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West Side initiative hopes to revitalize closed school in Austin

A $120 million effort, led by the Westside Health Authority, would turn the vacant Robert Emmet Elementary School into a hub for job development, housing and retail opportunities.

The former Robert Emmet Elementary School, 5500 W. Madison St., in the Austin neighborhood.
A West Side group has big plans for the former Robert Emmet Elementary School, 5500 W. Madison St., in the Austin neighborhood.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

In 2013, Mayor Rahm Emanuel shut down 50 schools across the city. Now, eight years later, one of those schools will be transformed into a multi-use resource facility for West Side residents.

Four years after it was closed, Austin’s Westside Health Authority acquired the Robert Emmet Elementary School through a CPS auction. According to Morris Reed, the Health Authority’s CEO, they were up against one other group who wanted to turn it into a medical facility.

But the community rejected the idea, Reed said, and asked for something that could be built with residents’ suggestions. The Health Authority, which uses community input to promote community wellness and development, saw an opportunity to provide what many were asking for.

“The community always felt like the school was a very visible symbol of our failures to meet the needs of our young people and to put youth on a path to have careers, to be employed, to improve the quality of life for young adults in the city of Chicago, particularly in Austin and on the West Side,” said Reed.

Now, Reed and his organization plan to generate economic growth through their Aspire Center for Workforce Innovation, to be built in the former elementary school at 5500 W. Madison St. Plans call for work to start next spring.

“We’re at a critical time in our community,” said Reed. “But now we have an opportunity for the rebirth of the West Side. So what’s really important for us is to make sure that there’s the infrastructure and structural mechanisms where ordinary people can take a part of this new economic growth.”

The assembly hall at the now-closed Robert Emmet Elementary School is at the north end of the school property, facing Pine Avenue.
The assembly hall at the now-closed Robert Emmet Elementary School is at the north end of the school property, facing Pine Avenue.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The Health Authority will renovate the existing building, then lease space in it to other groups that provide services such as workforce development, job placement, banking, or helping residents find affordable housing.

The center is the spearhead of a larger initiative, one that would use several community organizations to bring a multitude of resources to the West Side. By The Hand Club For Kids, Austin Coming Together and the Austin College and Career Academy are the Health Authority’s partners for the initiative.

That effort calls for expanding to other sites in central Austin where other services could be offered, such as early childhood education, or help with buying a home. It also wants to help bring other retail businesses to the area.

The Health Authority met with Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), whose ward covers most of Austin, to discuss the project on Sept. 10. Taliaferro said later that he’s looking forward to the project.

“Now we’ll have a project that will help build up the West Side,” Taliaferro said. “Historically, we’ve been disinvested. This is an opportunity for the community to come together with education, jobs and other resources.”

Westside Health Authority has also sent their proposal to U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., whose congressional district includes Austin.

“It’s not easy to redevelop communities that are old, that are distressed,” Davis said. But, he added, bringing jobs back into the community is one of the best ways to spur redevelopment.

“We’ve got to track jobs back to the inner city, where the large Black population is,” Davis said.

The Health Authority hopes to get some funding from President Joe Biden’s infrastructure proposal, if it passes Congress, Reed said.

Taliaferro estimated the project could cost about $25 million, but added it was impossible to be too precise on the final price tag.

The overall Aspire Initiative is expected to cost $120 million over the next 10 years, Reed said. Besides potential federal funding, it will raise money from private investors and grants and seek other capital support from the city. It also could qualify for tax credits.

Reed said the state already has awarded his organization a $10 million grant for the Aspire Center project, and he also hopes to secure some funding from the city.

Cheyanne M. Daniels is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South and West sides.