Time, money, heart. When something takes all three, we often ask: Where did it all start?
In a Nutshell
What: An overview of how the Chatham Education & Workforce Center, which is operated by the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership, was developed to provide a variety of free job training and career services to residents of Chicago’s South Side. Featuring a first-of-its-kind maker lab, group meeting spaces, a career center, computer lab, and more, the Center offers training in skilled trades, digital literacy, and manufacturing, as well as resume preparation, skills assessments, and job placement support – with an emphasis on serving disabled people, older workers, ex-offenders, people experiencing homelessness, and Veterans. The Center is also home to the Greater Chatham Initiative, a local nonprofit tasked with realizing a quality-of-life plan created by community members.
Sector: Workforce development
Location: Chicago, IL (Chatham)
Size: 11,000 square feet
Cost: $2.7 million
Funding Sources: IFF, JPMorganChase, 4S Bay Partners LLC
IFF Support: A continuum of services, including managing the design and construction efforts at the site; working with Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership to structure the financing; and employing an uncommon short-term ownership strategy to bring the project to fruition.
In the case of the Chatham Education & Workforce Center (Chatham Center) – a new 11,000-square-foot facility that opened January 19, 2021, offering a variety of job training and career services – there are many possible answers.
Some say it started with the tragic death of Dr. Betty Howard, the beloved head of the special education department at Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep Academy, who was killed by random gunfire in Chatham in May 2014. Congressman Bobby Rush (D, IL-1) often cites Dr. Howard as his inspiration for leading new efforts to revitalize local communities gripped by violence, and part of those efforts included a convening of local leaders later in 2014. That was when Karin Norington-Reaves – a long-time Chatham resident who is the CEO of Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership – first raised the idea of using a nearby vacant building for a workforce center.
Others may think it started earlier, when Chatham started feeling the impacts of the 2008 recession – an event that exacerbated a long-time pattern of Black residents leaving the city due to unemployment. The economic downturn led to more unemployment, people had to move out of the middle-class community in search of more affordable homes, and the community fell on hard times. What was a “community of choice for middle-class African Americans trying to live the American dream…started to shift,” Norington-Reaves describes.
Perhaps both these possibilities are true. And of course, there were many other pivotal moments along the way – including a timely investment from IFF, backed by an innovative new development tool seeded by JPMorgan Chase, as well as substantial long-term support from 4S Bay Partners LLC.
“There are so many folks for whom this Center would not exist but for their participation,” Norington-Reaves says. “This project almost didn’t happen – it almost didn’t happen multiple times, actually. I’m so grateful for everyone who heard me out and saw our vision.”
So now it’s open – what’s inside?
The Chatham Center is operated by Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership (The Partnership), which manages the public workforce system in the City of Chicago and Cook County.
The free programming offered there includes training in skilled trades, digital literacy, and manufacturing, as well as career services such as resume preparation, skills assessment, and job placement. Services are explicitly offered to individuals with disabilities, older workers, ex-offenders, people experiencing homelessness, and Veterans.
During COVID, the Center is offering more of these services virtually, in smaller groups, in larger rooms, or by-appointment-only. Community demand has been strong since before the Center even opened.
“One day, I pulled up to the building, and a community member comes up to me and says, ‘Hey, I’ve seen this beautiful building, and I’m hearing you’re going to do classes. How do I sign up?’ And I’m thinking…did Karin set this up?” says Jessica Sarowitz of 4S Bay Partners, which funded almost all of the project costs. “But it really was someone just being excited about the transformation occurring on this block.”
Norington-Reaves adds: “That kind of thing happens all the time. People see the logo, get excited that it’s happening in their own neighborhood, that they don’t have to travel all the way to 43rd or farther. I had one gentleman burst into tears. People are so grateful. It’s overwhelming.”
The building was renovated to accommodate this high demand. Its centerpiece is a state-of-the-art “maker lab” – a hands-on classroom where participants can learn advanced manufacturing skills. Instruction there will be provided by the Jane Addams Resource Corporation and Richard J. Daley College.
“There’s been a kind of boon in ‘maker spaces’ like this, but they are typically built in areas that are already central to manufacturing,” says Vickie Lakes-Battle, IFF’s Executive Director for the Chicago Region. “It’s significant that this facility exists in this community – this isn’t where the manufacturing is located, but it is where future manufacturers are living. It’s all part of a bigger picture for economic development on the South Side of Chicago.”
The facility also includes: group meeting spaces, including a large, sun-soaked multi-purpose room with capacity for more than 100 people for hiring events or community gatherings; a career center; a computer lab and resource room; and other classrooms and office spaces.
When people say that a community ‘lacks infrastructure,’ that can sound abstract. What it really means is being relegated to church basements because you don’t have a community meeting space. The Chatham Center changes that reality. The thing that people say when they come into the space is how beautiful, bright, and colorful it is – that it has good energy. People who walk through that door feel good about being here, they feel that it belongs to them. There’s a source of power in that.
“When people say that a community ‘lacks infrastructure,’ that can sound abstract. What it really means is being relegated to church basements because you don’t have a community meeting space. The Chatham Center changes that reality,” Norington-Reaves says. “The thing that people say when they come into the space is how beautiful, bright, and colorful it is – that it has good energy. People who walk through that door feel good about being here, they feel that it belongs to them. There’s a source of power in that.”
Short-term ownership, long-term partnership
Many partners contributed to the Chatham Center, each with its own deep, rich history. IFF provided a continuum of services, including managing the design and construction efforts at the site; working with The Partnership to structure the financing; and employing an uncommon short-term ownership strategy to bring the project to fruition.
