Connecting Chicago's Communities - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Connecting Chicago's Communities

MPC is doing its part to overcome the digital divide by partnering with IT Resource Center and four community organizations.


Innovations in telecommunications and information technology are fundamentally altering the landscape of opportunities and challenges for  local communities.  Emerging technologies are responsible for the rapid development of new jobs, educational enrichment, and urban revitalization.  However, many Chicago communities are unable to keep up with the rapid pace of change, creating a “Digital Divide” of technology haves and have-nots. 


The City of Chicago is a major center of world-class digital networks, both public and private.  Chicago has the fourth largest regional technology economy and the second fastest information technology employment growth in the nation.  But community access is very limited and many neighborhoods and their residents are being left behind.


According to the Metropolitan Chicago Information Center 1999 Metro Survey of the Chicago region, only 22% of lower-income households have a personal computer, while 71% of upper-income households do.  At the same time that Chicago area companies are struggling to fill positions in a tight labor market (nearly all of which require some technology literacy), a large share of the City’s workforce are sorely lacking in the familiarity and training they need to qualify them for these opportunities.  El Valor Executive Director Vince Alloco reports that in some City neighborhoods this problem is further concentrated – less then 5% of El Valor’s constituents in Pilsen have access to a computer at home.  Centers for New Horizons President and MPC Resource Board member Sokoni Karanja indicates that demand for access and skill development is far from being met in Bronzeville.  At Centers, one of Bronzeville’s few technology access points, residents compete for a small supply of computers and instructor time – exacerbated by frequent “down times” due to insufficient wiring.


Only 11% of lower-income households have Internet access while 50% of upper-income households do (MCIC 1999 Metro Survey) – leaving those with the greatest need out of the loop when it comes to accessing the job market through on-line job searches and resume postings.  This leaves many of the City’s young people at great relative disadvantage as they prepare to compete with their suburban peers in the job market.  Equally important is the need for quality training on the use of computers and opportunities provided by the Internet.  While there has been some progress, most lower-income households do not have easy access to training in their neighborhoods. 


For those City residents that do have access to a computer and the Internet, they still lack high-speed access – necessary to engage teenagers and busy adults in new technologies, learning and skill development.  While corporate customers in the Loop have their choice of providers, less than a mile away, residential neighborhoods are forced to use slow dial up service.  For example, when one of our business partners, I-Works, was working recently with the New City YMCA to provide DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) service to a new prototype community web center, DSL was not available, less than 2 miles from the Loop and between the very affluent Gold Coast and Lincoln Park communities.  The New City Y had no choice but to use the slower, less efficient dial up service. 


Dial up service, or “ the world wide wait”, severely constricts individual use and is not sufficient for small to medium sized businesses – an additional challenge for less advantaged neighborhoods in their efforts to promote and maintain a healthy local business sector.  At the same time that local neighborhoods struggle to provide an environment for businesses to thrive, recruiting new technology firms is a top priority of many of our region’s leaders.  MPC is concerned that efforts to attract this rapidly-growing technology business sector (such as the pressure to recruit dot.coms) while the opportunities are hot will overshadow the need to develop thoughtful plans for neighborhood-based economic development – leaving our less advantaged communities behind on yet another front.        


MPC’s work to date

MPC kicked off its technology work in 1997 when AOL Chairman and CEO Steve Case spoke at its Annual Meeting to 500 Chicago leaders on the importance of technology to communities as the infrastructure of the future.  In 1998, MPC, with the assistance of Northwestern University, published a major piece of research, “The Digital Network Infrastructure and Metropolitan Chicago,” (copy attached) and hosted several community outreach events, including two “Getting Wired” workshops in the fall of 1999 attended by over 130 community, government and business leaders.  (See attached Regional Connection newsletter describing these workshops.)


Also in 1999, Mayor Daley convened a Council of Technology Advisors (MCTA) composed of government, business and community leaders.  MPC’s 1998 report was a key motivator for convening this group.   MPC is represented on the MCTA through Scott Goldstein, Vice President of Policy and Planning, who co-chairs the Committee on City Infrastructure.  As a result of recommendations of this Subcommittee, the City of Chicago announced plans in its November 1999 Technology Action Plan to:  implement “Chicago CivicNet,” linking all parts of the city to high speed Internet; promote a freight and distribution communications hub; and locate community web centers throughout the city. 


