, identifies much of the south suburbs as a region of high poverty and low “opportunity,” defined by access to jobs, good schools and other amenities that indicate quality of life. The report uses data from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.

The graphic identifies much of the south suburbs as a region of high poverty and low “opportunity,” defined by access to jobs, good schools and other amenities that indicate quality of life.

Community and Economic Development Association of Cook County

The agency was set up as a concrete step recommended in discussions local leaders had with Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. She described it at a kickoff event Nov. 13 as a next-generation effort that builds on concepts proven elsewhere. “We needed to do something different,” said Carter Sterling, CEO of lumber supplier Sterling in south suburban Phoenix. “Old methods of dealing with economic growth in the south suburbs are not working anymore.”

The region has more than 40 municipalities. There are lovely forest preserves and country clubs and posh homes. But on the whole, the south suburbs have two distinctions they would rather relinquish — poverty rates and property tax rates among the highest in the region. The declining business base forced towns to lean harder on homeowners, and the higher tax rates cause employers to take a pass.

“We’re dealing with this all the time,” said Russell Rydin, executive director of the South Suburban Land Bank and Development Authority. “People looking at our properties are looking regionally. It’s a constant flow to Indiana or to Will County or further south. Something’s got to get fixed with the taxes.”

Doig said a Walmart in Richton Park pays $2 million a year in property taxes, and one in his Pullman development pays just $450,000. “Walmart can maybe handle that difference. Somebody else, not so much,” he said.

xochitl_flores_headshot_2.jpg

Xochitl Flores, Cook County’s chief of economic development

Cook County

Rydin is on the new agency’s board and can help by assembling land parcels and wiping unpaid taxes off the books. Towns also could use help getting tax incentives from the state and county.

The agency’s very existence, its advocates say, will promote cooperation across the region and reduce racial tensions over time. The black suburbs think the white ones catch all the breaks. The white suburbs, heavily populated by people who already fled integration, think the black suburbs are corrupt and dysfunctional.

Xochitl Flores, Cook County’s chief of economic development, said the agency could help the suburbs find common cause. “At the end of the day, people want a good space to live and work. We’re bringing in added resources, and that’s what people want. During a good economy when jobs are growing, it definitely helps to alleviate other problems,” she said.

It’s a long-term goal, but in the south suburbs, long term is the only game in town.

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