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Chicago Prize awarded to West Garfield Park wellness collaborative

by staff

An initiative designed to boost the life expectancy of residents in the West Garfield Park community was awarded the second Chicago Prize, a $10 million grant competition established by the Pritzker Traubert Foundation to help revive neighborhoods on the South and West sides.

More than 20 West Side community organizations formed the Garfield Park Rite to Wellness Collaborative, and plan to create the $50 million Sankofa Wellness Village, replacing vacant lots with a fitness center and health clinic, after-school care facilities, a credit union and a business incubator, as well as job training facilities and pop-up groceries, amenities little seen in the neighborhood since the 1968 uprising after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. left behind burned-out commercial buildings and homes.

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“West Garfield Park has one of the lowest life expectancies on the West Side,” said Ayesha Jaco, executive director of West Side United. “This project will be a one-stop shop, with a wellness center as the focal point, where the community can access care and address every factor that impacts life expectancy.”

“We’re hoping to break ground on the wellness center by the end of the year and cut the ribbon for the whole village by 2025,” she added.

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Foundation officials envision their prize competition, launched in 2019, will do more than simply fund a scattering of projects. Each award is meant to kick off economic activity and spark interest from other investors in the chosen neighborhoods, said President Cindy Moelis.

“Ten million may seem like a lot of money, but when you’re talking about communities with this level of disinvestment, a lot has to happen,” she said. “We’re hoping these investments bring others to the table as well.”

The 60,000-square-foot wellness center for West Garfield Park, currently a vacant lot on West Madison Street, will provide health care to 6,000 patients every year through Erie Family Health Center, and thousands more will access fitness programs and day care services from YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago, Jaco said. Other partners include New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, the Community Builders and Rush University Medical Center.

The new credit union will help 10,000 residents open bank accounts, while hundreds of others will get job training or learn how to start new businesses. And since finding fresh, healthy food is now difficult, the collaborative will also open pop-up groceries until it can attract a permanent grocery store to West Garfield Park.

“We don’t even have a grocery store because Aldi closed in October,” Jaco said, “so our initiative will at least ensure the community gets the bare necessities.”

There were five other finalists for this year’s grant, and they won’t be shut out, said Bryan Traubert, the foundation’s co-founder and trustee. Each was led by local community groups or developers judged to have the expertise to attract other financing and see projects through to completion and will receive $2.5 million. In addition, the foundation will continue helping the finalists, including Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, which plans to launch a new affordable housing project and performing arts theater in its South Side neighborhood, to secure other investments.

“Every single one of these applicants will be far better off,” Traubert said. “We’re going to stay involved with them until their projects are funded.”

Out of the six finalists for the first Chicago Prize, awarded in 2020, three eventually secured full funding for their proposals, and two others are getting close to completing their capital stack, Moelis added.

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“This is about putting a spotlight on them,” she said.

Carlos Nelson, CEO of the Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corp., a partner in the coalition which won the first prize, said the award brought notice to their $52.8 million project, which transformed a vacant, four-story 1920s-era building near 79th Street and Halsted Street into a community and healthcare hub, and to the surrounding community. The group will also close this quarter on a nearby vacant lot and transform it into an urban farm.

“Getting the $10 million was a huge catalyst in getting us to the finish line, but what it also did was make corporations aware of our organization and the community,” he said. “Whirlpool Corp. came calling, Kohler Corp. came calling, Discover Financial Services came calling, and then the Chicago Bears adopted the Auburn Gresham healthy lifestyle hub as their own.”

The Bears and Discover kicked in a total of more than $700,000, while Whirlpool and Kohler supplied the development with equipment and fixtures.

Development is accelerating in the neighborhood, Nelson added. Evergreen Real Estate Group just broke ground across the street on 838 W. 79th St., a new affordable residential building, and will soon begin work on a similar building one block east, part of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Invest South/West program.

“The impact of this has gone beyond what we ever anticipated,” he said.

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