Emmet Elementary School. | File

The proposal to turn currently vacant Robert Emmet Elementary School, 5500 W. Madison St., into a medical facility and a community center was met with apprehension and skepticism by most of the Austin residents who attended an Oct. 11 town hall meeting organized by Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th).

While many said that they liked the proposal in theory, they were worried about how it would affect the neighborhood residents and businesses. Many also worried about how far along the process actually was, accusing Taliaferro of not being transparent. One particular concern that loomed over the entire proceedings was that the new facility wouldn’t actually benefit residents, especially when it comes to jobs.

Emmet was one of the four Austin schools closed by Chicago Public Schools in the spring of 2013. Since then, one of the other schools, George Leland Elementary School, has been acquired by Austin non-profit Kidz Express. The remaining schools, including Emmet, are still vacant.

The proposed facility would be a joint project of the Cook County Health and Hospitals System, the Sinai Health System and the Oak Park-based PCC Wellness Center. All three entities already have facilities in Austin.

CCHHS operates the Austin Health Center at 4800 W. Chicago Ave, while Sinai operates the Sinai Medical Group West Care facility at 5470 W Madison St, less than a block east of Emmet. PCC operates the Austin Family Health Center at 5425 West Lake Street, six blocks northeast of Emmet. PCC has partnered with Loretto Hospital to expand the latter’s primary care services.

During the Oct. 11 meeting, which was held in Austin Town Hall, 5610 W. Lake St., the officials from the three organizations described the proposed Emmet Community Health and Wellness Center as a way to accommodate more patients, provide services they can’t currently offer in their individual facilities and put all of those services under one roof.

PCC President Bob Urso said that the center would have a number of medical services, including primary care, dental, behavioral healthcare, and specialty care, in addition to a facility with diagnostic equipment such as x-ray machines. Many of those services are already available at Stroger Hospital and Mt. Sinai hospital. With Emmet’s transformation, he said, Austin residents would be able to get those services in their own community.

“What is great is that you can access county [health services] and not travel all the way to Stroger,” Urso said. “It’s a one-stop shop for healthcare.”

The center would also have a number of community amenities, including a “community classroom,” a senior center, a fitness center, a daycare center and community garden. The building’s existing auditorium would be available for community performances, Urso said.

According to the plans presented at the meeting, the community facilities would be located on the first floor, while medical facilities would be located on the second and third floors.

“It’s your building,” said Urso. “We are here to make it happen. The success of your building will be in how you empower it.”

Most of the project would involve the renovation of the existing building. A small structure would be added to its west side. The entire project would cost about $19.5 million, which Urso said would be raised by the collaborating organizations.

“There are various areas we can look into to finance the project, but I think it’s possible,” he said.

Almost as soon as Urso started outlining the plans for the center, however, a number of residents raised objections. Their issues weren’t with the proposal itself; rather, they were concerned about the way it came about and how it would affect the community.

Phyllis Logan, the First Vice President of Chicago Westside NAACP, pointed out that, on Sept. 6, Taliaferro held a town hall meeting to solicit ideas for how the closed schools would be reused. She thought Oct. 11 would continue in that vein of exploration. She said she was surprised to see a plan, which most residents hadn’t heard about, ready to go.

Mildred Wiley said that that she was concerned that it would get in the way of other, equally worthwhile proposals.

“[There] was a group that was very much interested in doing a training center, and they wanted to be able to collaborate [with high schools] so that high school students can get credentials to be teachers,” she said.

Taliafero replied that the proposal has been in the works for a while, but he wasn’t ready to talk publicly about it until now.

“There are things you need to be guarded around,” he said. “Because [otherwise], opportunities can be snatched away.”

The reason why it wasn’t presented at the Sept. 6 meeting, Taliaferro said, was because the project wasn’t ready at that point.

“I am going to let them bring it before the community when they’re ready to present, because there were things they needed to work out,” he said, adding that the proposal is not inevitable.

“This is [about] getting community involved and [giving] the community an opportunity to see the project,” Taliaferro said. “This is not ‘everything has been settled, everything has been fixed.'”

In response to a follow-up question, Ald. Emma Mitts (37th), who attended the meeting to show support, assured the residents that the proposal wasn’t at any stage of the approval process.

Taliaferro said that he still welcomed other proposals.

“If anyone else is interested, they can propose their project to the community,” he said.

Responding to Wiley’s comments, Taliaferro said that “at least three organizations” were interested in turning another shuttered school into a vocational training facility, but that it’s too early to elaborate on the proposals any further.

Amara Eniya, head of the Austin Chamber of Commerce and a regular Austin Weekly News contributor, said she was concerned about how the center would affect the existing businesses.

“[We need to make] sure that the plans that are being discussed are aligned with [Austin’s] community development strategy,” she said. “One of the things we tried to move away from as the community is operating in silos. Our role is to make sure we’re vetting projects to make sure they’re what the community wants or needs; make sure it doesn’t just happen in vacuum.” 

Dwayne Truss, of the Austin Community Action Council, expressed similar concerns, saying they were worried about how the daycare center would affect existing daycare providers, and how the services center provides would affect Loretto Hospital.

“If you’re offering daycare, you’re going to be in competition with a network of African-American small businesses,” Truss said.

Urso admitted that he wasn’t aware of any existing development plans, and asked everyone to consider the project on its own merits.

But several residents were concerned about whether the project would lead to long-term employment opportunities for the community. Urso said that PCC already had a record of hiring from the community.

“I’m not up here telling you we’re going to do something and not do it,” he said. “Go to the Austin site and see how many community members work there.”

David Berkey, the Chief Business Development Officer at Sinai, said that his employer was the largest employer on the West Side. Hiring from the community is a priority for them, he said.

Truss suggested teaming up with the City Colleges of Chicago, particularly Malcolm X College, to recruit potential employees.

“Yes, I think it’s a great opportunity for us to work with Malcolm X college,” replied Urso.

Ultimately, for many residents who spoke, their reluctance emerged from a historical breakdown in trust between potential developers and community members on the West Side.

“There’s a lot of distrust because there’s been manipulation that’s been put on in our community,” said Rev. Griff Taylor, pastor of New Sounding Joy Ministries.

Urso said he understood the skepticism, but tried to assure everyone that PCC wanted nothing more than to serve the community.

“PCC is here to provide healthcare to the community,” he said. “That’s what we’ve done and that’s what we’ll continued to do. That’s what we are about.”

Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin (1st), who attended the meeting because the project would involve a county-run healthcare provider, said that he supported the center, but that he was sympathetic to residents’ concerns as well.

“I encourage [Taliaferro] to have a community benefit agreement that has some teeth and that’s not a paper tiger” he said. “We look forward to working with you if the community decides to go with this project.”