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Lightfoot awards $10 million in Neighborhood Opportunity Fund grants to 27 entrepreneurs

The fund was created by the mayor’s predecessor, Rahm Emanuel. Developers are allowed to build bigger and taller projects downtown if they pay into the fund, which focuses on long-neglected South and West side neighborhoods.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Monday announced $10 million in Neighborhood Opportunity Fund grants were being awarded to 27 Chicago entrepreneurs. Individual grants range from $49,000 to $1.7 million.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Monday announced $10 million in Neighborhood Opportunity Fund grants were being awarded to 27 Chicago entrepreneurs. Individual grants range from $49,000 to $1.7 million. The announcement was made at the DuSable Museum of African American History.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Five years ago, then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel devised a plan to counter complaints that his downtown-centric development efforts had left Chicago neighborhoods behind.

Emanuel let developers in a broader downtown area build bigger and taller projects so long as they agreed to share the wealth with long-neglected neighborhoods on the South and West sides.

On Monday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot basked in the glow of her predecessor’s brainchild, doling out $10 million in Neighborhood Opportunity Fund grants to 27 Chicago entrepreneurs.

Individual grants range from $49,000 to $1.7 million. They mark the second round of grants awarded since Lightfoot took office and revamped the program to fuel her signature Invest South/West initiative.

No wonder more than half the designated businesses are located along commercial strips designated as part of Invest South/West, and 75% of the finalists are people of color.

Grant winners include a juice bar in Humboldt Park, a shared kitchen in Greater Grand Crossing and a dance studio in Calumet Heights.

They were chosen by an evaluation committee based on factors including location and viability of the project; applicant experience; completeness of the proposal; and the needs of the surrounding neighborhood.

The Opportunity Fund “helps to strengthen commercial corridors on our South, Southwest and West Sides by providing commercial and cultural projects with funds generated from downtown developments,” Lightfoot told a news conference in the rotunda of the DuSable Museum of African American History, 740 E. 56th Place.

“The program also helps creatives and entrepreneurs from under-represented backgrounds gain access to the capital, mentorship and resources they need to get their projects off the ground.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot at Monday’s announcement of another round of grants from the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund. Lightfoot spoke at the DuSable Museum of African American History, 740 E. 56th Pl.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot at Monday’s announcement of another round of grants from the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund. Lightfoot spoke at the DuSable Museum of African American History.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Without mentioning Emanuel’s name, Lightfoot noted she made the program her own by “heeding complaints” of business owners.

“Instead of giving matching grants, which we heard too often were really, truly beyond the reach of the average business owner, we changed this program completely to ... pure grants to cover a majority of, if not all, project costs, and provide finalists with access to technical advisers as they navigate their financing,” she said.

“We heard over and over again that these kinds of supports were gonna make a difference between whether or not a ... recipient was actually able to take advantage of the grants and then be able to thrive on the back side by implementing their business plan.”

Planning and Development Commissioner Maurice Cox said one of the hardest parts of being an entrepreneur is securing construction financing. Neighborhood Opportunity Fund grants will help those entrepreneurs clear that hurdle, he said.

Lightfoot said her second round of Neighborhood Opportunity Fund grants will “support more than $20 million in retail improvements along commercial corridors” on the West, South and Southwest Sides.

“We are well poised for our economic recovery. ... But we can’t truly recover if we leave anyone behind. And we can’t afford to leave behind businesses in neighborhoods that have been traditionally under-served and under-invested in,” she said.

“So, when our Black and Brown residents don’t have equal access to opportunities to grow their businesses and obtain upward mobility, folks, we all lose.”

Cox said one of the hardest parts of being an entrepreneur is securing construction financing. Neighborhood Opportunity Fund grants will help those entrepreneurs clear that hurdle, he said.

“We’re here to celebrate your business acumen, your creativity and the knowledge that our 27 determined entrepreneurs can bring to neighborhoods that need them the most,” Cox said.

Though approved by the City Council under Emanuel, Lightfoot made the program her own with reforms tailor-made to fuel her $750 million plan to bring “transformative change” to 10 such neighborhoods.

The changes paved 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 grants are an unapologetic effort of the city to level the playing field by redistributing wealth generated at the center of our city to the South, Southwest and the West Sides,” Cox said.

“So folks, this is about equity. It’s about equitable development. It’s about resiliency. It’s about innovative financing. It’s about building the capacity of our entrepreneurial sector. And it’s about making a difference in Black and Brown business owners that are pursuing greatness in their own way.”

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

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

The largest single commitment — $67 million — is for the Tribune properties at 777 W. Chicago Ave., where multiple buildings are planned.

The downtown bonus system directs 80% of its receipts to the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund, with the remainder going to landmarks and local infrastructure.

Since its inception, the fund has benefited 250 Chicago businesses.

Council approval is required for all grants over $250,000.