What’s really going on?

April 25, 2014
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As I wake up, my mind begins to think about the Austin community, and the years, months and days of broken promises and neglect.

We have organizations that come in with stipulations and focus on selected groups that meet their program’s criteria.

Now don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with focusing on the need; the key is how it’s implemented and the restrictions that get put in place.

Take the YMCA, which operated in the community since 1913, occupying the building at 501 N. Central Ave. until it decided to close its doors in fall 2012, negating its importance to the community.

There were meetings, press conference and marches on the Metropolitan Chicago YMCA headquarters, but it did not stop the closing. Later the community learned the building was sold for $1 to SRHAC (Single Room Housing Assistance Corp.), which rent rooms for $99 a week.

Then there’s By The Hand Club for Kids at Kinzie and Laramie, which buses children in from selected schools.

What kind of message does it send to the children who live in the community who have the same needs but find when they try to enter they’re not allowed?

The third group is the New Moms Inc. on Chicago and Lorel, which used to be the old police station.

With all these programs, there are limits on who can participate and benefit, leaving some people needing assistance out in the cold.

What about the organizations operating in the area that could benefit from funding used to develop and sustain these other programs? Why is it we see more and more outside groups with funding for new buildings then we see already existing groups getting the resources they need to continue doing what they’re doing?

We live in a commercial development area, which allows TIF (Tax Increment Financing) funds to be used for development. The commercial development commissions hold regular meetings to discuss the areas that could benefit from this funding.

I have gone through all the meeting agendas and minutes, and I cannot find any funds that have been designated for redevelopment in Austin.

Where did all the TIF funds go? What was done with the funds, and who received them?

Buildings like the Austin Town Hall and the nearby Austin library branch need attention.

The goal of the Austin Commercial TIF (designated in 2007) is to help build strong and viable shopping districts that serve the residential community and also foster investment.

Yet we still have vacant lots and abandoned buildings; we have more liquor stores than we need. We have people standing outside the stores selling loose cigarettes; we have people pushing carts with goods they have retrieved.

Why not use these TIF funds and NIP (Neighborhood Improvement Program) grants, which help fix property.

As a community, we need to be able to take advantage of every opportunity. If there is a promise to assist, then make sure all the facts are laid out so people can make good decisions and not get blindsided when they learn there are restrictions on how the money can be used.

Our community has many outside organizations that have the full support of key people and a few who have enough recognition to get funding. Why is there no assistance to help build and nurture other organizations already working in Austin?

I see in our community buildings with owners or heads of organizations who don’t put the community’s interest first. When you really look at a program or building, does it help the community as a whole or does it help only a selected group?

Operating in the old Y building, I see an organization that provides a place to lay your head but does not adequately provide the tools needed to get residents moving out of the facility and becoming self sufficient.

Fix what is here already. Get organizations that are doing the work up and running, so they can be sustained, and do this before bringing in outside people. It’s not fair, and it sends the message of an uncaring heart.

Stop selling this community out to the highest bidder; we want our neighborhood to be just as nice as any other community. It’s easy to have someone come in from the outside, but how about building from the inside out?

Knowledge is power. People, let us stop settling, we need to get out and let our voice be heard if we want to see some change. You can’t make a change sitting on the couch and pointing your finger at what you think someone else should do.

We all play a part in the dysfunction in our neighborhood – and in turning it around.

Look at other areas nearby. Oak Park took the Aldi on Lake Avenue and built a new gymnastics facility, and Ridgeland Commons, a little farther over on Lake Avenue, is being rebuilt.

Surely, you can see their TIF funds going to work, but yet we have organizations and buildings here in Austin needing that same attention but not getting it.

Where is the help to renovate Austin Town Hall and the library next door? The YMCA building needs serious upgrading. And we have two vacate schools – Emmet and Key – that need be be repaired and put back in our community.

Do we care about rebuilding, or will we let our community decay? Street repaving, new lights, renovated houses, investment in schools, repaired alleys, cleaned-up lots – this is what our community needs.

If we don’t care, who will? We did not get here overnight, and it will not change overnight. But the time to start the change is now.

Renna Thomas has lived in the community for over 42 years. She loves conversation that “provokes a thought process” and helps “bring you back to reality.”

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