CHATHAM — Ald. Roderick Sawyer dreams of bringing coffee shops, restaurants and bars to a desolate stretch of State Street in the neighborhood where he grew up: Chatham.
By doing so, he hopes he can transform and revive the once-vibrant community by persuading the younger generation to remain in the neighborhood — and even coaxing young families to move here.
“We still have young people who aren’t choosing Chatham as a destination place to live, even though I think we have decent housing stock, because we don’t have the stuff they like,” the 6th Ward alderman said.
Sawyer has targeted the strip between 69th and 79th streets, the site of many empty storefronts, vacant lots and few thriving businesses.
Last week, the City Council Committee on Zoning approved Sawyer's request to rezone State between 76th and 77th streets to allow retail. He also is working with the Chicago Department of Transportation to make the strip more walkable and pedestrian-friendly.
Sawyer said he's been in talks with some businesses but declined to identify them. He said he hadn't decided whether to support a hotel that wants to open there.
But he said more businesses would bring in more money for the community to address a variety of needs.
“We’re always complaining that we don’t have revenue, but if we don’t have businesses, how can we have revenue?” he asked.
Acknowledging that crime could be a problem, he said he has pushed for more police foot patrols.
As it stands, businesses on the strip are pretty sparse, surrounded by older buildings with "For Rent" signs and vacant lots. Some business owners — including a bakery, florist, an Aldi and a Walgreens — said they would love to see the area revived.
Karen Gibson, 53, who opened Karen’s Cupcakes & Cookies nearly a year ago at 7139 S. State, welcomed Sawyer's efforts.
“It would attract more people, give kids after-school jobs, and just offer more opportunities to a community that isn’t thriving like it used to,” Gibson said.
George Barounes, who has owned King's Garden Floral Shop at 7201 S. State St. for more than 50 years, said he would love it if Sawyer could revitalize the area. He said business has been slow; his business is on an isolated corner with no street parking.
And he's heard similar promises that went unfulfilled.
"It would be great if he can generate businesses, but I'm doubtful he'll be able to make that happen," Barounes said.
Sawyer's opponents in the upcoming aldermanic election agree that reviving State Street is a good idea.
"Right off the expressway is always a good place; it's a great location, but we do need to be cautious of what kinds of businesses we attract," challenger Richard Wooten said.
The ward, he said, doesn't need anymore nail shops, for example.
Wooten said he also wants to see development come to other areas of the ward, like the old Kennedy-King College site at 69th and Wentworth. He said the site could become a major shopping mall that could attract shoppers from the suburbs.
Challenger Brian Garner also said he supports the revitalization of State Street, but wants to bring more businesses across the ward. He'd like see a Bath and Body Works on 79th between Cottage Grove and Martin Luther King Drive, he said.
But other issues need to be addressed to attract solid businesses, Garner said.
"I have spoken with some businesses who would love to come to the ward, but there are areas we need to straighten up first — there are too many guys just hanging out," he said.
Melinda Kelly, the Chatham Business Association’s executive director, said that more businesses would generate more revenue for TIF districts, which in turn could help existing businesses and bring more economic development.
“You have to start somewhere,” she said. “We as a community have to begin to understand the process and work with each obstacle as it comes. It’s good for Sawyer to start the process, and as a community we should work with him."
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