Built from Within: PODER Begins Construction of Chicago’s First Immigrant Integration and Job Center February 16, 2022

As PODER President & CEO Daniel Loftus drove to and from work every day in the Gage Park neighborhood on Chicago’s Southwest Side, he passed a building that he couldn’t help but admire. Though slightly dilapidated and often tagged with graffiti, the vacant City of Chicago Bureau of Electricity facility had a presence that consistently drew his eyes toward it. And, as the leader of a nonprofit in need of a permanent facility, he began to imagine the potential that existed for PODER to breathe new life into the historic structure by renovating it to serve as the organization’s headquarters and the city’s first dedicated immigrant integration and job center.

In a Nutshell

What: A new headquarters for PODER – its first permanent facility since being founded 25 years ago – which will serve as the first immigrant integration and job center in the City of Chicago. The facility will provide “connective tissue” between two major investment corridors in the city by virtue of its location at the nexus of Chicago’s South and West Sides.
Sector: Workforce development
Location: Chicago, IL (Gage Park)
Size: 7,000 square feet
Cost: $5.3 million
Funding Sources: IFF, Chicago Community Trust, We Rise Together, Illinois state capital bill, agency capital campaign
IFF Support: Feasibility study completed by IFF’s real estate team in 2018; $3.317 million bridge loan closed in November 2021
IFF Staff Lead: Jocelyn Velazquez, Senior Lender
Owner’s Representative:
Francisco Gonzalez Pulido (FGP Atelier)
General Contractor: KATTARA Construction
Impact: PODER’s new facility will nearly double its capacity, enabling the organization to serve approximately 2,500 immigrants annually, as well as creating two permanent FTE jobs and 20 temporary jobs during construction

31 months later – in November 2021 – Loftus’ vision took a major step toward becoming a reality as PODER celebrated the groundbreaking for a $5.3 million renovation of the facility, which was constructed in 1932. Once completed, the facility will enable PODER to help almost 2,500 Spanish-speaking adult immigrants annually find jobs and integrate into their new communities – nearly double its current total.

In addition to expanding the organization’s capacity, the 7,000-square-foot headquarters will make it possible for PODER to consolidate three leased locations to one that it owns, providing long-term stability to the organization for the first time since it closed its original location in Chicago’s gentrifying Pilsen neighborhood in 2015 after 18 years in the community.

“In the 25 years since PODER was founded, we haven’t had a permanent home that we could call our own,” says Loftus. “Among other locations, we’ve rented space on a dead-end, one-way street in a nondescript building and most recently have been on the second floor of Marquette Bank while trying to serve a population that we estimate includes almost one in four people who are unbanked – which is not the most ideal situation. Our new facility is going to be incredibly welcoming, with a large glass pavilion that literally allows our clients to see what they’re walking into and with whom they’re going to be speaking. That’s critically important.”

Expected to open in Fall 2022, PODER’s facility will include 11 training rooms, eight offices, two conference rooms, a community room, and more. Plans for the facility – which is located in a predominantly Latinx neighborhood easily accessible by public transportation – were informed by the community following a yearlong engagement process that included surveys, focus groups, and one-on-one conversations. Among the takeaways identified was the need for PODER to provide an array of services at its headquarters beyond workforce development programming alone.

PODER’s Formula for Immigrant Integration

PODER offers a unique program pathway design that prepares immigrants to find successful and fulfilling careers in customer service, insurance, and financial services. Participants progress through multiple training levels, from English language literacy to career exploration, customer service certification, industry-specific job training, and job placement. Through its social enterprise, Oprima-1, PODER provides clients transitional employment (in outsourced Spanish language customer service positions) before placing them in full-time employment with employer partners. PODER’s programming is designed to help Spanish-speaking immigrants successfully integrate into their new communities while preserving cultural values and a sense of identity – a key distinction from assimilation.

