Something good happened in Austin

March 24, 2014
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Too many times, the stories that come out of our community are the ones filled with doom and gloom. The stories are generally about how something went wrong or how someone has done somebody wrong.

But the story that I am about to tell you is one of success – success in the face of all odds and of victory through hard work. This story is also about how when we as a community work together, we can achieve greatness for us all.

I had the pleasure this past week to be invited to the grand opening of the expansion of Betty’s Daycare Academy, in the 5700 block of Chicago Avenue. I was so excited to see the fruits of the labor of longtime Austin residents, the Hughes Family.

For those of you who can remember just a few years ago, the 5700 block of Chicago Avenue had fallen on hard times, and the most notable business was the Salvation Army store at the southwest corner of Chicago Avenue and Parkside Street.

At one time there had been a record shop. But it had long since been vacated, and then there was old Mr. Hunt’s “everything” shop. I remember buying my first stove from Mr. Hunt way back in the day.

After Mr. Hunt died, those properties fell on hard times. But in stepped Ms. Betty Hughes, a soft-spoken woman of faith. Where others saw a vacant and unusable building – which some say should have been torn down – Ms. Hughes had a vision of hope and restoration.

For 10 years, she operated her daycare from her house, but it soon became evident that she could not continue in her home because more and more parents began telling their friends about the excellent child care they had found.

Ms. Hughes began the task of looking for a commercial location. With the help of Ford Desired Realty and now-state Rep. La Shawn K. Ford, she was able to purchase and totally rehab the old record shop at 5725 W. Chicago Ave.

She opened her daycare at this location and was able to operate there for four years.

After a few years, Ms. Hughes told me that God had given her a vision of kids playing in the property next door, which was then owned by Mr. Hunt. So she explained her vision and him told him he may as well sell it to her because it was already hers, he was just occupying the location.

Mr. Hunt began to negotiate the sale of the property, but soon fell ill and made some bad business decisions about what to do with the building.

The city of Chicago wanted to demolish the property. Ms. Hughes called the Austin African American Business Networking Association (AAABNA) and asked if there was anything that could be done to help save the property.

AAABNA called Rev. Lewis Flowers who was down the street at the Westside Ministers Coalition (WMC), and together they sprung into action gathering support from local business owners via a petition to the court to stop the demolition.

They also wrote personal letters to the judge about the need to halt the demolition of other properties in business districts. AAABNA and WMC decided to involve the state’s attorney’s community justice office, which through its link with the city’s Troubled Building Initiative began to follow the case and advocate for a stay of demolition.

While many were working to save the property on Chicago Avenue, Ms. Hughes was encouraged to go speak with the new alderman in her ward, Deborah L. Graham. Ald. Graham said this was a personal project and she would get right on it.

With everyone working together, the city of Chicago decided to stop the demolition and Mr. Hunt’s estate also decided to quit claim the property to Ms. Hughes.

That alone would be enough to celebrate, but then Ms. Hughes learned about the Small Business Improvement Fund Grant (SBIF).

Ms. Hughes, with more encouragement and much faith, applied and was approved. Her application was later disapproved on a technicality.

So again, Ald. Graham helped to clear the way for Ms. Hughes to receive the funds. The grant administrators at Somercor agreed and released the funds.

This reminds me of the African proverb that states, “When spider webs unite they can stop an elephant from charging.”

So now when you drive through the 5700 block of West Chicago Avenue and the brightly colored windows of Betty’s Day Care Academy catch your eye (courtesy of Corbin the sign man), you can feel a sense of pride knowing that community, businesses and government all worked together through the visionary Ms. Betty Hughes to bring something good to the Austin neighborhood.

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