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BDL Grads Put Theories to Test

Business District Leadership grads Wally Rozak, Jaime di Paulo, and Alexis Esparza (left to right) reporting last spring on field work they did as part of the program. Applications for the next leadership class are available through December 11.

Photos by Gordon Walek


The proof of the pudding, they say, is in the eating. Graduates of LISC Chicago’s first Business District Leadership (BDL) class proved that when they gathered in late October to describe the “neighborhood change” projects they’ve implemented as part of the six-month BDL curriculum. 

Classroom work for the 20 commercial district managers who completed the program, which is designed to promote professional development and networking opportunities for commercial district practitioners, ended in June. During the previous six months, the students – community development veterans whose jobs with neighborhood organizations involve promoting business development – had studied “adaptive leadership” skills intended to help them negotiate the complicated issues that often arise between business interests and resident demands around commercial revitalization plans. 

Neighborhood change projects

But in addition to the book-learning and seminars, students were required to design and implement a project that would enhance the business environment of their neighborhoods. The October re-convening of the alums was an opportunity to share results with their peers and partners. 

The projects were as varied as the neighborhoods that the students represent, ranging from an effort to establish a “cultural hub” in South Chicago to expanded technology workshops in Chicago Lawn to building a commercial kitchen and offices in Englewood. 

In the process of creating and implementing the projects, participants said they used skills acquired during the Business District Leadership training and learned a few other things along the way. Consider the experience of Rob Kostas, the director of small business development at The Resurrection Project (TRP) in Pilsen.

His project was to create a small business loan fund. 

Through his BDL experience, Kostas said he learned a lot about the level of accountability he assumed when attempting such a project. “I learned to have courageous conversations,” he said, “to get to the heart of the matter. TRP committed funds to get it started, but the big question remained about where the rest of the money would come from.” 

Kostas answered that question by securing a $500,000 community economic development grant from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ Office of Community Services to capitalize TRP’s Southwest Chicago Community Capital Fund and hire staff to administer it. 


As his "neighborhood change"  project, Rob Kostas, the director of small business development at The Resurrection Project, established a small loan fund. He secured a $500,000 federall grant to fund the operation.


Making neighborhoods stronger

The goal of Jackie Samuel, of Claretian Associates in South Chicago, was to create a “cultural hub” in her working class community that would serve to promote tourism, support local artists and position the neighborhood for big changes that will surely occur with the residential and commercial development of 600 acres of lakefront property that formerly housed the U.S. Steel plant. One of the first manifestations of her effort was the South Chicago Public Art Book, which documents the work of neighborhood artists over the last decade. 

Tina James, director of commercial and technology services at Greater Southwest Development Corporation, wanted to help small business owners understand how they can use technology to be more efficient. Her solution was to create a network of businesses, building off of a “Tech Thursdays” workshop program already in place, which would create a wider pool of participants and thus increase the level of local technological savvy. 

Angelique Orr, from New Covenant Community Development Corp., is striving to establish a coalition of businesses, developers, residents and others that would focus on redeveloping commercial corridors on 16th Street and Roosevelt Road in North Lawndale. The first step was to survey residents last summer about their vision for those corridors and what types of businesses they would patronize. Top of the list? A grocery store.

Kari Bailey, of North Branch Works on the North Side, helped produce a video to describe exactly what a Planned Manufacturing District is and how they’re helpful in retaining manufacturing businesses and jobs in city neighborhoods that are becoming increasingly residential.

Jim Harbin, program director of the Greater Englewood Community Development Corp.,is working on a plan to occupy 4,000 square feet of vacant space next to the U.S. Bank building on 63rd Street just west of Halsted into a commercial kitchen, a business accelerator and offices. He says he has commitments from Whole Foods, which is building a new store directly across the street, to donate the kitchen equipment.

Meanwhile, Val Free, executive director of The Planning Coalition Community – South Shore, and Teyonda Wertz, executive director of the South Shore Chamber, Inc. have similar visions about how to improve life and business opportunities in their South Shore neighborhood. Free is focusing on how to improve communications within the neighborhood, while Wertz is striving to attract more diverse business and the jobs that would accompany them. 

“The Planning Coalition and Chamber got together as a result of BDL,” said Free. “We worked across the street from one another, but never communicated. Now we do.”


Members of the inaugural Business District Leadership class at their graduation ceremony last summer. The group re-convened in the fall to discuss the status of their neighborhood change projects.


Getting to know each other

Establishing those personal and professional connections may be one of BDL’s most understated yet critical elements.

“It may seem counterintuitive,” said Dionne Baux, the LISC Chicago program director who oversees BDL, “but even though these corridor managers have similar goals and face similar problems, there isn't an established forum where they can meet each other and exchange information. BDL helps fill that void."

Indeed, the relationships the 20 participants established appear to be withstanding the test of time.

“I miss all you guys,” said Tom Otto, the economic development planner at the West Humboldt Park Development Council, whose neighborhood project involves constructing modular murals for display on West Chicago Avenue. “I miss the classes. This has been really fun.”

Applications are now open for the 2016 Business District Leadership Class. The deadline is December 11, 2015. You can apply here and view the 2016 BDL Program Calendar here


"Even though these corridor managers have similar goals and face similar problems, there isn’t an established forum where they can meet each other and exchange information," said Dionne Baux, the LISC Chicago staffer who manages the Business District Leadership program. "BDL helps fill that void.”

BDL wins capacity building award

Additionally, the Business District Leadership program recently won first place in the City of Chicago’s Neighborhood Business Development Center 2015 Awards in the “Capacity Building” category. 

“LISC is driving economic development in Chicago, and the organization’s hard work and creativity contribute to making Chicago’s neighborhoods thrive,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel. “The Business District Leadership program serves as a model for other business organizations throughout the City as a way to make our Small Business Growth Strategy a reality by making new resources and services available to small businesses and demonstrating a strong partnership with City Hall.” 

The Business District Leadership Program is funded by the Polks Bros. Foundation; the City of Chicago; PNC Bank; and Associated Bank. 

For more information about the BDL program contact Dionne Baux, dbaux@lisc.org / (312) 422-9564.

Posted in Economic Development

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Local Initiatives Support Corporation Chicago connects neighborhoods to the resources they need to become stronger and healthier.

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