“We pride ourselves on helping clients integrate into the community, and jobs are just one piece of an incredibly complex puzzle to successfully facilitate that integration,” Loftus explains. “There are all kinds of obstacles that our community faces, and we’ll be able to offer regularly scheduled programming under one roof to help overcome those obstacles.”

PODER will focus on its area of expertise – workforce development – while welcoming partner organizations and community groups into the facility to offer legal support, mental health counseling, programming for those impacted by domestic violence, connections to housing, and help with transportation and childcare, among other services. A 12,000-square-foot lot adjacent to PODER’s facility will allow for additional community resources like farmers’ markets and health fairs. The organization plans to offer free WiFi on the unfenced site, complementing the welcoming design of PODER’s facility and encouraging community members to engage with the organization.

These are all tangible benefits of the facility for the organization, its clients, and the community, but it’s also a symbol of community revitalization at the nexus of Chicago’s South and West Sides. The redevelopment of the facility will bridge the gap between two major investment corridors prioritized through the city’s Invest South/West initiative.

“There’s so much emphasis on the South and West Sides in Chicago, but the Southwest Side is a pocket of the city that gets overlooked to an extent,” says Loftus. “This project is bringing resources into the community and serving as ‘connective tissue’ between the major investment corridors. Public dollars only go so far, and I think this project is an exciting model for how to combine public and private investment in communities that are disinvested yet don’t receive as much attention.”

As Loftus indicates, PODER’s facility and the anticipated impact of its development are the result of an ambitious vision informed by community needs and supported by a cross-section of public and private partners committed to creating a community asset at an underutilized property.

After countless trips past the vacant Bureau of Electricity building in recent years, Loftus began asking questions about how it was being used at the local Alderman’s office. Those initial conversations led him to the City of Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development (DPD), where he sold his vision for the property – guided in part by a 2018 IFF feasibility study for another site that helped inform PODER’s thinking about what it needed in a facility. After analyzing PODER’s plans, the city agreed to sell the property to the nonprofit for $1, giving it control of the site and setting the development process in motion.

You have to have someone who’s willing to step up and take a risk on a project like ours to create momentum, and that’s what IFF did.

With a relationship with IFF already established, PODER worked with the Capital Solutions team to secure a $3.317 million bridge loan for construction, which lent credibility to the project that PODER leveraged to pursue additional sources of capital. The Chicago Community Trust (CCT) committed $70,000 in predevelopment funding to the project, which was followed by a $1 million grant through We Rise Together, a CCT initiative designed to accelerate economic recovery in Black and Latinx communities most impacted by the pandemic. An additional $750,000 in funding for the project was provided through an Illinois capital plan allocation, with the balance for the $5.3 million project being raised by PODER through a capital campaign.

“The We Rise Together grant was an injection of private capital into the project that gave us recognition we didn’t have before, and it provided a seal of approval for the project that changed our conversations with other funders,” says Loftus. “But we wouldn’t have even gotten to that point without the loan from IFF. You have to have someone who’s willing to step up and take a risk on a project like ours to create momentum, and that’s what IFF did. I want to make sure that is crystal clear.”

With construction now underway, PODER is leaning into its commitment to the community and those it serves with a project team equally committed to creating pathways to success for Spanish-speaking immigrants in the Chicago area. PODER’s owner’s representative for the project is baso, a construction management firm led by Gage Park native Claudette Soto that focuses on building and maintaining community wealth through development projects. The facility was designed by Francisco Gonzalez Pulido, the internationally recognized principal of FGP Atelier, who is himself a Mexican immigrant to the United States. And it’s being built by general contractor Helenia Madrigal of KATTARA Construction which is owned by Honduran immigrant Ivan Kattan.

The facility is going to be a jewel in the community and a welcoming beacon for new immigrants. It’s truly something that’s being built from within.

“We’re proud of not only what this project means for our community and those we serve, but also how it’s being built and the folks who are doing the work,” Loftus concludes. “The facility is going to be a jewel in the community and a welcoming beacon for new immigrants. It’s truly something that’s being built from within.”

Read about additional loans IFF has closed for nonprofit facility projects in Chicago