The old Brach’s Candy factory in Austin sits shuttered, empty and abandoned, looking like some run-down plant in one of those post-apocalyptic action movies. But in the eyes of LaShawn Ford, Democratic nominee for state rep. in the 8th District, the sprawling factory and surrounding land is a potential goldmine for the community.
Ford, who won the Democratic nomination in the March 21 Primary, sees the location housing the main factory, office building and parking lot as the possible site of a new school for Austin.
Ford, owner of Ford Desired Real Estate in Austin, said he has no immediate proposal for the site, but envisions building a college-like campus for high school and junior high school students in Austin on the land just north of Cicero and Lake.
“We can definitely get it done,” said Ford at a recent summit on education. “The Austin community needs a school, and I can’t see a more perfect place than this right here.”
The Brach’s plant, at 402 N. Cicero, covering a total of 2 million square feet over 32 acres of land to the east of Cicero, has been abandoned since 2003. Gold Realty Group Corp., a suburban-based industrial property owner, currently owns the plant, office buildings and smaller factories. Gold Realty, through its brokerage firm Paine/Wetzel INCOR International, is hoping to sell the Brach’s property for $10 million.
Ford said private donors and some state dollars could fund a school on the site. The factories would be torn down and possibly the old office building could be restored to house classrooms or campus administration, he said. There are, however, several factors standing in the way of Ford’s idea.
The entire site housing the factory space is zoned for industrial use only by the City of Chicago, though Ford said he doesn’t think that would be an insurmountable problem.
“They’ll rezone it if we say we want this land for a school [and] for the kids in our community. How can they say no to that? If the powers-that-be want to see change in the community, then they’ll change that overnight.
“If you can tear down Meigs Field in the middle of the night, then your can surely change zoning?”and it’s for the good,” said Ford, referring to Daley’s controversial takeover of Meigs Field in 2003, which included the bulldozing of runways in the middle of the night at the former Lakefront airstrip.
Another potential hurdle to Ford’s Austin school is the mayor’s Renaissance 2010 plan to close under-performing schools, affecting mostly low-income and predominantly black school children. Austin High School, 231 N. Pine, for example, is one of the schools being reinvented this fall.
Ford, who said he opposes some of Renaissance 2010’s handling of Chicago public schools, added that this new school could function and operate within the Ren 2010 structure.
Ford envisions the school offering core subjects such as math, science, reading and language arts, but he also sees the school offering specialized subjects such as business training and the arts. He said a community center-style complex could be built on the site that would be used by community organizations and churches.
“For large conferences and graduations and things like that, our community has to go downtown or out in the suburbs. We should be able to host those large gatherings here in Austin and the West Side so our people don’t have to travel so far.”
The biggest obstacle, though, are the current buildings on the site. Gold Realty’s $10 million price tag covers the buildings and property. If a new owner wants the wrecking ball swung, he or she will have to foot that bill separately, with estimated costs in the millions.
Ford, however, said funds could be raised to tear down most of the buildings and/or convert others. Ford said he’ll work with city leaders and the community to make his dream of a “state-of-the-art school for Austin” a reality.
“I look forward to exploring the possibility of putting a high school and junior high school at the Brach’s site,” he said. “I think it’s ideal. It’s a perfect location, and it’s a good thing for the city of Chicago.”