Community stakeholders invested in the revitalization of 79th Street gathered together for an informational meeting to learn more about the Retail Thrive Zones initiative.
The standing-room only meeting held in the basement of the Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church, 7851 S. Jeffery Ave., was hosted by 8th Ward Ald. Michelle Harris and 7th Ward Ald. Greg Mitchell as the two elected officials’ wards are linked by 79th Street. Chatham’s Retail Thrive Zone runs only along 79th St. from Cregier Ave. to slightly beyond Exchange Ave.
Launched by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the purpose of the Retail Thrive Zones initiative is to improve access to amenities, promote entrepreneurship, and build community-based wealth and employment, according to its website. These initiatives are made possible to eligible applicants whose businesses/prospective businesses exists within a Retail Thrive Zone. An applicant may apply for a number of financial incentives totaling up to as much as $250,000 in small business loans.
In addition to Chatham, the three-year pilot program has been established in West Pullman, West Humboldt Park, South Shore, Englewood, Bronzeville, Austin, and Back of the Yards.
Harris spoke about how working with her neighboring alderman, Mitchell, to facilitate the use of Chatham’s Retail Thrive Zone will “lay the groundwork” for major projects like the Obama Presidential Library to join the corridor.
“Greg and I are partners in this and we’re working hard because it wouldn’t do good for me to develop my side and then not develop his side,” said Harris. “If we’re not coming together and marrying the business district, because in the community there are no separation lines, I just think that if we start to develop on 79th St. from the east to the west that starts a snowball effect.”
Mitchell explained that the goal of efforts like the Retail Thrive Zones is to provide residents with an opportunity to be able to purchase goods and services within their community instead of having to drive to Hyde Park or Orland Park.
“Ald. Harris and I have lived in these communities all our lives so we know how it used to look…with that as some form of a blueprint, we get to work with the community to try to bring those things back that add value to the community with amenities so people can walk from their homes to get services and goods like they were on 79th Street years ago,” said Mitchell.
Prospective business owners/investors who have previously visited the 79th Street corridor left unimpressed due to its overall appearance, stated Mitchell.
“We feel that if we make the corridor more aesthetically pleasing and cut down on loitering in front of businesses and things like that [businesses will come],” said Mitchell.
Small business owner Jamaine Wells, owner of Wells Janitorial Services, Inc., was one of dozens in attendance eager to learn how Chatham’s Retail Thrive Zone may support his prospective business. A former resident of Chatham for years, Wells’ goal is to one day open his own coffee shop right in the community.
“I’ve been working on the coffee shop for about 10 years, that’s actually my first passion, coffee and tea, but I didn’t have the necessary funds to get started so I created [Wells Janitorial Services, Inc.] to get the seed money I needed so I could get my coffee shop open, and it was always ideal to open up on the South Side of Chicago,” said Wells.
Full service coffee shops are a rarity on the South Side, according to Wells, which inspired him to want his own business instead of franchising a Starbucks so that he could personalize the store to fit the community. Originally, he considered securing funds to renovate a space; however, he’s strongly considering purchasing a space so he may have more control than he would as a renter.
“I like that they took the time out to consider people in my situation who may not have access to this sort of stuff,” said Wells.
Illinois State Rep. Mike Evans, Jr. (Dist. – 33) was among the event’s attendees as his district falls within the Chatham Retail Thrive Zone.
“I think creative ideas like the thrive zones gives hope to a business person to say, ‘Hey, you don’t have to have all the tools you need, you may have A to B and we’ll help you get to C’; that’s what we have to do more in government, help people become more self-sustaining,” said Evans. “Folks have the creativity and the will, they just need a little bit of help and direction.”
For more information about Retail Thrive Zones, visit https://thrivezones.com/.