South East Chicago Commission Executive Director Wendy Williams laid out a case last week for the advantages of a Special Services Area on 53rd Street for readers of the Herald. Williams, who is a member of the SSA Advisory Committee, spends a lot of her time thinking about how to attract shoppers to 53rd Street. The potential advantages she describes the SSA bringing to our retail district are certainly compelling: increased foot traffic through marketing, parking management, subsidies to façade improvements and street beautification all sound good to us.
Still, these are described as potential benefits, and we want more details. The district will be financed by businesses along the street, and we are not convinced that business is so good on 53rd Street that our retail shop owners can afford to gamble their revenue without substantive plans first being outlined. Taxing bodies like SSAs and Tax Increment Finance districts tend to be rushed through in this city with only gauzy arithmetic. We cannot afford vagaries.
For example, the TIF district that already encompasses much of the same area the proposed SSA would cover was supposed to subsidize beautification on 53rd Street, as well as provide some support for small businesses. It did, for a time, but the development of Harper Court drained the TIF’s coffers, reducing it to little more than another developer subsidy fund like most TIFs in Chicago. As a result, tax dollars that were meant to support our local schools and other worthy purposes instead are funneled into development. Some might argue that the projects the TIF subsidizes are worthy enough themselves to justify the TIF, but the point is that the case made for the TIF in the first place was obviously based on inaccurate numbers.
Of its many potential purposes, what will the SSA actually produce? This is the question we pose to the esteemed advisory committee for the district. Public meetings are supposed to be announced in the next month for April. In the month or so before those meetings, the committee must make sure its proposal is specific and that concrete numbers are produced.
It would be nice to see CleanSlate, a worthy program that combined job training with an effective street cleaning service, returned to Hyde Park. It would be a shame, by contrast, if our retailers were burdened with an additional tax simply so a high-priced image consultant could advise us how to market Hyde Park. The core values of our community should be reflected in the budget priorities of the SSA.
Sharpen your pencils, SSA Committee, and be ready to sell us on this district. We are eager to look over your numbers with you.