City officials, local leaders talk economic development

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If the amount of optimism on display at Friday’s Austin African American Business Networking Association meeting was any indication, change may indeed be finally coming to a stretch of Chicago Avenue in Austin, though specifics still need to be worked out.

Representatives from the mayor’s office, the Chicago Department of Planning and Development and the CTA were on hand to give the latest updates on ongoing discussions between officials, West Side clergy and AAABNA members.

It was the fourth time the coalition has met to discuss their visions and plans for the area, according to AAABNA executive director Malcolm Crawford.

A narrow stretch of Chicago Avenue, from Austin Boulevard to Massasoit Avenue, is being looked at as the ideal location to begin widespread improvements for all of the West Side because of the ease of accessibility and the need for a centralized “economic driver,” Crawford said.

“For years we have been talking about how in the city we have Greektown, we have Chinatown, we have Boystown, we got Little Italy . . . Ukranian Village, we got all these places that are economic drivers in those communities,” Crawford said.

“But you take a place like Austin, which is the largest concentration of African Americans in the city of Chicago, and you don’t have an economic driver which creates that engine to have economics to flow in a community.”

Crawford has been pushing for years for concentrated development.

The lack of any traditional “Main Street” hurts not only the image of the community, but does the entire city a disservice by not allowing others the opportunity to experience what the West Side could offer, Crawford said.

However, taking the ideas and turning them into something tangible may still be a ways off, said Brad McConnell, of the city’s planning and development department.

“I don’t know (how long the planning phase will last), but we don’t have the patience to wait for a very, very long time. To be honest, we want to see action and not just talk,” McConnell said.

“Having said that, we need to be somewhat patient to make sure the community has come together, devised a vision amongst themselves and then — once the community is comfortable with what that is — then after that you execute that, but not before then. But that shouldn’t take years; that should take some time, but not too much time.”

It’s also unclear where money to fund these projects would come from, whether it would come from government grants, investments from the city and/or from private industry.

“The mayor and the city of Chicago are committed to (the developments plans), and when they’re committed to it, I believe the money will be found,” said 29th Ward Ald.-Elect Chris Taliaferro. “But a lot of the money is going to come from the community as well.”

Despite the uncertainty of development plans and sources of funding, some area business owners were encouraged by the tone of Friday’s meeting.

“I thought (the meeting) was real good,” said John Bitoy, owner of Bitoy’s Sweet Treats at 5957 W. Chicago Ave. and Bitoy’s Bistro, 5946 W. Chicago Ave. “I’ve been out here for all my life, and I’ve seen improvement. It’s perfect, it’s a good step in the right direction.”

Business leaders will meet again 9 a.m. May 22 at Sankofa, 5820 W. Chicago Ave.

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