The issue of the future of the Brach site at Cicero Avenue and Lake Street is one that everyone in the Austin community should take a stand on. And the decision has to be: economic future vs. new high school.
Now I have made it clear for the past couple of years that I don’t support the idea of a school on that site as the first agenda for it. Why? Because all you have to do is drive around Austin on any weekday and see the huge number of unemployed men sitting on stoops, hanging out on corners, or just being out and about, to know that our priorities should be about economics first.
Our city right now is in the process of making big plans. Move the Children’s Museum from Navy Pier to Grant Park. Tear up Washington Park and the surrounding community for a possible site for the 2016 Summer Olympics. Bring a land-based casino to Chicago. In every instance, the city is willing to spend money to make money. Only in our community is the most vocal leadership one which advocates spending money without offering plans for generating revenue. They see us taxpayers as an endless wallet they can tap-economics be damned.
Two years ago, I wrote a series of articles in response to then-candidate LaShawn Ford’s comment that the site should be a school. But rather than just rail against the idea, I put another one on the table that I will again revisit: The Brach site should become a Black Entertainment District (BED).
My contention then and now is that if Chicago is to have a land-based casino, why not the Brach site as a location for it?
But not just a casino. My vision is an entire entertainment district comprised of a casino, a 10-story hotel, a 24-hour mall, water park, movie theater, bowling ally, skating rink and music venues that encompass the entire black experience from jazz to blues, gospel to hip hop. Add in several restaurants serving soul food, Creole food and barbeque, along with a state-of-the-art banquet hall and theater stage, and we will have an economic engine that would drive our economy for the next 100 years. Don’t forget that Senator Obama winning the presidency will bring a lot of interest in the black community to Chicago.
With gasoline now over $4 a gallon and the Brach site accessible by CTA (bus and el stops), Metra train, and the Eisenhower Expressway just a few blocks south, it is the perfect location for such a complex. Plus many people aren’t aware that the city has considered the possibility of linking Midway and O’Hare airports by using an abandoned railroad line that runs directly behind the Brach site for a high speed train line.
A BED would be the perfect spot for us as a community to get our share of tourist dollars. People who have flights into Chicago connecting to another flight and have hours to burn could spend their money in our community (one of the major reasons people were advocating a casino in Rosemont). Tourists downtown could visit our BED as one of their destination stops before heading to the airports. Why should the Loop be the only location to get tourist/convention dollars?
What type of economics could a BED bring to our community? Well to begin with, if it encompassed all the ideas I mentioned, we would be looking at over 3,000 jobs. We would be looking at the kind of jobs that the average person in Austin can qualify to get. We would be looking at local ownership of the businesses in the 24-hour mall. We would be doing the same for the restaurants and other businesses. The casino-hotel can be black-owned (like the Majestic Star in Indiana).
If you live in Austin, where does your church hold its banquets? I bet they don’t do it in Austin or even in the black community. When your family has a reunion, at what hotel can your family members stay? If you need a job, where can you go in your own community to get a job? When our young adults age 18-29 are looking for something to do and someplace to go, what is available to them? They are the most forgotten and largest unemployed group in our community.
I invite everyone in Austin to take a tour of the site-not from the Cicero Avenue side, but from the back on the Kilbourn side. Notice the rail tracks at ground level. Notice the truck depots. If you can’t visit it in person and are computer savvy, use Google Maps to see pictures of the site.
Then ask yourself which vision for the land would best suit our community-one where we make money or the other where we pay money?