Cook County targets South Suburbs in economic development initiative

Recognizing both the significant assets and severe economic challenges of the South Suburbs, Cook County is starting the second phase of an initiative to revitalize an area that has been neglected far too long.
 
A report on the first phase of the project, released this summer, concludes that the South Suburbs “are now struggling because they have become increasingly disconnected from the regional economy and its trajectory.” The county’s South Suburban Economic Growth Initiative (SSEGI) is a plan that’s designed to “drive prosperity” in the region.
 
In an interview with the H-F Chronicle last week, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said studies show that the South Suburbs, with some of the poorest communities in the Chicago area, are increasingly fragmented and have not been part economic growth that’s been taking place in most of the metropolitan region.
 
“We looked at all the regions of throughout the county,” Preckwinkle said. “The most successful regions are the ones with the least inequality. The part of the county that that is struggling the most is the South Suburbs. We have to work with local governments and businesses to build up that region.”
 
The county’s initiative, she said, will focus on two main aspects of life in the South Suburbs – economic development and the criminal justice system.
 
Preckwinkle said the second part of the county’s initiative will be the “what’s the lay of the land?” phase. According to the SSEGI report, the next phase of the project will “engage a board set of stakeholders and partners in developing a comprehensive set of initiatives that will build from current activities to restore the South Suburbs as key communities of choice and hubs of economic activity.”
 
Ultimately, the goal of the project is to build regional partnerships between government and business, with significant resources, that will work to “lift up” the South Suburbs, Preckwinkle said.
 
The south suburban initiative has been underway for about two years. Preckwinkle said leaders of Cook County and the six neighboring counties – working together as the Chicago Regional Growth Initiative — started tackling questions like the best way to permit trucks throughout the area. The group also looked at areas in need of help and there was a consensus that revitalizing the South Suburbs would benefit the entire Chicago region.
 
Flossmoor village board members heard a presentation on the county’s south suburban initiative at their Oct. 16 meeting.
 
James Wilson, the secretary of the county’s zoning board of appeals, said the county is looking for partnerships during the second phase of the project.
 
He defined the south suburban project location as an area bounded by Chicago on the north, Interstate 57 on the west, Indiana on the east and Will County on the south. The area, Wilson said, has 34 municipalities and a population of 441,000. That’s nearly as many residents as the city of Atlanta, he said.
 
There are 20,000 businesses and 130,000 jobs in the defined area, Wilson said. However, 74 percent of residents work outside the area. The overall area has a 19 percent poverty rate, more than the average across the Chicago region, and a high unemployment rate. Some south suburban towns are wracked by blight, abandoned homes and crime.
 
Still, the South Suburbs have a rich history of economic success -- at one time, industry in the area drove the entire Chicago region, he said. The south suburban area is home to a nationally important transportation network and retains some metal manufacturing industries, as well as companies like Mi-Jack in Hazel Crest and the Ford stamping plant in Chicago Heights. Many communities have a strong middle class. Wilson said south suburban green spaces can be developed as recreational areas for the entire Chicago area.
 
According to the SSEGI report, one overall message emerged from the first phase of the project: it’s time to “go big or go home.”
 
“The South Suburbs have enormous assets — in people, firms, communities and institutions — and a lot of very promising targeting development activity underway,” the report says. “Yet the assets are often underdeveloped or underdeployed and the activities could be better aligned, supplemented and scaled.
 
“The South Suburbs need a coherent, transformative, comprehensive, mutually reinforcing set of large-scale investments to transition to their rightful place driving prosperity for themselves and the region in the next economy.”
 
Flossmoor Mayor Paul Braun said a number of village residents are already involved in organizations working to revitalize the South Suburbs and asked how Flossmoor can play a role in the county initiative. Wilson said he has already been in contact with Village Manager Bridget Wachtel about the project and that the county is working with other organizations that partner with Flossmoor, including the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association and the Chicago Southland Economic Development Corporation.
 
“Please keep us in the loop,” Braun said. “And pay attention to what’s going in the South Suburbs.”
 
Village Board Member James Mitros told Wilson that taxes in the South Suburbs are oppressively high, which is driving businesses to Will County or Indiana. Economic declines in the south suburban area have led to some of the highest property tax rates in the Chicago region.
 
Mitros said tax incentives are needed to protect local businesses.
 
“We need them,” he said. “We are directly on the doorstep of two competing jurisdictions.”
 
Mitros said both Indiana and Will County are “stealing businesses” from the South Suburbs with promises of lower taxes.
 
“You can lease space in Indiana for what you pay in taxes here,” he said.
 
Wilson said he became familiar with complaints about taxes during the first phase of the county project.
 
“I’ve heard about taxes over and over,” he said. 
 
The first phase of the county initiative was supported through funding from the Chicago Community Trust and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Wilson said the second phase will also include raising funds from other partners in the project.

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