Once an abandoned, decaying school building, the busy corner of Madison and Central Avenue is now a construction site and a symbol of a community-led renaissance that has been underway in Austin for years.

This intersection will become the future home of the Aspire Center for Workforce Innovation, a central location for career training and support that will improve the pathway to further postsecondary education and financial opportunity for Austin youth and families.

This is a meaningful moment for Austin because the community’s vision is coming to fruition. The Aspire Center will catalyze Austin’s economic development and overcome the community’s legacy of disinvestment, limited opportunities, and fragmented services.

Since the 1970s, public and private disinvestment have caused a crisis state of severe social and economic decline in Austin, and as a result, the population has decreased by 17% (over 20,000 residents) since 2000.

Austin has a significant youth population with 15% between 25-34 years old and 13% between 15-24, according to the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau and forecasts for 2019. However, more than half of working-age youth are struggling to find jobs, and many do not have their high school diploma.

The combination of a poor education system, student decline, rising costs of living, and stagnant wages have led to an unstable economy. These conditions have created a great need for workforce training and life skills development.

Fortunately, hundreds of civic leaders have mobilized around a powerful vision for a healthy and prosperous future for Austin set forth in the community’s quality-of-life plan Austin Forward. Together. (AFT) that was published in 2018.

ASPIRE was born out of the AFT plan, and is a set of projects that includes the renovation of the vacant Robert Emmet Elementary School into the Aspire Center for Workforce Innovation. ASPIRE will also bring a new early learning, health and recreation center called The Aspire Education & Wellness Campus to the community; new programs and support to increase enrollment at the Austin College and Career Academy; and Aspire Housing, a multi-tiered approach to provide homeownership assistance, plus new or renovated units for sale.

Both ASPIRE and the AFT plan were created by and for Austin, and have been made possible by an unprecedented level of collaboration and large-scale support.

After two years of community engagement, planning, research, and resource development, the ASPIRE Initiative will finally launch with The Aspire Center for Workforce Innovation.

The Aspire Center will serve as a destination for top-notch workforce training. It will:
● Create linkages among programmatic initiatives and shared facilities;
● Expand and support local career pathway resources for skills training in high demand
economic sectors, such as advanced manufacturing; and
● Support small businesses and entrepreneurs.

The now-closed 69,100-square-foot Chicago Public School building on the three-acre site located at 5500-5536 W. Madison Street will be transformed into a state-of-the-art multi use facility with a business incubator for startups, a high-tech manufacturing training center, and a financial opportunity center.

In a future development phase, a new 10,000 sq. ft. Commercial Center will be built on the former school parking lot. Adjacent, a public plaza will be shared with the Aspire Center. Opening in 2025, the Commercial Center will have a mix of local and national restaurants plus retail, such as a bank. Local and minority-owned businesses will be prioritized.

The project team is creating long-term capital that will empower the Aspire Center development to be nearly debt-free. Strategic investments from committed funding partners along with above-market lease rates from commercial tenants will enable the Center to offer nonprofit tenant rents to be within or below market. Almost the entire amount of revenue necessary to operate the center will be achieved within five years of operational expenses, future capital maintenance and improvements.

“The community always felt like the school was a very visible symbol of our failures to meet the needs of our young people and to put youth on a path to have careers, to be employed, to improve the quality of life for young adults in the city of Chicago, particularly in Austin and on the West Side,” said Morris Reed, CEO of Westside Health Authority, owner of the Emmet property.

By reimagining the former school, the site will no longer serve as a reminder of failure and instead, will help shape people’s lives in a positive way once again.

Keep reading for more information on this exciting new asset for our community!