Chamber demands transparency in how SSA is run

By JOSEPH PHILLIPS
Staff Writer

Special Service Area #61 (SSA #61) chose to keep the South East Chicago Commission as its service provider. The Hyde Park Chamber of Commerce, who was a candidate for the position, demands that going forward the SSA be more transparent with how its funds are allocated.

The Hyde Park Chamber of Commerce in collaboration with the South East Chicago Commission held a meeting on Wednesday night, Aug. 16, to determine who would be the next service provider for Hyde Park’s Special Service Area #61.

During the meeting, which took place at the Hyde Park Bank Building, 1525 E. 53rd St., both organizations were reviewed by a panel of judges made up of eight SSA committee members that represented their professions in the areas of retail, education, real estate, development and other businesses in the Hyde Park neighborhood.

Each service provider candidate was required to answer 12 questions given to them by SSA committee members and deliver an oral presentation to both the panel and community.

After the presentations the SSA chose to remain with the SECC.

“I’m ecstatic about it,” said Eric Reeves, executive director of Hyde Park’s SSA #61, about the SECC being selected as service provider for the group. “I’m looking forward to continuing to work with community partners such as the Chambers of Commerce.”

Entering its third year as service providers for SSA #61, the SECC will manage, staff and govern all SSA activities. These activities, known as Business Improvement Districts (BID’s) or footprints, will consist of local tax districts that fund expanded services and programs through a localized property tax levy within a contiguous area. The enhanced services and programs are in addition to those currently provided through the city of Chicago.

SSA-funded projects typically include but are not limited to: public way maintenance and beautification; district marketing and advertising; business retention/attraction, special events, and promotional activities; auto and bike transit; security; facade improvements; and other commercial and economic development initiatives.

The SSA will give the SECC an annual operating budget of approximately $300,000, collected from property taxes on real estate within the SSA footprint area, which includes 53rd Street, Lake Park Avenue, and 55th Street between Harper and Hyde Park avenues.

The SECC will also use its funds to help programs such as sidewalk cleanings, tree replacements and all of the bike racks that have been added to Hyde Park in the last few years.

Although the SECC will remain service providers for SSA #61, some raised questions about the process.

“The chamber’s failing to be selected the 2018 service providers wasn’t the issue,” said Wallace Goode, executive director of the Hyde Park Chamber of Commerce. “Our desire to be service providers [came about] because of the lingering questions that continue to plague the SECC and their management of the SSA funds, allocation of funds, and staff.”

In January, the U. of C. and the SECC announced that the SECC would transition over the next year to become a self-governing entity outside of the U. of C. with help from U. of C. board members.

Goode said despite the public announcement of a split, the conflict of interest remains because most of the SSA funds are being allocated back to University of Chicago Projects.

According to Goode, in the winter of 2017, the Hyde Park Chamber of Commerce approached SSA #61 Commissioners about opening up the selection process.

“The Hyde Park Chamber of Commerce submitted its name for consideration as the logical candidate, honest broker and experienced voice for Hyde Park’s business community,” Goode said.

Goode said that now that the U. of C. and SECC are no longer partners it is also the ideal time to examine the need for change with the local SSA.

Goode said in a letter to the Herald:

“Hyde Park’s SSA has been managed by the SECC since its inception in 2014. While the Chamber believes that the SECC is a committed community organization, our members have consistently raised concerns about the transparency of the process and protocols articulated and followed by the SSA #61’s current Service Provider.”

His questions concerning management and disbursement of public dollars included:

* How many of these thousands of dollars have been spent locally?
* Have funds been equitably dispersed throughout the SSA footprint?
* Have some businesses within the footprint benefited more from these public dollars than others and Why?
* Should the overseeing Board of Directors be more Hyde Park focused?
* Are businesses outside the Harper Court area (i.e. 55th Street and west 53rd Street) getting equitable return from taxes paid to the SSA?

The Hyde Park Chamber of Commerce is the logical Service Provider because different values guide SECC’s and HPCC’s respective economic and business development strategies.

Chamber’s values include:

* Cultivating an awareness, understanding and appreciation of cultural values and established traditions and respecting those values and traditions in decision making (the Hyde Park Way);
* Prioritizing building collaborations and earning the respect of Hyde Park’s business and local community members;
* Maximizing inclusiveness, transparency and accountability with stakeholders;
* Utilizing a continuous improvement process and commit to the practice of “Hire local” and “Shop local”.

Since submitting his letter to the Herald on behalf of the chamber, Goode said that the chamber is expecting greater accountability and transparency from the SECC when managing public dollars.

j.phillips@hpherald.com