In December 1999, MPC formed a partnership with the IT Resource Center to compete for funds offered nationally by the AOL Foundation in support of projects to address the Digital Divide in local communities.  In June we were informed that we had been selected as one of twelve awardees nation wide from a pool of 900 applicants. 


Connecting Chicago’s Communities forwards MPC’s commitment to ensure that infrastructure investments promote equity of access to the region’s resources.  The program was developed in response to the urgent need to address the Digital Divide through hands on work with community partners.  MPC’s involvement in neighborhood-based economic development strategies and our role in the Tax Increment Finance (TIF) debate[1] has informed us of the potential of high tech development as a tool for economic revitalization. 



Creating and Enhancing  Community Web Centers


Wiring is clearly not enough.  Wires without people actively using the equipment to improve the quality of their lives, develop new skills, and receive training for better jobs, is a waste of resources. We are putting equal attention to working with community organizations to transform how they use technology and make it available to their constituencies. 


MPC is partnering with the IT Resource Center and four community partners to develop model community Web centers and implement policy in several neighborhoods, and then be able to scale it up to be effective city-wide and region-wide.  The four community partners are: 

·         Centers for New Horizons, a large, multi-center site with two community web center locations, plus computers in all of their other programs.  Centers is located in Bronzeville and serves residents in the State Street Corridor area, the largest concentration of public housing in the city.


·         Chicago Commons, also a large multi-center organization that serves Chicago residents with a variety of services.  It has three new community web centers with a total of 60 computers for community use.  Its facilities are on the West and South sides of Chicago.


·         El Valor, located in Pilson and serving a largely Latino population, has 20 networked computers on a DSL connection for community programs.  It provides music classes for children, Internet training, job searches, training for local business and youth programs.  El Valor also has computers in all of its day care facilities. In all, 1500 people use El Valor services (day care, education, training for persons with disabilities, etc.) per day.


·         Renacer Westside Community Center is located on the west side of Chicago and serves a primarily African American population.  It has dial-up services for just 3 computers out of 25 that it has for community use.  It wants to expand services to faster speeds, have more training available for the community and have technical and maintenance support for their communities.


Calculated at 200 visitors per center per week, we expect to reach over 18,000 visitors in the first year through staff training, Web center protocol and business plan development, and a Web site to connect Web centers throughout the City.  MPC’s partner, the IT Resource Center will develop a model Web Center Protocol, train staff and launch Connecting Chicago’s Neighborhoods Web site.


Building on the lessons from the first two showcase Web centers, we will provide technical support to help launch and expand the development of 25 additional model Web centers in the city by the end of our second year.


Progress to date:


El Valor:  Currently offers music training on computers to pre-schoolers with their parents, and Master’s degree training in partnership with area universities.  El Valor is interested in expanding their services via resources on the Internet.  El Valor only recently became connected with a DSL line and previously had no Internet availability.  El Valor is currently conducting an external review of the organization’s technology.  When these results are in, IT Resource Center and the El Valor internal technology committee will create the “road map” for staff training.  Also, IT Resource Center will consult with Vincent Allocco, El Valor’s president, on issues of systems planning, concentrating on maintenance and support.

Centers for New Horizons:  Serves the State Street Corridor, the largest concentration of public housing in the nation.  Centers serves a predominately African-American population and operates a number of programs from day care to job training and also has invested heavily in computers and technology.  Its main office is connected to a T1 line.  Centers for New Horizons has continued to create their version of the protocol, which will lead to development of their Strategic, Systems and Business plans.  CNH staff has enrolled in various courses at the IT Resource Center, including a special course in Microsoft Access.  CNH consulted IT Resource Center to help them write a grant proposal to the Illinois Community Technology Fund.  This proposal is for support to increase the current capacity of CNH and also to connect the various CNH labs in the city.

