Ald. Deborah Graham (29th Ward) issued the following statement this week in response to recent reporting from the Chicago Tribune regarding economic development concerns in Austin.
The Chicago Tribune reported this past weekend on a store opening gone wrong in the 29th Ward.
I am in the process of exploring what actions I can take as alderman, working with the city of Chicago, to correct some of the problems identified in the story (which revealed how a convicted felon got taxpayer money to open a liquor store in Austin).
(The Chicago Tribune reported today that the alderman won initial approval for a proposal to further limit drinking in areas that residents have voted dry.)
Having said that, we can also use this occasion to take a good, hard look at our community’s needs.
There are aspects of the story’s underlying theme that ring true: that we in Austin cannot rely solely on the community spirit for which we are known. A strong business community and safe neighborhoods also require increased public and private investment to support us in achieving long-term economic recovery and growth.
And I certainly agree with the following statement in the Tribune story: “Austin has never been a community that lacked for hope, hard work or the will to fight.”
The story begins with the Tribune’s report that a convicted felon received a city grant to refurbish a space at 5337 W. Madison to open a convenience store, Convenience For You.
The application for the grant was made in 2009 – before I was alderman. The application, according to the Tribune, concealed information about the applicant’s criminal background.
As this application was going through the city process, and after I became alderman in 2010, I was approached by a woman who presented herself to me as the owner of Convenience For You, who asked if I would consider lifting the liquor moratorium in the area to allow liquor sales in her store, which also sold groceries and other merchandise.
The rationale for a limited sale of alcohol is that it significantly boosts the store’s profits. This is the incentive that many small merchants desire in order to succeed in any community.
An alderman must walk a fine line in working to attract new businesses while considering the potential risks and benefits to the community.
I asked for City Council approval to lift the moratorium on liquor sales on two blocks of Madison so that this store could, under certain conditions, sell alcohol along with groceries and other items.
While there were different opinions in the community about whether to allow the store to sell liquor, there was definitely a feeling among some that we ought to provide an opportunity for an African-American businesswoman to open this store and sell liquor.
But as I told the Tribune, “If I had known then what I know now, I would not have supported them.”
I want to set the record straight on certain aspects of this matter:
*The Tribune story implied a connection between a 2012 contribution by Convenience For You and my decision to lift the moratorium temporarily to allow the store to apply for a liquor license.
There was no connection. My decision-making is never influenced by contributions, and anybody who thinks that’s case does not know me.
And as a matter of fact, this particular contribution was given to the 29th Ward Democratic Committee, not my aldermanic campaign fund, to support a February 2012 event for seniors in Austin.
*Regarding the moratorium itself, City Council action to temporarily lift moratoriums across the city is commonplace. There was nothing at all unusual about that.
*I had no involvement in reviewing the store’s application for a Small Business Improvement Fund (SBIF) grant – which, again, was filed before I was alderman. The application was processed entirely by the appropriate city department.
*When it became clear that Convenience For You was not abiding by the conditions of its plan of operation attached to the liquor license, I referred the matter to the Liquor Control Commission, which is now investigating that license. I contacted the Commission again last week when informed by the Tribune about the background of the applicant.
Most important now is where we go from here. I have already had initial conversations at City Hall about what measures we might take to prevent this kind of thing from happening again, anywhere in the city.
Finally, I’d like to close with some thoughts about our community.
In our effort to help Austin “turn the page” and boost economic and social development, we’ve had some successes in assisting social service agencies and youth programs expand recreational and educational opportunities for youth.
The Tribune’s characterization of Austin falls far short of telling the real story of our community: the resilience of our small business owners and our entrepreneurial spirit.
It fails to mention the millions in federal, state and city funds that we have brought into the community to update and renovate important community institutions like Columbus Park.
Our community urgently needs a comprehensive economic development strategy that can be attractive to investors, and that honors the concerns and priorities of our community. That is why I have convened a community planning dialogue to identify our shared priorities and give voice to the hopes and dreams of our neighbors and residents.
I want to assure my constituents, friends and neighbors that I share your concerns as well as your dreams for our neighborhoods. I invite you to join me in this process of re-imagining our community. Please be an active participant alongside me in the process so that we can build our community anew.
Ald. Deborah Graham’s office shared this press release on Friday that we wanted to pass along to you:
The alderman announced Oct. 4 that she would give back a political contribution the store made to the 29th Ward Democratic Committee.
She will give the contribution back to the Austin community – not to the store – by making a donation to the Chicago Chargers Youth Football and Cheer organization.
Through football, cheerleading and other group activities, the nonprofit provides positive alternatives for Austin teens and pre-teens, primarily from single parent households. The Chargers hope to send a squad to the United Youth Football and Cheer national championships in Plant City, Florida in December. They have gone the past two years with the help of private donations.
Ald. Graham said she has written a check to the Chargers for $1,950 – the amount of the February 2012 contribution by Convenience For You, 5337 West Madison St.
Before Convenience For You obtained its liquor license in early 2013, Ald. Graham worked with the Department of Business Affairs to impose strict conditions on the sale of alcohol at the store in response to community concerns.
For example, the store is prohibited from selling single cans of beer and malt liquor. However, the Local Liquor Commission is now investigating alleged violations of those conditions.
When the store was in the process of applying for the license, an African-American businesswoman led Ald. Graham and others to believe she was the sole owner of the store.
As had been her plan all along once the liquor license was granted, Ald. Graham filed an ordinance in September to reinstate the moratorium along a stretch of Madison Street. The ordinance has cleared a City Council committee and will be considered by the full Council at its Oct. 16th meeting.
The city also is investigating the store’s ownership following a Sept. 29 Chicago Tribune report that a convicted drug dealer was behind its successful application for a City TIF grant to renovate the building.
While Ald. Graham was not aware of or involved in the grant application – submitted in 2009 before she became alderman — it was that new information from the Tribune that led to her decision to donate the contribution.
“I’ll admit this has been a rough few days, and I want to thank all of those who have supported me during a difficult time. People who know me and know how I conduct myself personally and professionally understand there was absolutely no connection between the contribution and my moratorium decision,” said Graham.
The alderman has also noted that the contribution was made to the Ward Committee Fund to help pay for a senior citizens’ Valentine’s Day party – not to her aldermanic campaign fund.
“But no matter what I say, or how many people may stand with me, it has become very clear that this is one of those times when even a wide gap between reality and perception does not matter,” Graham said.
“When an erroneous perception starts to take hold, it’s time to act. I have prayed on this matter and have come to my decision: I will not have my reputation and integrity potentially tarnished by this misperception. My intention was good, but the perception is bad.”
She continued: “As with any challenge like this in our lives, we also have to examine our decisions and learn from them. I pledge to come out of this a wiser alderman and one deeply committed to fully involving our community in the decisions that lie ahead as we work together to strengthen the 29th Ward.”
Meantime, Graham urged residents of the 29th Ward and others to support the Chargers. “I hope others will join me in contributing to this most worthy cause. Let’s send the Chargers to the championships.”
For more information about the Chargers or to make a donation, please visit the Chargers’ website at http://chicagochargersyouth.com/.