December Media Tips - Metropolitan Planning Council

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December Media Tips

Season’s Greetings, Media Tips Readers,

In the grand tradition of holiday correspondence, we thought we’d share our ’06 highlights – sort of like Aunt Martha’s annual letter, with a twist: these stories don’t drone on about us, the staff of the Metropolitan Planning Council. They feature the people whose lives we work to improve every day, through our efforts to increase the availability of affordable homes, expand and improve public transit, maintain our region’s economic well-being, and ensure adequate funding for our schools. We hope you will consider covering regional trends from their perspective.

Regular Media Tips readers know we send four tips each month, featuring recent events, breakthroughs, and perspectives on the issues we care about. In 2007, look for revamped Media Tips, with more stories like the ones you’re about to read, and profiles of local experts who can help you analyze trends when the news is breaking. Also, next time you're on deadline, visit MPC’s new Online Newsroom, offering our latest media releases and reports, FAQs, and an expert guide.

Thanks to all of you who have called on MPC in the past year. We are glad to be a resource you can rely on, and we look forward to working with you in 2007!

First-Time Homebuyer Learns There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays

Like nearly half of all Americans, Dannetta Smith establishes personal goals at the start of each new year. What sets Dannetta apart is that she actually accomplished her 2006 New Year’s resolution before 2007, when she purchased her first home this year.

The Park Forest resident’s path to homeownership was rocky. But her resolve to provide a better life for her family, combined with an innovative homebuyer assistance program offered by her employer, St. James Hospital and Health Centers, helped Dannetta, 39, overcome financial and institutional obstacles that prevent millions of Americans from ever owning their own homes. By participating in the hospital’s employer-assisted housing (EAH) program, Dannetta received invaluable homeownership counseling from the nonprofit Regional Redevelopment Corp., plus $5,000 in down payment assistance from St. James. This money leveraged an additional $8,000 in assistance from other public and private homeownership programs. St. James’ EAH program made it possible for Dannetta, a lifelong renter who had been on public assistance for a decade, to buy a home five minutes from her job as a patient care coordinator at the hospital’s Chicago Heights campus.

“[Becoming a homeowner] was a struggle, and the program was a lot of work, but I wanted to leave something for my children,” said Smith, 39, who has two daughters, ages 21 and 15. “Now I know I can do all things if I stay focused.”

MPC introduced EAH in our region and helps employers design EAH programs. Learn more about EAH in Illinois, including a list of 60-plus participating employers, at the REACH Illinois Web site. Contact MPC Communications Associate Mandy Burrell at 312-863-6018 or to be connected with Dannetta, and others like her who purchased homes thanks to EAH programs.

Far Too Many Spinning Their Wheels Trying to Get Around the Region

As an Army officer in Iraq, Donald Cole had no choice but to rise and shine for early morning wake-up calls. After his deployment ended in 2003, he looked forward to “sleeping in” – by a soldier’s standards, letting the sun rise before you do.

Yet on this chilly morning, two hours before daylight dawns over Lake Michigan, Cole is awake. By 5:35 a.m., he’s out the door, waiting to catch the #70 CTA bus. It’s the first leg of his nearly two-and-a-half-hour daily commute from the apartment he shares with his wife, Anne, in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood, to his job at Federal Signal Corporation in south suburban University Park. Cole transfers from the bus to a Blue Line train headed for the Loop, where he catches a Metra train to University Park. It’s the end of the line for the train, but not for Cole: he hops into his car, which he keeps parked in the lot at the station, and drives five minutes to Federal Signal.

“There’s no other way for me to get from the station to work,” says Cole. “No Pace busses offer service. My company used to have a shuttle, but apparently they stopped it two years ago because only a few people were riding it.”

Cole isn’t alone. From passing up job offers to relocating to less desirable communities, families across the region are being forced to make disappointing tradeoffs to avoid the expense and stress of “extreme” commutes. Meanwhile, our transit service providers – Metra, Pace and the Chicago Transit Authority – are faced with shrinking budgets as they struggle to maintain and expand the rail lines and bus routes that serve our region’s growing transportation needs. The Regional Transportation Authority and its partners in the “Moving Beyond Congestion” campaign (including MPC) are calling 2007 “The Year of Decision” for critical transit investments.