Chicago Commons:  Has nine community centers in the city of Chicago.  We are currently working with Emerson House, which opened in June 2000.  Emerson House has a fully equipped computer room with 12 computers but has no Internet connection yet.  The staff is extremely interested in providing programs to school age youth particularly that will enhance their computer skills and not emphasize the recreational aspects of on-line programs.  They are currently developing a syllabus that corresponds to Illinois Scholastic Guidelines, in efforts to educate students apart from merely passing exams.  Chicago Commons and IT Resource Center staff are creating a client and outcomes management database.  In an effort to build organizational capacity and self-sufficiency, IT Resource Center staff will provide guidance to Chicago Commons' staff only in the creation of the database.

Renacer Westside Community Networks, Inc.:  Also serves a predominately African-American population and a large number of public housing residents.  Among its member organizations, hundreds of community residents are served each day.  IT Resource Center staff has evaluated donated hardware for Renacer.  IT Resource Center will create the training “road map” for Renacer staff.


Connecting Chicago’s Communities will host a regional workshop on April 26th open to community technology leaders from throughout the Chicago region.  The purpose of the workshop is to share best practices of efforts in the region that are successfully overcoming the digital divide at the local level.


Building Chicago CivicNet


MPC has been asked by the City of Chicago to assist in the design and implementation of “CivicNet,” a public-private partnership to build out a digital network to every neighborhood (and eventually every household and business) in the city that will provide instant and real-time access to the Internet.  CivicNet is a ten year program – with most neighborhoods scheduled for high-speed connections at key locations (libraries, park districts, model web centers, etc.) in the first three years, with the final seven years being devoted to managing expansion and going the “final mile” to connect homes and businesses.  An additional component of CivicNet is the movement of City services on line – allowing residents to spend valuable time with their families by providing the ability to apply for jobs, register for Park District classes, apply for city permits, determine zoning issues, and a range of other services via the Internet.    


As co-chair of the MCTA Subcommittee on Infrastructure, MPC worked to ensure that the implementation of CivicNet will help bridge the growing digital divide by connecting less advantaged neighborhoods in the first year.  Early connection is critical for these neighborhoods because their residents are currently being cut out of the digital revolution and the access it affords to high-quality education, higher-paid jobs and the ability to use the Internet for small business development.  Targeting early CivicNet connections to key areas can help less advantaged communities and their residents “catch up” as they compete with technologically literate peers in their schools and in the marketplace.  


By providing staff time and expertise to CivicNet implementation, MPC will ensure that a broader community perspective has a key voice at the table as the City develops its action


Neighborhood Job Generation  - High Tech TIFS


The City of Chicago’s central business district and many parts of the northern and western suburbs are well equipped to reap the benefits associated with the rapid growth of the technology sector.  MPC is working on a concept of “high tech TIFs” to attract jobs to the very neighborhoods that are now being left behind on the technology access front.   


High Tech TIFs will connect the powerful incentives of Tax Increment Financing to technology and community based development.  High Tech TIFs would use the basic concept of Tax Increment Financing – utilizing tax revenue growth for local improvements – to fund telecommunications infrastructure, workforce training, and other related infrastructure improvements.  By designating High Tech TIF areas, the City will be able to guide new technology jobs to Chicago’s neighborhoods, rather than chasing “hot” deals in a scatter-shot manner.  These High Tech TIFs will be pre-wired, tied to community-based organizations, and will offer the best package of incentives available.


MPC is working closely with the City to designate the High Tech TIF districts.  We will be coordinating their selection with the community Web center development and CivicNet connections so that technology investments can be leveraged for both economic development and community access. 


The coordination of early CivicNet infrastructure improvements and High Tech TIF districts has significant potential for economic development and job generation in less advantaged areas.  Communities receiving wiring improvements to allow residents connections to high speed access will become increasingly attractive as new and existing businesses and “dot.coms” seek affordable office space.  Among those communities being considered as model sites are Pilsen, Bronzeville and parts of the Near West Side.


[1] Tax Increment Financing (TIF) is the most prevalently used economic development strategy of Illinois municipalities.  Frequently they have been seen as a technique to provide subsidies to businesses without strong community input.  In 1999, after a five-year debate and three years of advocacy, MPC celebrated the enactment of TIF reporting reforms that we helped shape by Governor Ryan in SB 1032.  The legislation directs all municipalities with TIF districts to file an annual report with the office of the State Comptroller.  The availability of all TIF information on a standard form in one place will greatly assist communities as they analyze and evaluate the outcomes of TIFs in their neighborhoods. 

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