City and state officials joined Aspire Center leaders and private and philanthropic donors | Provided, Rudd Resources

Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot attended the last groundbreaking ceremony as Chicago mayor of her administration’s signature program, Invest South/West, where it all began – in Austin. 

“So West Side, here we go again,” she said Wednesday, May 5 at the new Aspire Center, 5500 W. Madison St., to the approximately hundred people who attended the groundbreaking ceremony. Among the attendees were local community leaders, business leaders and elected officials Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) and Congressman Danny Davis (IL-07). 

Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot at the groundbreaking ceremony of the Aspire Center on May 3, 2023 | Provided, Rudd Resources

“The $41 million Aspire Center is a joint effort by many community leaders and advocates including Austin Coming Together, the Jane Addams Resource Corporation, West Side Health Authority, State Rep. La Shawn Ford, demonstrating how the whole of the community is behind this project,” Lightfoot said. 

“This is the center of Austin, what we do here will inspire others,” said Morris Reed, CEO of Westside Health Authority. 

The Aspire Center for Workforce Development, located at the former and long shuttered Emmett Elementary School, will be a community center for career training, workforce support services, small business incubator and financial services. West Side Health Authority and Austin Coming Together will use the space to expand their core services, while Jane Addams Resource Corporation will provide free training in manufacturing, welding and mechanical assembly. It is expected to create 50 permanent jobs and train over 2,000 people in the next five years. 

The revamped building, expected to be completed by 2024, will also house a café, community plaza, rooftop terrace event space, a BMO bank branch, and the recently opened POPF!t park. 

Quiwana Bell, chief operating officer for the West Side Health Authority thanked members of the Good Neighbor Campaign, a community-building coalition of Austin residents, for supporting the project. 

“Let me tell you that our residents came up with the first $20,000 for the project,” she said, adding residents made small contributions that initially helped fund the full workforce center. The city invested $12.25 million while the state granted $10 million, in addition to grants and contributions by multiple philanthropic donors. 

In the audience was Jacqueline Reed, mother of Morris Reed and Quiwana Bell and founder of West Side Health Authority. Reed now volunteers with the Good Neighbor Campaign.

“My kids came back to give to the community,” she told the Austin Weekly News, adding she is proud to see her children using her education and professional experience to improve Austin. 

“This was really what everyone wanted to have happen, and to be able to do it in partnership is an unreal feeling of love and support,” Darnell Shields, executive director of Austin Coming Together said. He told the Austin Weekly News the start of the Aspire Center’s construction marks a new stage for the collective impact organization as it will help manage real-estate and ensure the long-term sustainability of the workforce innovation center. 

Darnell Shields, executive director of Austin Coming Together delivers a speech at the groundbreaking on May 3, 2023 | Provided, Rudd Resources

“We’ve always been an organization that evolves in our role and flexes to whatever we need to be for the community, so this project puts us in a new space as a co-developer.”

Shields is a member of the board of directors of Growing Community Media, the nonprofit newsroom which publishes the Austin Weekly News.

Shields said with anchor tenants like BMO Harris Bank and the Jane Addams Resource Corporation, the Aspire Center will have providers that fulfill the needs of a workforce development center. They are still searching for businesses or community groups to occupy the third floor and other spaces within the building. 

“This building is going to be reborn as a job training center, a place that will be a proof of concept that we feel will resonate throughout Chicago, throughout the West Side,” said Maurice Cox, commissioner of the city’s Department of Planning and Development.  

Lightfoot thanked top executives of financial investor BMO Harris and community partner United Way of Chicago, who were also at the event, for their investments in the Aspire Center. As her time as mayor comes to an end, she said she is not going away and remains committed to the West Side. 

“Of course, I’ll be sitting in a different seat, but the work must continue. … You will see me on these streets, on these blocks, in these neighborhoods.” 

In her speech, Lightfoot recalled the launch of Invest South/West in the fall of 2019 took place in Austin. Back then, the city committed $750 million to neighborhood revitalization projects, inviting investors and community partners to co-invest. By the end of 2022, the program aligned approximately $2.2 billion in public and private investment, she said.