Business, Opinion

SDA helps the South Suburbs meet 21st century challenges

A century ago, Flossmoor was founded as a bedroom community for weekend trips by Chicago’s business elite to play golf at the numerous clubs within close range of the Illinois Central train line.  Homewood had been around a little longer, originally as “Thornton Station” on the IC train line, and also influenced by golfers coming out on weekend trains to Ravisloe.  

Jay Readey

Homewood and Flossmoor grew up as commuter town satellites of the Chicago economy. Twentieth century growth was rapid and influenced by industrial development throughout the South Suburbs, but when industry shrank in the latter years of the century, south suburban communities and economies shrank disproportionately fast.  

In the last two decades, the region has undergone profound changes in population patterns and business types – and it is a fair question, what types of businesses will help the South Suburbs thrive and grow in the 21st century?

The tools to answer that question are harder to come by in south suburban municipalities than they are in a great global city like Chicago. 

One of the key tools is political power, and in the four dozen Southland municipalities, it is less concentrated and centralized then in the core city. We have 40-odd mayors, police departments, and planning and development engines. Making decisions about large-scale development and future planning is just more difficult than in a large city led by a strong-form mayor. 

Layer on townships, park districts, school districts, and County government, and the number of taxing bodies and elected representatives is head-spinning. Political fragmentation is an inherent problem in the governance of economic development for the Southland. 

A second key tool is capacity: the ability to get things done. South Suburban communities average about 15,000 people, and Homewood-Flossmoor straddles that line: Flossmoor has about 10,000 people, and Homewood has about 20,000.  Communities of that size are not likely to have large and multi-faceted economic development staffs that can create TIFs or assemble complex capital-intensive projects in the tens of millions of dollars. 

Municipalities are lucky to have one such staff person, and for smaller budgets, that person may share duties with marketing and public relations for the village. 

Yet economies increasingly behave as regional animals, notable most of all for their links to the global economy. What gets produced locally and traded elsewhere? It takes sophistication and capacity to answer that question for a region as a whole, and until now that has been hard to assemble for the South Suburbs. 

In addition to the tools that have been missing in the South Suburbs, one of the consistent themes of my column is that America has consistently failed to understand and properly respond to communities with significant proportions of Black and brown residents – and that the success of the Homewood-Flossmoor area will be an important factor in changing the narrative.  Nationally, the professionals that manage marketing, insurance, actuarial science, demographics, and forecasting have failed to do well by communities of color. The overriding mindset since the mid-20th century has been that communities with growing nonwhite numbers are headed toward disarray. Demographers, actuaries and forecasters have not made great sense of strong or healthy communities of color.

When that changes, the investment proposition will be powerful.  And fortunately, with the creation of the Southland Development Authority, the South Suburbs have solved the riddles of fragmentation and capacity that have stymied progress for so long. 

When Toni Preckwinkle was elected Cook County president, she had the foresight to ask a crowd of experts to chart a path to renewed investment in the South Suburbs. That multi-year effort, called the South Suburban Economic Growth Initiative, led to the creation of the Southland Development Authority.

With support from the County, the MacArthur Foundation and the Chicago Community Trust among others, the SDA has quickly grown into a juggernaut that can assemble complicated deals to help businesses grow that are already primed for growth. 

The SDA is led by CEO Bo Kemp, whose experience across the country in places like Detroit, Newark, Gary and Houston gives him vision for broad-scale redevelopment. 

Combining its strength with that of the South Suburban Land Bank, which assembles the municipal powers of dozens of towns to acquire and clean title to vacant land and buildings, the SDA can bridge public interests with the activity of private capital.  The result is new growth and investment.

Consider the fundamental elements of this story: for decades, the South Suburbs have received less investment than their geographic location and business fundamentals might otherwise merit – a result of deindustrialization, white flight, demographic shifts, fragmentation, capacity constraints and bursting bubbles in dot-coms and housing. 

Someone had to see through that mess, and a large group of people joined together and did so – there is a vibrant community of business growth professionals envisioning development in commercial strips; industrial clusters in food, metals, and logistics; and big bets like new casinos and new airports. 

Not every innovation will hit, but the sheer dynamism of these efforts will bring growth to the Southland like it hasn’t seen in decades.  

Again, the investment proposition is simple. Take a place that has been underinvested for decades, and go long. 

Figure out how diversity is an asset in a rapidly diversifying nation and not a sign of weakness. Assemble some sophisticated professionals to use data analytics to chart out the right growth investments to make in an area that brings together all the major interstate highways serving the large plurality of the country, and all the freight rail lines that move goods and services; an area that sits on the shores of 20% of the world’s freshwater in a world where water scarcity will move economies; and an area with growing populations that look like the face of America writ large.  

Homewood and Flossmoor are two very healthy communities in the center of the Southland region.  If you want to figure out where to invest your money in the next decade, invest it here.  Tell your friends. 

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