WEST ENGLEWOOD — School closures and economic development dominated a mayoral candidate forum Wednesday evening at the Englewood Political Symposium at Lindblom Math and Science Academy.
Englewood Votes! hosted its first mayoral forum Wednesday at the selective-enrollment high school, 6130 S. Wolcott Ave., moderated by journalist Robin Robinson. Willie Wilson, Bob Fioretti, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and William “Dock” Walls were all in attendance.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel wasn’t present, but the group’s organizers said that an invitation was extended to him.
“Still another disrespect and slap in the face for the current mayor to not to show up, I know he didn’t show up at the one at Chicago State,” said Lin Whitaker, a Roseland resident, who said she was offended by Emanuel's absence from the two most recent debates in the neighborhood.
Instead of all candidates answering questions at once, each was brought onstage one at a time to answer Robinson’s questions.
One subject addressed at length was what to do with six vacant buildings that have been empty since the Chicago Board of Education voted to close 50 schools in 2013.
Wilson said they should never have been closed.
“The minority community always gets shortchanged,” he said.
If elected, Wilson vowed to form a committee of community residents, teachers and administrators to create a plan for reopening some of the schools.
Walls said the schools should be refurbished and turned back into neighborhood schools, but with a twist: he wants them to be “mixed-use” buildings, containing some classrooms next to other city operations.
“We’ll put in a WIC office, a regional or local CPS office, a police substation,” Walls said.
Other ideas mentioned were a neighborhood Department of Homeland Security office and a student therapy facility.
Garcia suggested the buildings be used for workforce development or as community centers. He said bringing the community to the table to discuss their ideas is important no matter what the schools become.
Fioretti also pushed for community centers, but said nothing can happen overnight, adding that his timeline to reopen them would stretch at least five years.
On the subject of improving economic development in Englewood, Walls said his initiative, Grocers Community Owned and Operated, would resolve that issue.
The initiative, which would be funded with tax money, would bring 20 big-box grocery stores and 60 midsized neighborhood markets to Chicago’s underserved communities.
He estimated that the project would create about 5,000 construction jobs, 20,000 permanent grocery store industry jobs and 25,000 private sector jobs.
Walls also advocated the development of business grants.
Walls said that instead of offering tax break incentives to larger companies to lure them to Chicago, efforts should be focused on working with local businesses. His plan is to set up public and private partnerships, which would be funded with $1 billion of the city’s $7.9 billion Capital Improvement Program.
Walls said that he would want to identify 1,000 small to medium businesses over a four-year period and award each a $1 million jobs creation grant.
Fioretti said he would focus on simplifying the process for individuals to launch their own businesses by streamlining the permitting process and offering tax incentives and fee waivers for businesses that hire from the local community.
Wilson’s theme is “economic empowerment,” he said at Wednesday's debate, proposing that the city sell empty lots and vacant buildings for $1.
“Economic empowerment creates economic development,” Wilson said.
Roseland resident Whitaker said she thought the forum was great, but wished the candidates had been more specific about how they would bring jobs onto the South Side.
“Everybody talks about jobs and how they can create jobs and bring them into the community, but when you go into our community, those jobs that are here, the faces still don’t look like ours,” said Whitaker, who is African-American. “So I’m not always impressed by someone saying they can bring jobs into the community because they are not guaranteed.”
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