Council Suspends Request for $ 1 Million ARPA Funding for Aux Black Business Center, Seeks Fuller Picture

Evanston City Council members at their November 1 meeting postponed action following a request for $ 1 million in American Recovery Plan Act federal funds from local contractors to create The Aux, a center commercial for black business groups.

Several board members praised the uniqueness of Aux ‘plan to transform vacant EZ Spuds property at 2223 Washington Street, but said they needed a more complete picture of the demands now lining up ahead. them.

“It shouldn’t be just first come, first served,” Fourth Ward council member Jonathan Nieuwsma said during the discussion. He said he fully supports the concept behind The Aux.

Started by a group of entrepreneurs, The Aux is a business incubator intended for black-owned businesses – some already established and others about to launch.

The name “Aux” is derived from the auxiliary jack of an audio system, Kristin Brown wrote in the September 30 panel discussion, and refers to “plugging in and inspiring change”, using a business model in which tenants work together, share resources and support. each other. Most businesses focus on wellness, she wrote.

The Aux proposal

The $ 1 million requested from the ARPA Economic Development Fund would be used to help adaptive reuse of the vacant industrial building to complete the estimated $ 7 million project, Paul Zalmezak, the city’s economic development director, said in a note. .

To entrepreneurs (left to right) Lori Laser, Gabrielle JP Walker, Juli Kaufmann, Jacqui White, Tosha Wilson (partially masked), Jessie Tobin, Tiffini Holmes and Gabori Partee Sr. pose for a photo at the “Raise and Reveal” of The auxiliary in September. (Photo by Kristin Brown)

The Aux team “believes that the City’s investment will leverage additional investments from other public and private sources,” Zalmezak wrote. “The funding will also accelerate the project which has a start of construction in early 2022 and an opening at the end of 2022.”

The Growing Season, an Illinois organization, serve as Aux’s non-profit developer, providing initial financial support. Once the project was completed, ownership would transfer to local community investors and continued support would not be required, Zalmezak noted.

“Move away” from the traditional system

Presenting the proposal at the November 1 council meeting, council member Peter Braithwaite, in whose second neighborhood the site is located, distinguished this proposal from other funding requests submitted to council.

With Aux’s proposal, he said: “We have a group that has gone through this economic process with a very unique concept that we have never seen before and that is moving away from the traditional banks that created the barriers that have stopped. our progress in life and business – and shifting to a different model that involves a lot of fundraising and philanthropy. ”

Other board members did not disagree but spoke of wanting a more complete picture of ARPA money requests before voting on a single request.

Aux plans to bring together black-owned businesses dedicated to community welfare. (rendering Nia Architects)

The city of Evanston learned earlier this year this year that it would receive approximately $ 43.1 million under the American Rescue Plan Act to help with the recovery from COVID-19. Half of the amount, about $ 21.6 million, was deposited into a special city account in May.

All money must be spent or committed by December 31, 2024, according to the terms of the law.

City council approved spending of $ 5.5 million for public works projects, including $ 3 million for the water system and nearly $ 1 million for improving the parking system.

The addition of other items such as streetscape work and community health brings the city nearly $ 9 million in ARPA approved or under review funds, according to an estimate at the November 1 meeting.

Meanwhile, on the business front, a number of groups are seeking support, including Northlight Theater, which is asking for $ 2 million in aid for its move to new downtown neighborhoods.

On the Aux request, Ninth Ward council member Cicely Fleming said she would not vote because she is linked to one of the owners of the project.

But commenting on the proposal, she told council members: “I think there is a chance for us to put our money where our mouth is”, and that in a city “in which we claim to be doing repairs. and other things, ”The Aux proposition is“ a very tangible effort ”.

She also addressed concerns that were also raised at the Economic Development Committee meeting on October 27 regarding white support for the project. EDC members unanimously recommended the project.

“I will let people [from The Aux] speak for themselves when we ask these questions, ”she said. “But I would just say that historically African Americans have not had access to capital. And so often, when companies are created, they are [started] with loans or they are run by whites who have capital.

“This is how my mother started her first business. Fortunately, she was able to do it, ”she said. “But I think we shouldn’t blame those who try to start a business with the capital they have.”

A lot of money

Other board members spoke positively about the proposal, but supported a decision to refer the matter to the economic development committee until it is a vote.

Nieuwsma said, “I fully support the concept and, you know, whatever dollar amount the board decides. But as I said before, I’m not comfortable doing this vote tonight. I don’t think we should allocate money, certainly from an economic development bucket, until we have the full picture in front of us, and we are able to assess this proposal, that I love and support, in the context of other proposals as well.

Council member Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, said she agreed with Braithwaite that the Aux proposal represents a different approach.

“I think this is a really exciting opportunity,” she said, “but I want to understand it better before I vote on it. I think a million bucks is a big chunk of the money. want to make sure, as Council member Nieuwsma said, that we understand what choices we are making by supporting this and this amount.

She and other council members backed a suggestion by Mayor Daniel Biss to refer the matter to the EDC rather than setting an action for a specific date, “just to have a place for it,” the Mayor Biss, “to make sure that when it comes back to here, we’re actually ready.”

On an 8-0 vote, Fleming abstaining, the item was referred to the Committee on Economic Development.

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