Mayor Lightfoot tours 345 Art Gallery with owner Corry Williams
PASCAL SABINO / BLOCK CLUB CHICAGO

By Pascal Sabino, Block Club Chicago

Applications are now open through the end of February for $10 million in new business development grants provided by the city’s Neighborhood Opportunity Fund program.

The grants will be a driving force behind Mayor Lori Lighfoot’s INVEST South/West initiative to support equitable development in commercial corridors on the South and West sides. The city recently unveiled changes to the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund program that aim to make the program more accessible to the businesses that could benefit most from the money.

Lightfoot joined Planning Comm. Maurice Cox on Tuesday to kick off the first round of grant applications in 2020 at 345 Art Gallery.

The gallery at 345 N. Kedzie Ave. in Garfield Park was the recipient of a $201,000 Neighborhood Opportunity Fund grant in 2017. It allowed owner Corry Williams to build an addition that will make space for more art, including an outdoor sculpture garden.

The grant application is open through the end of February and finalists will be announced in the spring. The planning department expects to open up the applications on a regular schedule, with the next window opening in July.

“This gallery is a beautiful example of what can happen, I believe, when the city works with a business owner who is determined to not just to create a business but to make a very lasting contribution to the neighborhood,” Cox said.

“It was about providing a space and a venue on the West Side of Chicago for the community,” Williams said about the youth programming and classes that the gallery extension will allow him to expand. “Having an art gallery and having the kids, different events come through here, it’s just been a huge impact for the West Side.”

Williams said the process of applying to the program when he received the grant was tough, but he was already experienced with rehabbing the gallery since he originally transformed the building from a church into an arts venue. But with the new changes, he said the barriers to accessing the grant will be greatly reduced so that other business owners will be able to benefit from city funding like he has.

Lightfoot said her administration want to make the fund more inclusive.

“Our Neighborhood Opportunity Fund reforms build on our mission to create inclusive growth for residents and vibrant communities,” Lightfoot said.

Changes to the program will allow some projects to be fully funded by the grant if the owner lives in the same neighborhood as the business and hires locally. Previously, projects were capped at 65 percent.

The program will also offer additional education resources, technical advisors, construction advisors and lending coaches to help grantees pull together additional funding and manage the construction process to completion.

Previously, the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund was a reimbursement for project costs. But the grant’s new rules would allow some funding to be released before construction is completed, including up to $25,000 of the funding to be paid upfront for predevelopment costs like appraisals, designs, and surveys. Williams said those predevelopment costs can really add up, with a soil survey for his addition costing nearly $50,000 before construction even started.

“It’s not easy to be a small business owner, especially when you’re planning a major expansion,” Cox said. “That’s why the [Neighborhood Opportunity Fund] program has been going through its own major program improvements to meet some of the more pressing needs that business owners highlighted to us.”