PI Original Angela Caputo Friday May 29th, 2009, 9:45am

Olympic Leverage In Lawndale

In late April, the Chicago City Council "blessed"
a non-binding agreement aimed at ensuring community members benefit
from the potential Olympic development spree. At the time, Jay Travis
of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization (KOCO) told us, "We'...

In late April, the Chicago City Council "blessed"  a non-binding agreement aimed at ensuring community members benefit from the potential Olympic development spree.  At the time, Jay Travis of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization (KOCO) told us, "We've only won the first round of a 12-round fight."

On the West Side, the Lawndale Alliance is working towards the same goals and setting the stage for the next round. Several years ago, the group galvanized around the lack of transparency regarding some local tax increment financing (TIF) districts.  Now activist Valerie Leonard says the Alliance is merely trying to be included in what's become an exclusive conversation about West Side Olympic development. "The city just wants one opinion out there," Leonard tells us. "I would love to see something happen where the people in the community don't feel like their on the outside looking in on their own community."

Leonard points out that "there are are a lot of connections between TIF and the Olympics that are not fully recognized." Case in point: The proposed site of the $37 million indoor bike stadium is Douglas Park (see rendering above), which sits smack dab in the middle of the 24th Ward's Midwest TIF district (PDF). Not long ago, the city tapped this TIF account to finance a $30 million makeover of Collins High School. But the gymnasium will be torn down if the Olympics come Chicago's way. This has left community members rightly concerned.

Local activists also want some say in how the city spends the $47 million surplus currently sitting in the Midwest TIF account (reserved for "future redevelopment project costs"), along with the surpluses associated with six other local TIF districts.

The Lawndale Alliance invited Ald. Sharon Dixon (24th Ward), Olympic 2016 community liason Arnold Randall, and the city-funded Lawndale Christian Development Corporation to take part in a recent series of three public forums on TIF and the Olympics, but they pulled out at the last minute.  The Alliance held the last of those forums on Tuesday evening and neighborhood activists were buzzing about their representatives' apparent fear of facing this audience.

Leonard continuing to pursue answers on the Collins plan and other TIF details through a series of Freedom of Information requests. Per usual, city officials are dragging their feet on the requests.  In the meantime, Leonard has gained plenty of insight into the TIF system and delivered some powerful testimony last month on the merits of the TIF Sunshine ordinance.

Other activists in the community are anxiously awaiting to see what she turns up. "If all of this money is spent and you don't know how it's being spent, the question is how do you position yourself to tap into it?" West Side pastor Rev. Lloyd Coaker asked his neighbors Tuesday evening.

Added Leonard: "We think of ourselves as poor powerless people, but there are a lot of zeros in these TIFs ... We need to demand what's rightfully ours."

We'll be following those next steps.  And we'll be publishing data on the citywide TIF surpluses early next week.

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