A recent meeting organized by the African American Business Networking Association attracted 50 business owners and entrepreneurs interested in expanding or opening a business in Austin.

“The reason we had this meeting was to give businesses the ‘right’ information as it relates to the Retail Thrive Zones,” explained Malcolm Crawford, executive director of the African American Business Networking Association. “So many times we have a lack of information and that’s what killing us in our community.”

Lclat Baxter owns Jamaican Grill restaurant in Oak Park and was among numerous business owners looking to setup shop in Austin who attended an April 6 meeting, held at Sankofa Cultural Arts & Business Center, 5820 W. Chicago Ave.

“I live in North Lawndale and own a restaurant in Oak Park but I would love to do business in Austin where I am already involved with volunteer work,” said Baxter, who mentors to youth. “If I get the opportunity to open a business in Austin I can hire troubled youth to get them off the street.”

The Chicago Department of Planning and Development oversees the Retail Thrive Zones initiative, a three-year pilot program designed to help strengthen the economic vitality of commercial corridors in certain neighborhoods, including Austin, Englewood, Back of the Yards, Bronzeville, Chatham, South Shore, West Humboldt Park, and West Pullman.

Last October, the City Council voted to establish the zones. The one in Austin covers an expanse of Chicago Avenue, from Austin Boulevard to Laramie Avenue.

Austin is the largest populated community in Chicago, but it is also one of the most economically challenged communities in the city, contends Charles Walls, a former retail analyst with J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., and now an entrepreneur.

“The entire West Side is hurting for more productive businesses but especially in Austin where most of the West Side exist,” said Walls. “I worked 10 years as an analyst before I started a residential cleaning business and I saw firsthand where the money was going in Chicago. And I can tell you the West Side is missing out on a lot of opportunities afforded to North Side communities and Downtown businesses.”

Two grants available to businesses located in the Thrive Zone, the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund and the Small Business Improvement Fund, provide up to $250,000 for such costs as new construction or rehabilitation and is funded by tax-increment financing dollars, said Jacob Stern, a senior vice president for SomerCor 504 Inc., whose company is an administer for the program.

Stern told attendees at the meeting that the grants serve as a reimbursement for costs and a lender for upfront costs may still be needed. He reminded those interested in applying to do so before the April 21 deadline, and applications can be downloaded online at thrivezones.com.

Another business owner, Calvita Frederick, said she owns Magnolia Spice Teas, a beverage company, but wants to open a manufacturing facility in Austin.

“I want to open in Austin because there’s a need here and the grant funding is for this community,” said Frederick, who is also an attorney. “Sometimes as a business owner you have to go where the money is and right now that’s in Austin.”

For more information about the grants, visit thrivezones.com.