An empty city block in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood is slated to become a busy high-tech educational center.
Comer Education Campus wants to build a 50,000-square-foot building, dubbed “The XChange,” in the 7300 block of South Chicago Avenue.
About 7,000 people would be trained in the first 10 years at the innovation hub for tech jobs, such as cybersecurity technicians and software engineers, officials said.
The South Side organization wants to complete the project with the help of the Pritzker Traubert Foundation’s $10 million Chicago Prize 2022. The prize is part of a larger $30 million commitment by the foundation to increase development over the next three years on the South and West sides.
Comer Education is one of six finalists for the prize. The winner will be announced in December.
Regardless of whether Comer Education wins the prize, construction of The XChange will begin next summer. But the prize money would “accelerate both the scale and the speed” of the project, said Greg Mooney, president of Comer Education.
Other educational sites are in the area. Comer College Prep School is on the 7100 block of South Chicago Avenue. A library and Comer’s Youth Center is nearby, as well as an urban farm.
“This is really an opportunity to expand that education corridor and turn it into an innovation education corridor,” Mooney said.
The planned development also is a way to help ensure the South Side has ties to technology, the project’s leaders said.
“What we learned by talking to students and their families is that they really want a sustainable future,” said Rhonda Hopps, executive director of Comer Education. “And they want to have a clear path that they can see a line of sight between work I do today and what my future could be, and not have to be theoretical.”
Bitwise, a tech company based in Chicago that is partnering with Comer Education, will help participants find jobs either working for Bitwise or other companies.
The barrier to entry into the tech field is relatively low, XChange organizers said. Participants don’t need a four-year degree. In some cases, they might not need a high school diploma, organizers said.
But those wanting to enter the tech field must take classes and have about 2,000 hours of training as apprentices, which are paid positions, they said.
“In order to get your foot in the door in tech, you just need really supportive skills, training and then wraparound services that can help alleviate any challenges that might inhibit learning,” said Beth Mily, president of Bitwise Industries.
Brad Henderson, CEO of P33, a nonprofit organization focused on Chicago’s tech future, said his organization is partnering with Comer in part to help improve the city’s abysmal tech workforce diversity.
“In Chicago, there are tens of thousands of open positions that pay $85,000 a year,” Henderson said. “We have this crazy data that basically says that Chicago has about 63% people of color, and its tech workforce is about 14% people of color.”
The Chicago Sun-Times receives funding from the Pritzker Traubert Foundation.
Mariah Rush is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South and West sides.