Venture: Englewood pins hopes on new tax district

While unemployment rates have started to fall, some parts of Chicago have persistently high unemployment. The community of Englewood hopes that new tax incentives could lure business - and jobs - to a vast stretch of open land.

April 18, 2011

By Natalie Moore and Alex Keefe

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Each week on Venture, we trek out into the local business scene to see how wider economic trends are playing out on the micro-level. This week, we'll get unemployment rates for cities across Illinois.

The state's been slowly adding jobs again, but the gains aren't spread evenly. It's particularly tough to jumpstart the economy of a blighted area.

Take Englewood, for example. On 69th Street near Wentworth Avenue, there are 18 acres of vacant land that used to be Kennedy-King City College. That empty stretch of land – the size of several football fields – represents promise to many people in the community who would like to see the vast expanse translate into jobs. But they want something more than just big box stores.
 
A financial boost might come in May, when an economic development tool—tax increment financing—likely will be approved. With the TIF as a lever, residents have what you might call a business plan for the 67th Street corridor.

Asiaha Butler is an organizer with Resident Association of Greater Englewood, known as R.A.G.E. She meets up for an interview at Dunkin Donuts off of 63rd Street in Englewood because “this is the closest thing we have to a sit-down cafe,” Butler says. But she's hoping a TIF will change that picture.
 
TIFs have been controversial - criticized for being a slush fund for Mayor Richard Daley.  Some tax money gets collected and earmarked to help lure business development. But TIF money often has flowed to areas that aren’t blighted.
 
In Englewood, it’s a different story. In theory, this is the kind of area TIFs were designed for. That’s why residents like Butler are eager for the opportunity to put a renewed economic shot in their neighborhood.
 
“Our wish list – a produce store was first off. Art gallery to some type of museum of some sort. Retail space and also office space – a couple of office buildings where people can actually lease space. Anything that would draw businesses in and anything that will keep people here,” Butler said.
 
Butler is a young professional with a family who chose to move back to Englewood as an adult. Her grandfather was one of the first blacks to move in the neighborhood in the 1930s. He owned a candy store called Cheap Charlie’s.
 
Today, Englewood has higher unemployment and crime rates than most Chicago neighborhoods. But it’s also a community of strong block clubs. Some R.A.G.E. members will be on a newly formed TIF advisory committee.
 
Butler for one is doing her homework. “I remember Wicker Park being a place where most people were scared to walk down the street,” Butler said. “And it has totally turned itself around.”
 
Butler walks around Englewood, camera in tow.
 
“I take pictures all the time to just show the blighted areas,” she said. “And I see it as opportunity. That means basically we have a clean slate.”

But actually filling that empty stretch of land with businesses may not be easy. Outgoing Ald. Freddrenna Lyle, 6th, says the community needs to be involved in deciding what comes in.

“So now that we are here with a blank slate we are taking a new look at we’re going to have community meetings again,” Lyle said. “The community, at a minimum, they want some retail.”
 
Lyle recognizes that blight may be the reason a TIF-generated economic development project belongs here.  But it’s also what makes even a vast vacant area like hers a hard sell.
 
“The problem is because it’s blighted and because business people are very conservative, they don’t take risks,” Lyle said. “That’s not how they make money by taking risks and having a vision of what’s to come. It’s going to be a hard sell. That’s why I say it may take multiple developers.”
 
Rachel Weber is an urban planner and policy professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago. She’s also an expert on TIFs. She agrees Englewood is the exact kind of neighborhood that TIFs are for. But the downside of a TIF in a blighted area is that it’s seen as a silver bullet.
 
“What we found is that that’s not always the case. You really need to have independent market interest in an area,” Weber said. “TIF alone is not going transform a neighborhood that has no retail activity to a thriving commercial district.”
 
Weber says about one third of Chicago’s TIF districts are dormant – mostly in neglected areas on the South and West sides.
 
“You need the city to overcome some of the sort of the site-specific impediments of the area so you may need to sweeteners, some city incentives,” she said.
 
But she says residents need to be business-savvy.
 
“There are certain kinds of businesses that are going to ignore sort of an urban-format store at all costs,” Weber said. “They only are comfortable in a suburban retail strip so it doesn’t make sense to pursue retailers that will have no interest in moving to the city.”
 
Weber says Englewood has many community assets to flaunt. Public transportation is plentiful.  There’s an expressway nearby. Englewood is home to major institutions such as a hospital and a brand-new Kennedy-King campus. There’s also density.
 
Jake Cowan is with LISC Chicago, a nonprofit that helps jumpstart community organization and development. He says residents can be resourceful -- helping create, for instance, a clean and neat neighborhood appearance for interested developers.
 
“So things communities can do to help encourage that are as simple as working on cleaning up vacant lots in their community,” Cowan said. “Things like a block club adopting a couple of lots or a church adopting a couple of lots. Just going out with trash bags and trash cans.”
 
Englewood residents may earn below the city’s median household income. But there’s something else the neighborhood has to offer in a business relationship– concentrated buying power.
 
According to LISC, Englewood residents have $109 million buying power per square mile – $25 million more than a typical Cook County square mile.
 
Every week on Venture, we bring you something called the Windy Indicator. That's where we try to get a read on the wider economy by looking at one small piece of it.

This week, we bring you the Lamb Index. Orthodox Easter is this coming Sunday, and for a Greek boy like WBEZ's Alex Keefe, that means leg of lamb, studded with garlic, slathered in lemon and olive oil and roasted “to rich perfection.”

So what's the price of family tradition?

Last year it was around $3.89 a pound, now it's more like $4.50, according to Nick Tsoukas, manager of Olympia Meat Market in the West Loop.

Historic floods in New Zealand and Australia, where about half our lamb comes from, have crippled imports, Tsoukas says. Couple that drop in supply with Americans' increasing taste for the meat, and Tsoukas says his wholesale price for an entire Easter lamb has about doubled since 2010. So this year for the first time, he's asking customers to put a deposit down on their holiday supper.

“Always seven or 10 people don't show up for their lambs, so now it's a different ballgame,” Tsoukas said. “It's going to be $200 for one lamb. We can't afford to lose that.”

Tsoukas said Easter orders are down a bit from last year. But he thinks people will wind up buying lamb in spite of the price.

“I think people are still going to buy lamb just because it's Easter,” Tsoukas said. “Whether the price will be very high or not, it's part of their tradition.”

So is there any chance of Greek people across Chicago serving chicken instead this year? Tsoukas says, not a chance.

Next week, our Windy Indicator meets the man behind the machine – the vending machine, that is.