Include the West Side in the Community Catalyst Fund

We thank the Austin Weekly News for publishing the following letter to the editor.  Photo credit: Second City Cop Blog.

The Mayor has proposed the new $100 million Community Catalyst Fund designed to invest in businesses in communities that are most in need.  A governing board consisting of the City of Chicago CFO, City Treasurer, Commissioner of Planning and Development, and four mayoral appointees will establish investment criteria and policies with input from an advisory council consisting of two aldermen and three community representatives. The targeted communities and manner in which investment decisions will be made are yet to be determined.

We, the members of the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council (NLCCC), support the overall concept of the Community Catalyst Fund, and would encourage the team responsible for the implementation to solicit further input from local communities as the program is finalized. This will only strengthen the program.

NLCCC is a group of North Lawndale stakeholders, including nearly 300 community-based organizations, business owners, elected officials and individuals that have come together to guide our community’s first comprehensive planning and implementation process since 1958.  We believe that there should be representation from Chicago’s West Side on the Community Catalyst Fund (“the Fund”) governing board as well as the advisory council. In times past, the West Side has been excluded from a number of the City’s innovative economic development programs, and we are under-represented on the governing boards for various City commissions. It is important that communities that are in most need also have a voice at the policy level to ensure that programs are responsive and deliver the maximum impact.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to small business development, and every establishment is different. The Fund should take a comprehensive approach that will tap into a variety of public and private resources to provide a broad array of financial products and services to small businesses that are at varying stages of development, from start-up to mature.  Examples include low interest micro-loans, New Markets Tax Credits, mezzanine debt and equity investments with longer investment horizons. At the same time, the Fund should provide funding for community-based CDFI’s (community development financial institutions), SBA-certified Small Business Development Centers and other intermediaries to provide technical assistance to small businesses seeking funding in order to minimize investment risk.

The Fund’s board should develop investment criteria that are more flexible than conventional financing while safeguarding investor capital, and prioritize projects that will create jobs and provide incentives for hiring residents of the communities in which the projects are located. There should also be accountability to ensure that jobs that are promised materialize. Finally, the Fund should consider clustering public works projects to enhance its investments and spur additional private investment in high need areas.

We look forward to an investment fund that will catalyze investment on the West Side, and high-need communities around the City of Chicago.

— North Lawndale Coordinating Committee Exec. Subcommittee

Valerie F. Leonard, Rodney Brown and Dr. Dennis Deer, Members

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