Securing funding is only half the battle: careful planning is required to make the most of these investments. At MPC, we will be seizing the spring legislative session as the opportunity to identify new revenues for maintaining and expanding our public transportation network, and improving land use planning, so that people like Donald Cole can stop spinning their wheels. For more transportation-related tales from commuters, business leaders and community planners, contact MPC Communications Associate Mandy Burrell at 312-863-6018 or .

Redevelopment Project Gives Couple the Greatest Gift of All: Self-Employment

Longtime Garfield Park resident Minnie Smith and her husband of 50 years, Joe, have fulfilled many of their dreams: they raised six children and ran a BBQ restaurant on Chicago’s South Side, and Minnie serves as president of their block club and tends three community gardens in their West Side neighborhood. This summer, they celebrated their latest endeavor when the doors opened to Garfield Park’s first and only coffee shop, Westside Coffee Express, at Lake and Pulaski in the Bethel Center.

“There used to be a restaurant on this corner, years ago, but it’s long gone,” said Minnie. “We didn’t have any coffee places in our area, and everybody wanted a place where we could have meetings and get a cup of coffee. This is it.”

Owning a business in Garfield Park is a dream Minnie and Joe say they couldn’t have accomplished without help from Bethel New Life, Inc . Through the development of the Bethel Center – a “green-designed” building connected to the Green Line El station at Lake and Pulaski, with businesses such as Westside Coffee Express, a dry cleaner, daycare, Community Saving Center, and employment center – Bethel is helping many Garfield Parkers find better opportunities in their neighborhood.

Bethel Center – together with Parkside Estates, Bethel’s affordable housing development two blocks away – connects jobs, places to shop, public transit, and affordable homes. Representing community planning at its best, this combined development earned Bethel New Life, Inc. MPC’s 2006 Burnham Award for Excellence in Planning.

Across Chicagoland, new economic and residential development near transit, also known as transit-oriented development (TOD), is meeting the needs of many markets: Local businesses get a steady source of customers. Communities reap new tax revenues. Residents save money and time by not having to drive everywhere. And all taxpayers are better served when we develop where expensive infrastructure, like roads and sewers, already exist, rather than digging up precious green space. Contact MPC Communications Associate Mandy Burrell at 312-863-6018 or for background on transit-oriented development and to learn more about communities you cover that are jumping on the TOD bandwagon.

Rural, Urban, and Suburban Schools Pin Funding Hopes on New Year

Gordon Bidner, 69, a retired businessman and rural land owner in downstate Carlock, worries about today’s students: Illinois’ school funding crisis is hurting their chances for success, he says.

Bidner lives in Olympia School District 16, geographically the largest district in Illinois, with some 2,100 students covering more than 375 square miles, including eight towns and touching five counties in the sprawling farm region near Bloomington.

Like many other rural districts, Olympia has seen its main source of revenue—local property taxes—dwindle as state legislators attempt to help farmers by reducing farm property assessments. Bidner said his property assessments have decreased about 30 percent since 2001. Meanwhile, Olympia ’s share of revenue from property taxes has dropped below the state average (54 percent, compared with 57 percent statewide), leaving the district less able to supplement state dollars with local ones.

Olympia has lost its last two property tax referenda attempts, forcing the district to cut quality programs, according to Superintendent Don Hahn. The district has dwindled from six grade schools to three, significantly hiked fees, laid off teachers, slashed programs, and increased class sizes.

It’s the program cutting that Bidner worries about. What will happen to rural students who compete for college admissions with their urban and suburban counterparts who have greater access to music, art or Advanced Placement classes?

“I’m afraid that children won’t be able to attend the University of Illinois because of limited course offerings,” he said. “If the schools financially can’t offer those courses, that’s a problem and it needs to be addressed. I don’t think it’s right or fair.”

Members of A+ Illinois, a statewide campaign for school funding and property tax reform co-led by MPC and seven other organizations, agree with Bidner – as do many legislators. During the November veto session, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle and every region of the state joined A+ Illinois for a news conference in Springfield . They expressed their desire “to put sound public policy ahead of politics” and work together to improve school funding and quality statewide. A new legislative “Education Caucus” has pledged to make education funding and property tax relief their top priority in the 2007 General Assembly, which convenes in January.

Stay up-to-date on the latest news at the A+ Illinois Web site. Contact Clare Fauke, A+ Illinois communications coordinator, at 312-863-6012 or for many more stories and background information on school funding and property tax reform.


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