Robert Emmet Elementary School in Chicago’s Austin community has been a bitter
reminder of disinvestment in Austin since it closed in 2013. But that will soon be changing.
Austin is an incredibly resilient community that is leading its own vision for a neighborhood renaissance. An initiative born of the Austin Forward. Together. (AFT) quality-of-life plan, called ASPIRE, is expected to spur economic growth.
The ASPIRE team is preparing to break ground on one of its key development projects, the Aspire Center for Workforce Innovation, in 2022. This will mark the beginning of a large-scale effort that will create conditions for resident empowerment, health, prosperity, and happiness.
ADDRESSING AUSTIN’S NEEDS
Madison and Central is one of the most important intersections in Austin. The architecture and history of Madison Street make the site a gateway to Chicago, and Central Avenue is a spine that connects Austin’s many smaller neighborhoods. Therefore, developing or enhancing existing assets in this densely populated area directly reflects the community’s needs.
ASPIRE is led by Austin Coming Together (ACT), Westside Health Authority (WHA), and By the Hand Club for Kids (BTH). It is a set of Initiative Projects that includes a new state-of-the-art early learning, health and recreation center called The Aspire Education & Wellness Campus; new programs and support to increase enrollment at the Austin College and Career Academy; renovation of the vacant Emmet School into the Aspire Center for Workforce Innovation; and Aspire Housing, a multi-tiered approach to provide homeownership assistance, plus new or renovated units for sale.
As part of AFT, ASPIRE has been supported by the community for years. In fact, the Aspire Center for Workforce Innovation is one of two specific physical development focal projects identified in the AFT plan.
The Aspire Center for Workforce Innovation is a massive, long-term investment that will build area capacity to:
● Train over 4,900 workers in programs that will increase their ability to earn a living wage
over a period of 5 years.
● Create 100 new living wage jobs within the first five years and anchor $28 million in
investment to the targeted geography of the community area.
● Increase the income of 500 Austinites and help 250 more acquire access to capital for
business and/or property ownership by the year 2030.
ANCHORING SYSTEMIC CHANGE
By being part of the collective AFT vision for a powerful and highly collaborative community, ASPIRE will build the capacity of Austin to create a high quality cradle-to career educational system and a revitalized economy by and for Austin. Through its development, the location is primed to become the physical embodiment of “collective impact” and a vital community anchor for systemic change.
“The value of working together has been proven. An Austin renaissance is underway, sprouting from a well-tended foundation of existing plans and assets,” said Darnell Shields, Executive Director of ACT.
In 2020, ASPIRE was one of six finalists for the $10 million Chicago Prize grant from The Pritzker Traubert Foundation and although not chosen as the winner, the initiative still received nearly $800K in planning and predevelopment support from the foundation and other partners. The spotlight on ASPIRE also helped to generate deep commitment towards its realization from the community and technical assistance partners like IFF and the Lamar Johnson Collaborative.
As the AFT plan made progress and grew awareness of ASPIRE’s ability to add tremendous momentum to existing efforts in Austin, the Aspire Center for Workforce Innovation was prioritized due to its potential to catalyze the development of ASPIRE’s full set of Initiative Projects.
The Aspire Center for Workforce Innovation will transform the abandoned Emmet School into a state-of-the-art, multi-use facility that will include a:
- high tech manufacturing training center for working-age youth and adults
- business incubator for startups
- restaurant with indoor/outdoor dining and social events
- financial opportunity center
- new retail bank through BMO Harris Bank
- selection of other neighborhood building businesses
AUSTIN’S HUB FOR RESOURCES
In conjunction with the organizations located within the Aspire Center, ACT’s Austin Community Hub and expansive member network, residents will access integrated services like income supports, financial coaching, job readiness training, and employment services to help them become financially stable and connect to the economic mainstream.
So far, $15.62 million has been raised toward the $28 million needed to actualize the Center. Construction will begin soon and is anticipated to be completed by 2023. The Aspire Center will open later that year or early 2024, along with supporting spaces for Austin residents, and will transform the corner of Madison and Central into a symbol of Austin’s potential rather than its challenges.