The Austin Community Education Network held a press conference on the West Side to bring media attention to its discontent with the public funding and planned usage of the Brach’s Candy site.

The group of educational activists called on 28th Ward Alderman Ed Smith to withdraw Tax Increment Funds (TIF) from private investor ML Realty Partners in a deal that would pave the way to construct a distribution center instead of a high school on the abandoned candy factory site, located at 401 S. Cicero Ave.

ML Realty Partners plans to build a $42 million distribution center using $10.6 million in funds from the Northwest Industrial Corridor TIF. The group contends that the site would better serve the community as a much-needed high school campus in the wake of the closing of the Austin High School (the building now houses several smaller charter schools).

“The Brach site is the place that can represent a world-class site for a high school,” said Virgil Crawford of the ACEN. “We have some obstacles and that comes in the form of our alderman.”

Ald. Smith, who was not invited to the meeting, said the group never expressed an interest in the site until private investors came on board.

“They sat there all these years; now they’re saying we only want that site,” said Smith. “That is private property. I can’t take it.”

State Rep. LaShawn Ford (8th), who was one of the first elected officials to express a desire to have a school built on the site, said perhaps the timing might not be realistic.

“[A factory is] not the best use for the site,” said Ford. “That location was vacant for a long time, but if it’s out of reach at this time you have to be realistic.”

Rev. Ira Acree, of Greater St. John Church, said he has never seen the use of TIF dollars going to a “for-profit” organization. He also said a group of West Side ministers have sent letters to the alderman’s office expressing their concern with the use of TIF finances. “We can’t see this money go into the pockets of rich developers,” he said.

“It is vital that we bring our alderman’s attention back to the fact that his job is to serve the electorate,” Acree added.

Funding to private investors is common and often companies make a donation back to the city, Smith said. For the use of the funds, ML Realty Partners is expected to make an approximate $100,000 donation to “some credible city project.”

“This is not a gift. It’s a loan. They have to pay it back,” the alderman said of the TIF funds. However, he was unclear as to when the money was scheduled to be paid back, and whether the donation would benefit the Austin community.

The ML Realty Partners distribution center is expected to create an estimated 75-500 jobs. ACEN members contend the number is closer to 75 and that the jobs are not guaranteed to go to community residents. A state-of-the-art high school, they said, would create more jobs and better quality jobs and would send a better message to the community’s youth.

“Our children are capable. All they
need are resources,” said Wanda Hopkins, a local parent. “How dare you, Mayor Daley and Ald. Smith, offer our youth factory jobs?”

Ald. Smith said the contract will start with 75 jobs and expand to create about 500 jobs in total, and that the positions are slated to go to city residents.

“I will be pushing for those jobs to go to the community,” said Smith. “And all I have ever had to go on is my word.”

It would cost an estimated $100 million to build a new school in the Austin community to accommodate the area’s 5,000 students. Ford said he has been lobbying for funds to build a new school.

“We’re going to get a new school. We just have to find a location,” Ford said. He mentioned Columbus Park as a viable second site. Breaking ground on a new high school site could happen as early as next year, he added.

About 100 people attended the press conference. The matter is currently before the City of Chicago Finance Committee.