Emmet School, which could be poised to reopen as a job training center and community hub. | File

The Chicago City Council unanimously approved a series of zoning changes that will allow Westside Health Authority (WHA) to turn the former Emmet Elementary School, 5500-5536 W. Madison St., into a job training center and a community hub known as the Aspire Center for Workplace Innovation, clearing the way for renovations to start this spring. 

The Aspire Center is part of the larger Aspire Initiative, which also includes 60 units of affordable housing and a new health and fitness center in other parts of Austin. Spearheaded by WHA and the Austin Coming Together (ACT) coalition, it aims to improve daycare, education, job readiness and housing in Austin through several projects. The Aspire Center would handle the career aspect of the initiative, offering workforce training, social services and banking.

Since Emmet School was closed in 2013, the zoning changed to residential use, so the City Council had to change the zoning to allow business and social service uses. The application cleared the council’s Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards on Dec. 14, and it cleared the full City Council the following day. While WHA still needs to come up with at least $10 million, they want to at least get the workforce development component up and running by the beginning of 2023.

Emmet School was one of the 49 schools the Chicago Public Schools district closed in 2013 in the face of $1 million a budget deficit. The majority of the closed schools were located on the South and West sides. WHA purchased the Emmet property in 2018.

During the Zoning Committee meeting, WHA attorney Steven Friedland said that his client would have its offices in the building and provide some of its services. It would also lease the space to other organizations. The Janes Addams Resource Corporation, which offers industrial job training in several locations, including in Austin, at 231 N. Pine Ave., will handle the workforce training component.

WHA founder Jacqueline Reed, who heads the community outreach for the project, said that Aspire Center would also offer training in technology and offer help to entrepreneurs. The center will provide social services as well, such as providing healthcare for seniors.

Friedland said that ACT will also have a presence in the building, but he didn’t elaborate on this aspect of the proposal. Reed said she wasn’t sure what ACT had planned. Austin Weekly News reached out to ACT for comment, but the collaboration did not respond by deadline.

Friedland also said that WHA intends to bring in a bank “and possibly some retail.” Reed said her nonprofit is currently negotiating leases with “two bankers that have shown interest” and local businesses, but she declined to name them.

During the Jan. 6 community meeting, Reed said that the project costs $28 million. They got a $10 million grant through the state capital budget and they raised $22,000 through donations from Austin residents. WHA expects to get another $8 million through large-scale donors and they would try to raise the remaining funds through some combination of state and federal sources.

Reed said that they won’t necessarily have everything up and running right away. They hope to break ground in the spring of this year, with the goal of at least having the workforce development component up and running by either the end of 2022 or the start of 2023. It would take about three years to have all the other components up and running.

In the meantime, Reed has been hosting community meetings at the Christian Community Center, 5834 W. Augusta Blvd, each Thursday, from 10:30 a.m. to noon. She said that the meetings were not focused solely on the Aspire Center, but they offered a good opportunity to stay up to date on the project and share ideas.

The meetings haven’t been advertised on the project website or any of WHA’s social media channels, but Reed said that the meeting is open to the public and she encourages everyone to attend.

“We believe that the community needs to have a stake in the project,” Reed said. “They have to be able to have their say in what goes into that space.”

For more information about Aspire Center, visit https://theaspirecenter.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...