For the past few months, Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) and other West Side aldermen have mentioned that the new emergency services training center the city is looking to build in West Garfield Park would bring economic benefits. But it wasn’t until Mitts’ June 28 community meeting that West Siders got a chance to listen to what those benefits might look like.

At the meeting, held at Healing Temple Church, 4941 W. Chicago Ave., city officials explained that they were planning to encourage business development around the training center through various financial incentives. Mitts and other West Side aldermen added that they would make sure minority contractors, especially ones from the West Side, will be involved in the building’s construction. 

Aarti Kotak, who is Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s deputy chief of staff for neighborhood development, explained that businesses need a robust “daytime population” of customers to be able to survive. Police cadets needing places to eat and hang out would amount to that critical daytime population for businesses located near the training center. 

“We know sit-down restaurants and places that makes neighborhoods feel like home are key [to development],” Kotak said.

Mitts said that having sit-down restaurants would be great for the community. 

“I don’t want to go downtown, I don’t want to go to Oak Park [to eat out in a sit-down restaurant] — I want to stay in our neighborhood,” she said.

Kotak said that the city will also be looking to bring in retail, and that, if the residents have any other ideas for what kind of businesses should come in, the city would plan accordingly.

Malcolm Crawford, head of Austin African American Business Networking Association, suggested that the corridor could also use entertainment venues, especially jazz clubs, as well as bars. 

“We need a place to eat, we need entertainment, we need a place to dance and we need a place to drink,” he said. “We need to [be able to] let others come to our community and see what real jazz looks like.”

Chip Hastings, a deputy commissioner at the Department of Planning and Development’s Bureau of Economic Development, delved into how the city would attract those businesses. He mentioned that the training center site is located within the Northwest Industrial Corridor Tax Increment Financing District, and businesses would be able to take advantage of $4 million in Small Business Improvement Fund grants.  Hastings also mentioned that the building’s design might be able to provide “commercial opportunities,” but didn’t elaborate beyond that.

David Reynolds, a commissioner with the Department of Fleet and Facility Management, said that the current renderings are meant to only give the general idea of what the training center would look like. 

“That’s what these pictures are — they’re not set in stone,” he said. “We can have conversations, the best way to orient it, so it respects your community.”

Hastings also noted that the city owns several nearby properties. It is planning to send out a request for proposal for anyone who might be interested in redeveloping those properties. And the city planned to put special emphasis on giving West Siders a chance to take advantage of that process. 

“[We will be] working with the communities, reaching out to local entrepreneurs, reaching out to see who’s interested in development on the site,” he said. “And [we will be] pounding the pavement, making sure we engage businesses to open up and down Chicago Avenue”

The other major component of the project is the opportunities that would come from building the training center as well. Leslie Darling, the executive director of the Chicago Infrastructure Trust, explained that the city is currently looking for a team that would serve as the main contractor for design and construction. The infrastructure trust currently narrowed it down to five.  

Darling said that the city expects to select the contractor sometime this fall. Once that happens, it would need a wide range of subcontractors, which is where West Side businesses would have an opportunity to get involved.

Mitts emphasized that her major priority would be to make sure such businesses have a shot at this opportunity.

“In the end of the day, I’m going to be representing my communities, and they’ll have my back in doing so,” she said. “We want general contractors, we want flooring contractors, we want fence contractors. We want the community be engaged in the process so that it is transparent and everybody gets included. They ain’t going to be putting the hole in the ground until we get this right.”

There was some concern among those in attendance that, because the Chicago Infrastructure Trust is handling the project, the bid documents won’t get posted to the City Hall “bid room.” 

Both Mitts and Ald. Michael Scott (24th) agreed to have the copies of the documents printed out in their respective neighborhood ward offices and downtown offices. 

Reynolds said there was no community benefits agreement at this time, but he didn’t rule the prospect out completely.

“It’s something we will continue having discussions with alderman [Mitts]’ office about,” he said.

When asked about potential job opportunities for ex-offenders, Darling said that she thinks that “there will be opportunities at the subcontractor level.”

Scott, as well as Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) and Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th) expressed support for Mitts and her vision.

Darling mentioned that there will be one more meeting after the build and design team is selected, but before the final plan is approved. As of July 2, no date had been set for that meeting.


Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...