Three years ago, the City Council signed off on 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 agreed to share the wealth with long-ignored neighborhoods on Chicago’s South and West Side.
On Monday, Emanuel made his fifth and final round of grants under the Robin Hood program he created to get sorely-needed capital to small businesses and create jobs in inner-city neighborhoods with stubbornly-high rates of unemployment.
The final results are impressive, whether or not Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot decides to keep the program or change the rules.
Nearly 200 local businesses and neighborhood organizations have now shared $47 million in grants.
That includes the latest class of 84 businesses dividing $11 million in small grants ($250,000 or less) and 10 more dividing $14 million worth of City Council-approved larger grants of more than $250,000 apiece.
Back of the Yards Council Executive Director Craig Chico is a member of the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund Advisory Council.
Chico noted that 70 percent of this year’s recipients are “entrepreneurs of color.”
“That means dis-invested neighborhoods … are getting investment,” said Chico, brother of former mayoral candidate Gery Chico.
Noting that he heard the term “equitable investment” countless times during the mayoral campaign, Craig Chico said: “This mayor started investing equitably years and years ago. And today, you are that proof.”
Emanuel announced the new round of grants Monday at a South Side fieldhouse.
He talked about a “vision” that has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams — that as “Chicago grew in the Central Business District,” it would generate “the capital for our neighborhood economy.”
“When we started this project, we thought maybe $10 [million] or $15 million. This will bring to conclusion $47 million on the South and West Side of Chicago,” the mayor said.
Emanuel then made it a point to recognize the African American aldermen who joined him at the Hamilton Park Cultural Center Fieldhouse, 513 W. 72nd Street.
They included aldermen Pat Dowell (3rd), Leslie Hairston (5th), Roderick Sawyer (6th), Michelle Harris (8th), David Moore (17th), Derrick Curtis (18th), Howard Brookins (21st), Michael Scott Jr. (24th) and Carrie Austin (34th).
A lot of other aldermen, Emanuel recalled, “said this was gonna be nothing but a slush fund.”
But some aldermen felt differently.
“They said, `No. Our neighborhoods need it,’” Emanuel added. “These are the aldermen who said, `You don’t understand what’s happening in our neighborhood. What a coffee shop, what a restaurant, what a bakery, what a new theater means to our community. What a new jazz club means. I want you to remember which aldermen stood up and said, ‘$10 million? OK. $15 [million]? Better. $47 [million]? … Those are the aldermen that stood up and said, `We want to make this happen.'”
Emanuel created the share-the-wealth fund as part of his second-term response to critics who have branded him “Mayor 1 percent” and complained his development efforts were downtown-centric.
The audience Monday included Emanuel’s wife, Amy Rule.
“Amy has heard me over the years talk about this program and how much this means to me because I know what it means to you,” the mayor said.
“No bank will take your phone call. And no family member will return your phone call. … They tell you you’re invited at Thanksgiving, but they moved the location because they don’t want to hear about your idea for the coffee shop, your idea for the pastry shop, your vision to take this brewery to the next place. And then, we got the big banks. You’re not even on their radar screen. That’s what the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund is about. … Taking every entrepreneur we have — your dreams — and making them Chicago’s reality.”
Calling retail “the backbone of this city,” Emanuel exhorted his audience to join the city in supporting the local businesses.
“There’s about 30 new coffee shops on the South Side. Visit them. Go there. … There’s eight new bakeries. Go to those bakeries. This doesn’t work if you don’t shop in the neighborhood, if you don’t go to the restaurants,” he said.
The Neighborhood Opportunity Fund has an embarrassment of riches, thanks to big-ticket development projects in and around downtown Chicago.