The Chicago alderman at the center of a dispute that has united Oak Park and Austin residents in opposition to her is looking to create a future partnership with the west suburban village on potential business developments.
Ald. Deborah Graham of Chicago's 29th Ward recently announced the launch of a community-based, business initiative for the Austin-Galewood neighborhood. She's looking to bring business owners and residents together to create a "sustainability roadmap" for economic development in the area.
This effort, she noted, is also taking place in the city's other 76 community areas. Austin's first planning meeting is scheduled for Sept. 4 at the Columbus Park Refectory.
"This will be a community plan, not an aldermanic plan," Graham said at a recent event at Shriners Hospital to announce the initiative. "We will all work together to create a plan that represents our thoughts about what we would like to see in the ward."
Graham said residents from neighboring Oak Park and nearby Berwyn would be invited to join once Austin-Galewood residents first lay the groundwork.
"We have to pull up our own bootstraps. We want to change our community from the inside out, and we've got to work together," she said. "At some point we will all come together, including other communities. We all want the same thing. We all want a safe community, quality education and good jobs."
Graham earlier this year angered both Oak Park and Galewood residents for not opposing EZ Pawn's plans to build its new shop on North Avenue. Residents maintain that the area doesn't need another pawn shop — EZ Pawn would be the fifth one on North Avenue. Graham will inherit that section of Galewood in 2015 when the city's new ward map takes effect.
The alderman maintains she only backed EZ Pawn at the request of Austin Bank of Chicago — the bank for the last two years had been trying to find an anchor business for the strip mall at 6432 W. North Avenue. Still, residents remain riled at Graham. They've also filed a complaint with the Cook County Circuit Court to try and block EZ Pawn from setting up shop.
As for the sustainability initiative, Graham has asked the Institute of Cultural Affairs in the USA (ICA) to guide the effort. The institute is in year-three of a five-year program, Accelerate77, designed to create community-level, sustainability initiatives in Chicago's 77 communities. Graham said that once the community-created plan is developed, monthly meetings will be scheduled to make sure it's put into action. Smaller community groups would then be set up in those communities to work on specific issues.
ICA representatives were on hand at Shriners Aug. 14 for Graham's announcement. The "vision session" event aimed to lay the groundwork for the upcoming, citywide planning process. City experts were also on hand to talk about zoning regulations and business grants.
About 60 residents attended the event and had questions.
One involved if job-training programs would be available for unemployed residents of a ward. Graham promised to have representatives from TIF-funded workforce training programs at the next planning session, which is scheduled for Oct. 2 at the Refectory, 5701 W. Jackson, in Austin.
A third meeting is scheduled for Nov. 6, and Graham says she expects additional sessions to be added after that.