A few days before Lori Lightfoot announced the latest round of Neighborhood Opportunity Fund grants, she advanced an ordinance that would alter certain aspects of the program, which launched in 2016 under former mayor Rahm Emanuel. 

The fund uses money from surcharges generated through downtown development to fund commercial development on the West, South and Southwest sides. 

Since its creation, some aldermen and local businesses have expressed concerns that that city isn’t doing enough to help applicants for the realities of not only getting their business off the ground, but keeping it running. 

According to a statement the mayor’s office released Jan. 21, under Lightfoot’s proposed changes, applicants would get access to to the funding earlier in the construction process. They would also receive “access to lending and construction coaches, and an online application portal that helps would-be businesses owners assess the readiness of their proposals.” 

Lightfoot also wants to raise the amount of construction funding going toward applicants with less expensive projects. The fund already offers bonuses to business owners who live in areas eligible for NOF funding and who promise to hire locally. Lightford’s measures could make it possible for businesses to get their entire projects funded. 

Lightfoot introduced the proposed ordinance during the Chicago City Council’s Jan. 15 meeting. It has been assigned to the City Council’s Committee on Economic, Capital and Technology Development. It is currently not clear when the committee will consider the ordinance or when it will go to full council.

The city opened up the applications for projects that would cost $250,000 or less on Jan. 20, with the deadline set for Feb. 29. It also plans to do a second round of applications in July, but the exact date hadn’t been set by this publication’s print deadline. The city is hosting an information session on Feb. 7, 10 a.m., at Austin’s Kehrein Center for the Arts, 5628 W. Washington Blvd. 

The spokesperson for the Department of Planning and Development, which runs the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund, didn’t respond to calls requesting comment by deadline. 

As part of Lightfoot’s Invest South/West initiative, applicants from 10 community areas, including Austin, North Lawndale and Humboldt Park, will get priority. 

With Invest South/West, the city will leverage “$250 million in existing business development and infrastructure funding from the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) through the Tax Increment Financing, Small Business Improvement Fund, and Neighborhood Opportunity Fund programs to support improvement projects that align with local priorities,” city officials explained on the Department of Planning and Development’s webpage. 

Those funds “will build on more than $500 million in planned infrastructure improvements that will provide transportation, housing and quality of life enhancements that bolster the vitality of the corridors and surrounding blocks,” city officials stated.

For more information about the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund, visit neighborhoodopportunityfund.com/

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...