A rendering of the Aspire Center. | Provided

The Westside Health Authority’s efforts 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 got a major boost earlier this month thanks to a $7.25 million Chicago Recovery Community Development Grant.

During Ald. Chris Taliaferro’s (29th) May 18 community meeting, which was held virtually over Zoom, WHA CEO Morris Reed announced that, due to the grant, they will start construction on the center this summer. The grant was made possible by federal American Recovery Plan Act funds and the proceeds of city bond sales.

The nonprofit WHA will share space in the center with the Austin Coming Together coalition, the Jane Addams Resource Corporation (JARC) and Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) Chicago. Reed said that a bank and an anchor tenant, either a healthcare provider or a hotel, will also be housed in the center.

Emmet School was one of the 49 schools closed by Chicago Public Schools in 2013. The majority of the closed schools were located on the South and West sides. WHA purchased the Emmet property in 2018.

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 ACT, 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.

During Taliferro’s meeting, Reed said that WHA will use the school to expand its workforce readiness program. ACT will provide social services and JARC, which has several industrial jobs training sites in Chicago, will provide its own job training.

“This allows us to work with partners that will cover gaps in services for young people [and adults] looking to be innovative and creative,” Reed said, adding that they have enough commitments to fill about two-thirds of the building.

WHA founder Jacqueline Reed, who heads community outreach for the project, said at the beginning of the year that project costs total $28 million. WHA got a $10 million grant through the state capital budget and they raised $22,000 through donations from Austin residents. They expect to get another $8 million through large-scale donors and will try to raise the remaining $10 million through some combination of state and federal sources.

The Chicago Recovery Grant is one of several grant programs the city established to address the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. In this case, the city is spending $500 million to support community development. The city is prioritizing projects on the South and West sides, which have experienced chronic disinvestment.

During the May 18 meeting, Morris Reed said that the grant helped them cover 90% of the project budget. He said that the building permits are being processed and they hope to start construction this summer. He anticipates a substantial portion of the project will be completed by next year.

Reed said that they hired Brown and Moman, a Hyde Park-based, Black-owned construction management company, to handle the project logistics.

“It’s very important for us that, when we build our development, people that look like us build our development,” he said.

Reed said that, while they would be building a new entrance facing Central Avenue and doing some interior renovation, they want to preserve as much of the building as possible. He reflected that the architects WHA consulted with told them that it has “good bones,” which he felt was a good metaphor for Austin’s potential.

“A lot of people gave up on our community, because they thought it’s over,” Reed said. “But it has good bones.”

Taliaferro, whose ward includes the project site, said that Aspire Center has his full support.

“I’m excited, I’m very excited about what the Westside Health Authority and Austin Coming Together are bringing to the 29th ward,” he said. “And not just the ward, but the West Side of Chicago, because their vision is larger than just the ward.”

For more information on the Aspire Center, visit click here. For more information about the Chicago Recovery Community Development Grants, visit click here.

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...