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.
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 by the Tribune reporters: "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 West 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, and 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 or not 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.
The second session of this community planning process will be held this coming Wednesday, October 2 at 6:30pm at Shriners Hospital, 2211 N. Oak Park Ave.
I hope to see many residents of the 29th Ward in attendance to continue to develop our shared vision for economic development in our communities.
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 (29th Ward) issued the above statement today in response to recent reporting from the Chicago Tribune regarding economic development concerns in the Austin community.