City treasurer talks investment on the West Side

Conyears-Ervin holds Dollars and Sense Town Hall

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By Igor Studenkov

Contributing Reporter

Throughout her first-ever Dollars & Sense Town Hall, held at Michele Clark High School, 5101 W. Harrison St., Chicago City Treasurer Melissa Conyears-Ervin emphasized that over $8.84 billion, which her office manages, is "your money" — so residents should know how it can work for them. 

That was one of the primary reasons she launched three town halls (the one on the South Side is scheduled for Feb. 22 and the North Side is Feb. 29). As someone who was raised in Austin and who lives in Garfield Park, Conyears-Ervin said, she specifically wanted to hold the first one on the West Side. She and her staff touted how her office changed the approach to where the city invests its money, giving preference to companies that hire locally and have minority executives and generally trying to invest in minority-owned companies. They want to figure out ways to use the office's resources to address residents' economic needs, she said, something that is still in the early stages at this time. 

Ashley Evans, the Treasurer's Office's chief impact officer, explained that they are preparing a "Capitalize Chicago Platform" that would survey residents to see what they need, lobby aldermen and state legislators to pass laws that "ensure that laws support and provide equable access to capital," making sure that any investments the office makes have measurable impact on the community. The goal is to raise workers' wages while helping small businesses that would otherwise struggle to get access to capital get the funding they need. 

Evans said the office is currently in the research stage, and the findings will be unveiled this spring. As part of the research, all attendees were invited to take surveys looking at their financial needs.

Craig Slack, the office's chief investment officer, explained that one of the treasurer's major functions is to use the money raised through taxes, fees and bond sales and investing them in stocks and bonds in order to generate profit for the city. Last year, investments brought in $224 million — which, he said, was an improvement over the last two years.

"The more money we make for you, the less money you should have to pay," he noted, adding, "Right, we wanna clap on that, don't we? We hope we will continue to [generate more]."

Slack laid out how the Treasurer's Office decides which companies to invest in, mentioning that they look at how the executives are paid, how the company treats its labor force, how it impacts the environment. As of 2019, they invested a total of 52 percent in companies that are either minority-owned, women-owned or veteran-owned. 15 percent, Slack mentioned later, are black-owned.

"[Under Conyears-Ervin] we added a more robust language around diversity inclusion and corporate social responsibility," he said. "What are you really doing to help the community you serve? Do you have an office in Chicago? Are you part of this community? In other words, if you want to do business in Chicago, you should have workforce that looks like Chicago."

Conyears-Ervin said that, while diversity requirements can scare companies, studies have found that companies with diverse leadership teams tend to do better. 

 She emphasized that her major priority is to help small businesses — especially the ones that struggle getting traditional credit. That is why the latter half of the meeting was devoted to a panel made up of representatives of three types of lending institutions — Humberto Huerta, business relations manager at JP Morgan Chase bank; Marcus Yancey, economic development lender at Local Initiatives Support Corporation Chicago (LISC) nonprofit lender; and Emory Tower, a community lender at East Garfield Park based Accion Chicago. 

When asked how entrepreneurs should choose who to bank with, Tower recommended approaching a bank first, and if that fails, applying with nonprofit lenders. He and other panelists explained that, in many cases, entrepreneurs may not have credit history, so they need time to establish one, and they need to show experience. As they get further down the line, more options would open up to them.

When asked what might keep applicants from getting loans, Yancey responded that they needed to have a solid business plan. 

"It's important to understand where you're during a business cycle, how much you actually need, what your expenses are," he said. "It's just really important to understand your businesses and get the right type of [financing]."

Tower also suggested very clear financial records. Many barbershops and nail salons he works with, he said, do their business in cash, which makes it hard to track. The businesses should, at the very least, have an account where the money is deposited, so there is some kind of paper trail.

Huerta said they look at applicants' ability to repay the loan. And Yancey said that "character" matters — if an applicant has terrible credit scores but runs their business ethnically, they would be considered, while an applicant with for example, a child-support lien on their account is a red flag.

CONTACT: igorst3@hotmail.com  

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