First reported 8/3/2009 2:13 p.m.

Ade Onayemi, founding member of Austin Business and Entrepreneurship Academy, is looking to replace incumbent Commissioner Earlean Collins on the Cook County Board next year.

Onayemi confirmed to Austin Weekly News over the weekend his intention to challenge Collins for the 1st District commissioner’s seat. A formal public announcement is scheduled in the next couple of weeks. The 1st District includes Oak Park and the West Side.

A native of Nigeria, Onayemi, 53, was part of the group that helped open the Business Academy, a charter high school at 231 N. Pine, in 2006. He currently sits on its advisory board. Onayemi said he was approached by people in the district over the last six months about running for commissioner.

“I’ve been observing the district’s activity for quite a while, and I’ve felt that there’s been a disconnect between the current commissioner and the people in the district,” he said.

Promising to bring transparency to the board, he’s calling for trimming the county’s bureaucracy. Onayemi said he started attending the board’s meetings while considering a run. The tipping point on his decision was the board’s action to increase the county sales tax by one cent. He noted that last year’s penny-on-the-dollar increase, proposed by Cook County Board President Todd Stroger, socked voters with the highest sales tax in the nation, a bad move given the struggling economy.

He maintains Collins and other commissioners should have alerted voters earlier about the increase.

“There were no forums, no invitations to attend meetings. It was something the district really didn’t know about,” Onayemi said.

In May, commissioners voted to pull back on the one-cent hike, slashing it in half. Stroger vetoed the repeal. Collins, who voted for the original increase, voted present on the repeal. Her decision, or lack thereof, helped Onayemi decide.

“After that vote, she said to voters that if they didn’t like her decision, to vote her out. I thought, maybe it’s time to do that,” he said.

Onayemi was also critical of Stroger, insisting that the county’s already corrupt patronage system has gotten worse during his tenure. He wants to eliminate the patronage system and trim the county’s bloated budget and is calling for an audit of the entire system. But Onayemi insisted cuts should not be made to needed services, such as health funding.

“You shouldn’t be cutting for the sake of cutting…if services need to be kept, then you need to find revenue elsewhere,” he said, emphasizing again his desire for transparency.

Onayemi said he supports tax reform in the state. A former two-term member of Oak Park’s elementary school board, he also wants more funding for education, in particular for early childhood education.

Among his other goals as commissioner is establishing more neighborhood health centers and encouraging residents to seek them out for their primary care instead of going to a hospital emergency room.

He also talked of decreasing the high recidivism rate, particularly for nonviolent offenders, in the Cook County jail system, arguing that doing so will help the county’s finances in the long run. He’s called for looking into sentencing guidelines for nonviolent offenders while offering drug treatment, counseling and education.

Concerning the West Side, Onayemi, an architect by trade, said he wants to bring manufacturing back to that area. To do that, he promised to work with local municipalities to direct funds to lure businesses back. Onayemi’s firm, Urban Resource Inc., relocated from Oak Park to Austin in 2004.

Onayemi moved his business here, he said, to help create development in the community. He still lives in Oak Park with his wife, Kathy. They have two adult children – son Justine and daughter Christine.

Onayemi promised to be an independent voice on the Cook County board and to connect more with voters.

“I intend to be a progressive commissioner,” he said. “I want to be able to listen and engage, and I think that will be beneficial to the county and the community itself.”


Establishing roots in Austin

After serving two terms on Oak Park’s elementary school board, including serving as president, Ade Onayemi turned his focus to Austin.

He moved his Urban Resource Inc. architecture firm from Oak Park to a renovated second-floor space, previously an apartment, at 5847 W. Chicago Ave. The outspoken Onayemi has always kept an eye on Austin, wanting to play a role in helping revitalize the community.

“If you’re going to be blunt and speak to the issue, then you need to be a part of the fabric of the community,” he said, in a 2005 interview with Austin Weekly News.

Gutted and remodeled in the summer of 2004, his firm’s current home overlooks a stretch of land along Chicago Avenue. By no means is his current location a step down, said Onayemi, whose background doesn’t afford him any feelings of complacency.

Growing up in Lagos, Nigeria, he always wanted to be an architect.

The importance of education was stressed as early as he could remember. His mother and father, born in 1914 and 1909 respectively, were the first of their generation to receive a formal education.

“There’s something my father always told me that I never forget: The bottom is full; you have to rise to the top,” Onayemi recalled.

His parents encouraged him to attend college in the United States, something most parents encouraged their children to do, he said. And those who went would eventually return to Nigeria to help the country. But in the early 1980s, the country was under dictatorship. He received his architectural degree from the University of Illinois in 1981, and made plans to return home, but his parents persuaded him to stay. Reluctantly, he did.

Onayemi worked at a downtown architectural firm during the early ’80s. He and his wife, Kathy, had two children in the meantime. The family moved to Oak Park in 1984. Twelve years later, he joined Urban Resource Inc., and soon bought the company. A year later, he ran for Oak Park’s District 97 school board, serving two terms.

Along with helping launch Austin’s business charter school, he also chairs the Austin African-American Business Network Association, one of the school’s founders.

In a 2005 interview, Malcolm Crawford, the group’s director, said they had wanted Onayemi to work with them for some time.

“He was still involved with the school board, so he declined. When his tenure was up, we asked him to become more involved with what we were doing,” Crawford said. “We knew that he would bring his expertise and experiences here in the community, so we could learn from it.”