Residents and business owners near the intersection of Chicago and Cicero avenues will see thousands of dollars pouring into that area within the next few months.
On Dec. 14, the City Council voted to establish Special Service Area 72. A special tax will be levied against all the properties within it, generating funding for public improvements. As with all SSAs, a board of commissioners appointed by the mayor will decide how the funds are spent and a non-profit organization – in this case, the Westside Health Authority – will manage it.
While many details would still need to be ironed out, the focus will be on sprucing up properties, improving public safety and supporting local entrepreneurs.
SSA 72, also known as the Austin Chicago Avenue Cultural Corridor, includes the portion of Chicago Avenue between Central and Kilpatrick avenues, and the section of Cicero Avenue between Rice and Ohio streets. There are now 54 SSAs in Chicago, but until Dec.12 none had been in Austin.
In order to create an SSA, a nonprofit usually has to step forward to file the initial paperwork. WHA took that on and it got help from the Austin Chamber of Commerce. On Oct. 28, the Chicago Finance Committee held a public hearing, giving all of the property owners that would be affected by the SSA a chance to provide their input about the process.
At the time, Percy Giles, WHA’s Affordable Care Act director, told the aldermen that the designation would help support local businesses and property owners, provide the corridor with a unique identity and address safety issues.
Morris Reed, WHA’s CEO, said that when his organization started working toward getting the SSA in place, he wasn’t sure it would actually get very far.
“When we first began this effort, there was doubt whether people would support the idea of an SSA,” he said. “Nonetheless, WHA wanted to offer people an opportunity to change ‘what is’ into ‘what could be.’ And the people accepted the challenge.”
Reed said that he ultimately sees the SSA as the way to empower the community.
“The SSA offers property owners and businesses the opportunity to make change happen,” he said. “It also gives them a bigger voice in terms of economic development within the City of Chicago.”
Now that the SSA has been approved, property owners will first see the special tax on their 2016 property tax bills. Unless it’s renewed, it will expire in tax year 2026. The levy is capped at 1.75 percent of the area’s Equalized Assessment Value, or $186,074 for the first year.
However, the levy can be set lower, which, according to the documents submitted to the city, is precisely what will happen the first year. The 2016 tax levy rate will be 1.22 percent, or $129,772.
According to the preliminary budget, $31,260 of that will go toward helping businesses attract customers, $26,790 will go toward improving public way aesthetics, $16,500 will go toward business development and $21,500 will go toward improving public safety. The rest will go to cover the costs of running the SSA, with about $7,800 allocated to cover management costs and $25,922 to cover personnel costs.
The details of how that money is spent will be decided by a board of five commissioners chosen from among the corridor’s property owners. According to the Chicago Office of Inspector General website, the candidates are usually nominated by local aldermen — in this case, Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) and Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) — and the organization that filed the SSA application.
It will be up to the mayor to decide whether to actually appoint them and they would need to be confirmed by the City Council. The first time around, three of them will be appointed to three-year terms and two will be appointed to two-year terms. Once their terms end, the terms will be two years across the board.
In addition to deciding how the money is spent, the commission will decide what the levy will be. If they are not happy with how WHA manages the SSA, they will be able to recommend that the City Council give the contract to someone else.
It will be a few months before the commission is formed and the plans are finalized. But Reed said that he had some priorities in mind.
“The funds will be used to make the area more consumer friendly, safe and clean, and to promote Chicago Avenue as a gateway to the commerce and culture within Austin,” he said. “Specifically, most funds will be spent working with property owners to improve physical condition [of their properties] in order to attract more retail and entrepreneurship opportunities for residents.”
Reed said that the tax revenue will start to come in around mid-2017 and that he expects the plans to be finalized before then. For now, he’s happy that the SSA actually became a reality.
“[I feel] excited and inspired,” Reed said. “We look forward to working with the Austin Chamber of Commerce, [Austin African American Business Networking Association] and the City of Chicago to create something special in Austin along Chicago Avenue.”