Our goal is always community-based ownership, which builds wealth in and for communities. That’s not the typical starting place for most traditional, for-profit developers.
“Our goal is always community-based ownership, which builds wealth in and for communities. That’s not the typical starting place for most traditional, for-profit developers,” says Kirby Burkholder, President of IFF’s Social Impact Accelerator. “Luckily, we’re a different kind of developer – one motivated not by financial return, but by completing projects that communities want in partnership with them.”
Here’s how IFF’s community-driven development work often unfolds.
First, the community has a vision – something ambitious, but something very much needed and demanded by the community, often reflected in local economic development efforts or neighborhood plans. This was the case in Chatham when the idea to create a workforce center made its way into the community’s action plan.
Second, there’s a critical mass of ingredients that come together – say, a specific building or site that’s ideal for realizing that community vision, along with a mix of partners and backers that make it seem likely to succeed. That’s what happened in Chatham when partners identified the beautiful vacant building at 640 E. 79th Street.
Third, IFF – at the request of the community – can do the following:
- Purchase the building to secure it for the community purpose. In the case of the Chatham Center, this up-front investment was made possible by a new development tool seeded by JPMorgan Chase, a long-time IFF partner that was looking for an innovative way to get projects off the drawing board.
- Begin leading the design and construction process with architects and contractors so that the project gains momentum and attracts more partners and investors. Because of IFF’s commitment to equitable community development, this work includes a thoughtful procurement process – see sidebar for details.
- Partner with community leaders to help finalize project plans and long-term financing. This work enables a community-oriented group to buy the building back from IFF when ready – thus retaining the asset in the community, and allowing IFF to recoup its investment for another community project.
“This short-term ownership strategy, coupled with IFF’s long-time real estate development and financial know-how, is a powerful combination for high-impact community projects like the Chatham Center,” Burkholder says. “We wield the same tools as other developers, but our timeframes aren’t as tight and our margin expectations aren’t as high. We still want the project to ‘pencil out,’ but we make time to do things the community’s way.”
JPMorgan’s $250,000 grant to IFF helped support this short-term ownership strategy, unlocking capital that would otherwise be difficult to access.
The bigger picture
As with all workforce development efforts, there’s a lot more than meets the eye at the Chatham Center. Beyond the career fairs and job training that help individuals earn a living for themselves and their families, there’s also a bigger “why” that impacts the entire community.
“We are all interconnected and interdependent – and so are our challenges,” Norington-Reaves explains. “There is no doubt that when we decrease unemployment, we increase public safety, we increase home ownership, we increase opportunity. This Center will change lives, yes – and it will also catalyze economic development for years to come.”
Perhaps that’s why the Center is also home to the Greater Chatham Initiative (GCI), a local nonprofit tasked with realizing the quality-of-life plan that was created by the community in the years after Dr. Howard’s death.
GCI Executive Director Nedra Sims Fears, who grew up in Chatham, says: “I used to take for granted that people grew up in a middle-class community with teachers and doctors and lawyers and philanthropists and judges. I thought everyone lived like that. And even though the community has changed since I was a girl, many of those core values are still here – respect for education, respect for community, understanding that we’re a collective.”
What is 'Equitable Procurement'?
But how do these values play out in practical terms when it comes to procurement – the process of hiring contractors and sub-contractors for all the facets of a new facility development project? IFF’s Eden Hurd-Smith, who was deeply involved in the development of the Chatham Center, outlined a few of the ways IFF approaches this process:
- Casting a wide net – First, there’s a Request for Proposals (RFP) to apply for the job. “We cast a wide net to solicit interest and proposal responses or bids, making it so people who are not ‘the usual suspects’ can apply,” Hurd-Smith says. This can include ongoing networking to identify new firms to be added to the list that receives the RFP; asking local organizations for referrals to local firms; and/or requirements to work with smaller sub-contractors, contractors from specific zip codes, or a larger-than-usual percentage of woman-owned and/or minority-owned businesses. “One of the things we’re thinking about is wanting the workforce to reflect the community we’re working in.”
- Facilitating accountability – Once responses are submitted, the selection process begins. IFF includes community members in the interview process for vendors, such as architects or general contractors, so they have a chance to speak to and hear from potential candidates prior to selection for work on the project. “IFF is there to focus on the technical stuff – has this architect or contractor demonstrated that they do the work. But there’s always more to the decision than that, and that’s why we involve community members in the interviews,” Hurd-Smith says. “The contractors talk directly to the people they’re working for. And that relationship-building gives the community a better chance to hold those contractors accountable to what was discussed during the interview.”
- Making connections – Finally, a firm is selected to do the work. General Contractors, for example, can be more experienced firms or smaller firms that can do the work but may not have as much experience on larger construction projects. When possible, IFF tries to “match” smaller contractors or subs with more experienced firms as a mentor to help gain experience on larger projects. Some are rooted in the community, some not. But all share a common commitment to working at the direction of community, with built-in accountability metrics. “At the end of the day, this isn’t just about a building. It’s also about a group of people committed to strengthening a community,” Hurd-Smith says. “By pairing together firms of different sizes and experiences, we are intentionally helping them ‘level up’ for future projects. They learn from each other, and they meet new firms that they might want to work with in the future.”
“Equity doesn’t come from easy decisions,” Hurd-Smith says. “This kind of engagement can take a little longer and cost a little more. But it’s critical in the even more important work of building trust and capacity in our communities.”