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$5.4M in city Neighborhood Opportunity Fund grants awarded to 32 businesses, half owned by minorities

The grants are the first to be awarded since Mayor Lori Lightfoot took office and the first since she reformed Rahm Emanuel’s Robin Hood plan to make it her own and fuel her Invest South/West program.

Free Street Theater in Back of the Yards is in line for a $47,000 grant that will be used to renovate its existing storefront theater.
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A fitness center in Austin and a grocery store in Auburn Gresham. A deli in Back of the Yards, a restaurant in Bronzeville and a bakery in Little Village.

Those are among the 32 Chicago businesses sharing $5.4 million, thanks to the first round of Neighborhood Opportunity Fund grants awarded since Mayor Lori Lightfoot took office and the first since she revamped the program to fuel her Invest South/West initiative.

Grants will range from $37,000 to $250,000, with specific amounts finalized as projects are refined. Nearly 90% of the recipient businesses are minority-owned. Half are located in commercial corridors targeted under Invest South/West.

“They’re just a host of neighborhood-serving amenities that we are trying to populate the front doors of these neighborhoods with,” Planning and Development Commissioner Maurice Cox told the Chicago Sun-Times.

When Cox came to Chicago from Detroit, he talked about creating “20-minute neighborhoods,” in which all of the elements of a livable community were within a 20-minute walk. That is true now more than ever during the coronavirus pandemic, he said.

“Crises may come and go, but you still need a place to do your dry cleaners. You still need a place to go grocery shopping. You still need a place to have a sit-down meal. These are 32 entrepreneurs who have compelling visions and business plans that want to fill that space,” the commissioner said.

Karla Estela Rivera, executive director of Free Street Theater, is in line for a $47,000 grant that will be used to renovate an existing storefront theater in Back of the Yards.

“It’s an old storefront that used to be an air conditioner repair shop. We have had that space since 2017. What we want to do is transform it into a fully functional theater and multipurpose space that serves as a community artistic hub, producing shows that are by, for, in and about the Back of the Yards community” Rivera said.

“Arts spaces merit this kind of infusion as an essential part of not only the revitalization of a community, but also as a continued staple of a community.”

Taylor Staten is in line for a $180,000 grant she plans to use to hire two part-time design assistants and convert an old building at 2320 East 79th Street into an architectural design studio instead of running the business out of her home.

“I’ll be able to purchase my first location and, potentially, start an architecture camp for young Black students in the neighborhood. It means that more young Black kids will be able to learn about architecture. And it will be the first Black-owned architecture design studio on the South Side. I’m very excited. It means a lot for the community,” Staten said.

Four years ago, the City Council signed off on then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to generate a pot of money to rebuild struggling neighborhoods at the expense of downtown developers.

Despite concerns it would create a mayoral “slush fund” akin to tax-increment financing, aldermen agreed to let developers in a broader downtown area build bigger and taller projects so long as they agree to share the wealth with long-ignored neighborhoods on the South and West sides.

Lightfoot made the Robin Hood program her own with reforms tailor-made to fuel her $750 million plan to bring “transformative change” to 10 such neighborhoods.

The changes pave the way for businesses to recoup 100% of a project’s total price tag, provided they are owned and staffed by local residents. Recipients get access to lending coaches, design professionals, construction advisers and program “concierges.”

“These are architects . . . who will give them assistance on how to build out their interiors and how to restore their storefronts to construction managers who will help them identify contractors who can do the work to financial coaches,’’ Cox said. I really think this kind of team of folks that are available to them now to move their project forward is going to get them to the finish line.”

Before the coronavirus pandemic brought development to a virtual halt, the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund became an embarrassment of riches, thanks to the downtown development boom.

The biggest payment to date was generated by the now-completed Bank of America Tower project at 110 N. Wacker Dr., with a $22.9 million contribution.

The downtown bonus system that directs 80% of its receipts to NOF, with the remainder going to landmarks and local infrastructure, has received contributions from 60 downtown projects. Together, they have generated approximately $227.8 million in commitments and $95.1 million in collections to date.