Mike Tomas, the executive director of the Garfield Park Community Council, readily admitted that the community benefit agreement for the much-discussed Hatchery food incubator didn’t work out quite as he had hoped.

The admission came during a public meeting on Jan. 24 at 345 Art Gallery, 345 N. Kedzie Ave. The meeting, hosted by City Bureau, a South Side-based nonprofit journalism lab, is formally called a Public Newsroom and City Bureau hosts them regularly as ways to inform and engage Chicago residents on a range of issues. 

At last month’s Newsroom, various community groups, including the Community Council, explored ways the incubator succeeded and failed at engaging community residents. 

Aside from Tomas, the panel included Jawanza Malone, executive director of Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO); Aysha Butler, president of the Resident Association of Greater Englewood (RAGE); and Amalia NietoGomez, executive director of the South Chicago-based Alliance of the Southeast (ASE). 

As some on the panel mentioned, KOCO is the oldest organization of the four and it has the most experience crafting community benefit agreements. In fact, Tomas mentioned that KOCO helped his organization “with some early planning” for the Hatchery community benefit agreement.

KOCO was able to successfully get the city to approve a CBA for Chicago’s ultimately failed Olympic bid, and it is currently working on the agreement for the Obama Presidential Library. ASE is working on the CBA for Southworks U.S. Steel power plant site, which has seen a number of development proposals that never quite took off. 

The Hatchery benefits agreement was written in a form of a Memorandum of Understanding that was included in the redevelopment agreement between the City of Chicago and the two entities who currently co-own the food incubator: Accion Chicago and Industrial Council of Northwest Chicago.

With RAGE, as Butler explained, they were able to negotiate a deal with Englewood’s Whole Foods store that included community input on design. And vendor and job opportunities for locals. While Butler said she has been pleased with how it initially worked out, the Whole Foods executive RAGE negotiated with is no longer with the company, and she was worried whether their agreement would be enforceable in the long run. 

When asked about the process, Tomas described the process as complicated, saying that initially, residents got very territorial, because Accion and ICNC wanted to build the Hatchery on the site of the Garfield Park Farmers Market.

One of the major criticisms of the process was that the organizations responsible for outreach, including the Community Council, the Industrial Council and Accion, did not do much outreach. 

Tomas admitted that he focused primarily on residents who already attended the Community Council’s regular meetings, which are held every fourth Wednesday of the month and are open to the public. Tomas added, however, that the organization did do additional outreach, which provided them with more feedback.

Based on that feedback, Tomas said that he learned that residents wanted some kind of ownership stake, a physical indoor space for the farmers market and resident involvement in whatever governing structure would control the Hatchery. 

“Our memorandum of understanding focused on what our [community] leaders [and] our active residents focused on,” he said. “But for other groups, and other interests, I’ll be honest — it wasn’t our focus. Our focus is on our residents.”

Tomas readily acknowledged that there was pushback, even from within his organization. And he conceded that they didn’t get any ownership stake. 

“One of my lessons learned is that you can only take it as far as your internal staff and our internal team and your board of directors can take that,” Tomas reflected. “We had to come to compromise internally.”

By contrast, NeitoGomez said that, when it came to the SouthWorks benefits agreement, her organization tried to work with groups that were against the agreement and incorporate their priorities.

“When you’re dealing with pushback, I think there’s a lot of compromise,” she said. “You incorporate it, or there’s some negotiations.”

While NeitoGomez said, while there were two groups that still didn’t support it, at the end of the day, they didn’t speak out against the CBA either.

Tomas also mentioned that the Community Council was forced to work within relatively short deadlines and it wasn’t privy to all the project details. 

“The city wanted to have our memorandum signed and completed before they did the redevelopment agreement,” he said. “We got as much as we could with our [agreement], but we weren’t privy to negotiations that were going on between city and [Accion and ICNC] regarding TIF [Tax Increment Financing] assistance.”

If his organization knew about the TIF funds, Tomas said, they would have pressed for more — after all, he said, TIF is taxpayer funding, and taxpayers should have more of a say in how it’s spent.

“I think our mayoral candidates should be looking at the TIF reform,” he said. “When a TIF is enacted or TIF funds are used, there should be an opportunity for the local community to own some of that development coming into the neighborhood.”

Tomas explained that he was thinking specifically of giving residents an opportunity to invest in whatever development comes into their community. Once the development is up and running, the residents would get a small share of the profits or some other kind of return on their investment.

Malone said that he would ultimately prefer a city-wide measure that would mandate community benefit agreements if the project is valued at a certain amount of money. 

When asked about how the benefit agreements are enforced, Tomas said that the Hatchery co-owners are required to make annual compliance reports to show how they are meeting hiring targets and other agreement requirements. 

Butler said that her organization has been visiting Whole Foods and talking to vendors—ways to see if the benefit agreement is being enforced. 

Malone said that making sure the agreement has teeth has, in his experience dealing with benefit agreements, been the hardest part of the process.

“The city’s law department will fight tooth and nail to make sure the enforcement mechanism is as weak as possible,” he said. “You have to work hard to make sure that there is some sort of legal consequence if the developer doesn’t do what they agreed to do. If they don’t want enforcement the mechanism in place, then they don’t plan to deliver on their promises.”

And all panelists agreed that something needs to be put in place to make sure that the developments that get city funds, especially retail developments, actually stay in the community. 

“We worked hard on that CVS pharmacy on Madison/Kedzie,” Tomas reflected. “It stayed open less than three years.” 

CONTACT: igorst3@hotmail.com    

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...