INVEST South/West has given a boost to Austin, Auburn-Gresham

Three years in, INVEST South/West has secured significant investment commitments, but many people are still asking if the program has had an impact. We can vociferously say it has.

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The Auburn Gresham Healthy Lifestyle Hub, which will house health and education-focused facilities, a bank and a restaurant, is located at 839 W. 79th St. in the Gresham neighborhood.

Auburn Gresham’s Healthy Lifestyle Hub, which houses health and education-focused facilities, a bank and a restaurant, is at 839 W. 79th St.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

As leaders of Austin’s African American Business Networking Association (AAABNA) and Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation (GAGDC), we have spent decades fighting against disinvestment in our South and West Side communities.

Historically, this commitment was not always shared by some leaders at City Hall. We learned early on we would have to fight for what Austin and Auburn Gresham residents deserve — economic prosperity, good-paying jobs and local commercial amenities.

Now, we can honestly say our neighborhoods are changing for the better, and that is in large part due to the unprecedented support and collaboration with Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration.

Since the launch of INVEST South/West, our organizations have provided community stakeholders with a direct connection to City Hall through the Corridor Manager program, ensuring the voices and needs of residents and business owners remain front and center. By giving us a seat at the table, the mayor is signaling she sees our communities’ economic potential and wants to tap into our underutilized troves of talent.

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Three years in, INVEST South/West has secured nearly $2 billion of investment commitments, but many people are still asking if the program has had an impact. We can vociferously say it has.

There was a groundbreaking ceremony in August for the $43 million Auburn Gresham Apartments project, and we’re gearing up for the public grand opening of GAGDC’s Healthy Lifestyle Hub across the street.

On the West Side, the $39 million Austin United Alliance development is expected to break ground soon at the historic Laramie State Bank site. Right down the block, there is a new public outdoor plaza, POPCourt!, where residents can gather and host celebrations in an uplifting and colorful setting.

With the pandemic’s continued impact on supply chain, worker shortage and construction costs, we’ve been especially excited to see existing projects flourish as others get started.

As part of the Corridor Manager program, INVEST South/West has held more than 200 community sessions with city officials of the planning and development, cultural affairs and special events, and transportation departments. Residents are treated like equal partners, and they are kept abreast of the projects every step of the way.

From day one, the city has partnered with the private sector to make investments that strengthen both neighborhoods and businesses. Earlier this month, Lightfoot led a bus tour of more than 40 national retailers through the Austin Soul City corridor and several other neighborhoods.

But INVEST South/West isn’t just designed to attract larger businesses. The program has also provided critical funding to dozens of local businesses, including L. May Creations, Bitoy’s Sweet Treats, Mikkey’s Retro Grill and The Beauty Experience.

Thanks to INVEST South/West, residents can walk out their doors and grab cheesecake from Schweet, sit under the shade on the POPCourt! and soon spend the afternoon in the Blues Museum in the Laramie State Bank building.

Our neighborhoods are past the point of anticipation. There isn’t another program like INVEST South/West in the country, and Lightfoot should be commended for her efforts to bring about change in the city. The promise of transformational community improvement was merely a talking point until she came into office.

While so much has happened already, there is much more in the pipeline — a pipeline that was nearly empty a few years ago. Now our neighborhoods are seeing cranes in the sky, and they deliver a powerful message that change is already here.

Malcolm Crawford is executive director of the African American Business Networking Association. Carlos Nelson is chief executive officer of the Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corp.

The views and opinions expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chicago Sun-Times or any of its affiliates.

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