Escorted by Cook County officials, I am taken on a tour of some of the poorest suburbs in the Chicago region targeted for economic development as part of a new government strategy.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle attempted to explain her vision during a telephone call, but I am not the sort who does well when asked to conceptualize. I need to see for myself.
Preckwinkle stressed that instead of Cook County government making piecemeal improvements in the region as needs arose, there now is a plan in place to coordinate highway improvements, public transportation, economic development, housing and infrastructure development.
The south suburban region of Cook County – with large pockets of poverty, high unemployment, a multitude of abandoned homes and businesses – will become the focus of this coordinated approach at regional development, Preckwinkle said.
There will be early intervention programs for at-risk youth to keep them out of the criminal justice system and other programs aimed at providing better health care to area residents, I am told.
Cook County’s Land Bank Authority is working closely with municipalities to identify vacant, abandoned and tax delinquent properties that can be acquired and revitalized.
Cook County officials have met with church groups, civic organizations, business leaders, South Suburban Mayors and Managers, and municipal leaders to get their ideas for future development projects.
For those unfamiliar with a region that includes Robbins, Harvey, and Ford Heights, just to name a few, these areas have struggled for decades with economic disinvestment, skyrocketing property tax rates and crumbling infrastructure.
Wealthier suburbs have funds to hire highly qualified business managers, economic directors and other full-time staff with expertise, but to pay marketing and legal consultants for their advice.
As we travel north of I-294 on Halsted Avenue, John Yonan, Cook County’s superintendent of transportation and highways, explains that not long ago when the county spent money on a road project, the only projects that would get money were those owned by the county.
Even if a nearby, intersecting municipal road was falling apart, the county wouldn’t pitch in.
Now the county is actively seeking out projects where it can use its assets, financial and technical, to help communities rebuild or widen roads, especially where it can make a difference for an entire region.
Our immediate destination is a CN (Canadian National) Intermodal Yard in Harvey at 169th and Center streets. Center Street, a county road, needed widening to accommodate the truck traffic, but the county discovered a local road, 167th Street, that was crumbling and also needed improvements. So although the road is Harvey’s, the county helped finance the project, and its engineer provided local oversight.
Not far away Sterling Lumber was looking to relocate from Blue Island to Phoenix but needed road improvements to accommodate traffic at 151st Street, and another local road, 156th Street, in front of L.B. Steel, was crumbling, so the county provided money and designed both projects.
We visit some other south suburban locations as well, including a steel manufacturing site and a paper mill, all of which are keeping and adding jobs for local residents.
“What we’re trying to do is target projects that also have a broader impact on economic development throughout a region,” said Mike Jasso, economic development bureau chief for Cook County.
Cook County recently put out a public call to local governments to act as partners on transportation projects that would include not just road improvements and public transportation, but potentially pedestrian, bicycle, transit and freight-related improvements, with the object being the greatest regional impact possible.
I am told the county is also in the process of putting together a long-range marketing plan for the south suburbs, a key if commercial growth and community revitalization is going to occur.
The important thing is that suburbs in need of help now have a place to turn to for professional assistance and guidance. Preckwinkle has the right idea. It’s only a first step, but it’s a big one in the right direction.
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