BMO Harris Bank giving $10 million to bolster Austin

October 27, 2019
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Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Oct. 22, 2019, speaks at a press conference at which BMO Harris Bank announced a $10 million gift to primarily help Austin. | Photo by Courtney Morrison, courtesy of United Way of Metro Chicago

BMO Harris Bank is donating $10 million to help deepen its impact in the Chicago community with a specific focus on resident-led efforts guided by Austin Coming Together.

“Economic inclusion and strong neighborhoods go hand in hand,” BMO Harris Bank CEO David R. Casper said in a statement. “As an institution with deep Chicago roots, we consider it our responsibility to boldly grow the good across the city, and that includes building strong, resilient neighborhoods.”

The donation – the largest corporate gift in United Way of Metro Chicago’s history – will be used to help implement Austin’s quality of life plan and to support social service infrastructure and development in the city’s most-populated community area.

The investment was announced last week at an event hosted by Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who has a plan to bolster economic development on the West and South Sides. She was surrounded by a number of local elected officials – including Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), Emma Mitts (37th), Jason Ervin (28th) and Michael Scott Jr. (24th); and state Rep. Camille Lilly – as well Maurice Cox, as newly appointed city commissioner of planning and development.

United Way of Metro Chicago is also contributing $25 million over five years to help support community-led projects and address challenges in several West and South Side Chicago neighborhoods as part of its Neighborhood Network Initiative.

“Austin is now at this tipping point. Everyone is poised to take action on the things that they have all identified as holding them back,” Darnell Shields, executive director of Austin Coming Together, said in a statement. “Without United Way’s Neighborhood Network Initiative and supporters like BMO Harris Bank, I honestly don’t think Austin Coming Together would have evolved into the force that we are today, leading this community renaissance.”

Sean Garrett, president and CEO of United Way of Metro Chicago, praised the work Austin Coming Together has done since its formation in 2010.

“Darnell and his team at Austin Coming Together have laid out a clear plan and have established the framework to bring it to life,” Garrett said in a statement. “We look forward to partnering in neighborhoods across the city to continue these efforts.”

With Austin Coming Together also acting as the lead agency for United Way of Metro Chicago’s Austin Neighborhood Network, the focus now is how to spend the $10 million.

“The majority of those resources are to facilitate projects that are moving the quality of life plan forward,” Shields said in an interview.

Shields said the money will be spent on projects like the redevelopment of both Chicago Avenue and Central Avenue.

Malcolm Crawford, executive director of the Austin African American Business Networking Association, said the donation will help attract business back to Austin and accelerate development for the Soul City Corridor along Chicago Avenue.

“Now we have opportunities to start bringing our money back to our community and start doing development,” Crawford said. “Look at it now because there will be a place soon where you can come, and everything you see in the other parts of the city of Chicago, [will] be right here on the West Side.”

Ed Siderewicz, co-founder and director of mission and external relations at Catalyst Schools, is excited to continue partnering with Austin Coming Together and to see the redevelopment along another busy street on the West Side: Central Avenue.

“We’re working hard so that this [investment] could just ripple up and down Central Avenue to create this significant economic engine for the West Side,” Siderewicz said.

Another project likely to receive funding is the redevelopment of Robert Emmet Elementary, which CPS closed in 2013 then sold to the West Side Health Authority in 2018. The plan is to turn the now vacant school in the heart of Austin into a “workforce innovation center” where career development programs can be offered.

“I’ve been in this work now going on 10 years … and so to see this level of commitment be matched by investment is just being well-received and really exciting,” Shields said.

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