West Humboldt Park Grows Small Businesses
Plenty of empty lots line the streets of west Humboldt Park. But the one at 3836 W. Chicago Ave. is special. It sits next to the cinder-block home of Thermal Electric, Inc., an eight-year-old electrical, heating and cooling company that employs nine technicians and handles commercial and residential jobs in the city and suburbs.
This lot next to Thermal Electric would provide a spot for a fenced-in parking lot that would enable the company to store more inventory where it now stores vehicles, improving its business prospects.
When owner Adolfo Vizcaino looks at the land at the corner of Avers and Chicago avenues, just east of his storefront shop, he doesn’t see patches of grass and some wind-blown trash. He sees opportunity. Each night, Vizcaino’s crew parks the firm’s service vans in the shop to keep them safe, filling most of the building’s floor space. On the land next door, Vizciano could build a fenced-in parking lot, with a canopy to keep the vans dry. And with all that space freed up inside the shop, Thermal Electric would have much more room for inventory. More room might sound like a small change, but to Vizcaino, it’s a smart route to more profits. He could save money by purchasing stock in higher quantities and buying items like air-conditioner coils and condensers off season, when prices are lower, and storing them until summer rolls around. With more equipment on his shelves, his employees would spend less time waiting in line at the supplier and more out servicing his customers. So when the West Humboldt Park Development Council asked Vizcaino this spring how it could help Thermal Electric thrive, he knew the answer.
“They asked me what would I need to improve my business, and I said this lot would be perfect,” he said. Today, thanks to assistance from WHPDC, he’s only a few steps away from owning the lot – and the local development agency has found a few more ways to help, as well. Rebuilding Chicago Avenue West Humboldt Park is one of those Chicago neighborhoods hit hard by the loss of industrial jobs, as employers to the west have gone out of business or moved away over the last few decades. The community’s main commercial strip, Chicago Avenue, reflects the neighborhood’s change of fortunes, with shuttered buildings or empty lots where stores once stood.
Thermal owner Adolfo Vizcaino expects to find out later this summer if Thermal Electric will receive the City of Chicago Small Business Improvement Fund grant that would enable the purchase of the side lot.
But there are also signs of resiliency and renewal on and near Chicago Avenue. Local social service agencies and storefront churches provide material and spiritual resources for residents, and new buildings like the charter Rowe-Clark Academy High School and the Kelly Hall YMCA show that a new generation of institutions is investing in west Humboldt Park as well. Chicago Avenue is also still the home of a number of small businesses such as Thermal Electric, and helping these firms survive and grow is now the focus of the business and development program at theWest Humboldt Park Development Council.
“A lot of the problems in the neighborhood stem from a lack of jobs, economic development and stability,” says Tom Otto, who joined WHPDC in 2009 as its economic development planner. Founded in 1992, the nonprofit has worked on broader-scale economic development before – most notably in helping attract a Family Dollar store and other large national retailers to the community. “But you really need substantial parcels of land for that kind of new development,” says Janece Simmons, WHPDC’s community development planner. “So we’ve increased our focus on helping local companies.” What it Takes to Grow This year, WHPDC began holding regular luncheon meetings with firms in the community, building momentum for a local business association.
It was at one of those lunches in the spring that Otto told Vizcaino about the City of Chicago’s Small Business Improvement Fund (SBIF), a community grant program that reimburses from 25 percent to 75 percent of a capital improvement to a local business property. And then Vizcaino told Otto about the empty lot. Otto and his colleagues found out that the vacant property is city-owned, and they did the paperwork necessary to apply for the grant.
Tom Otto (left, standing), economic development planner for West Humboldt Park Development Council, speaks to local business owners including Adolfo Vizcaino about a year ago.
“We’ve helped three businesses this year with the SBIF. There are a lot of hoops to jump through for one of these, a lot of documentation and follow-through,” Otto said. “Many business owners in the community have a small shop, and they can’t do everything. They need someone to connect them to resources.” Thermal Electric should find out from the city later this summer if it will receive the SBIF grant. Meanwhile, WHPDC has helped the company apply for the designation as a minority business with Cook County. “That would definitely help me out a lot to expand,” Vizcaino says. “The county puts out a lot of business to minority contractors, but you have to be on their list.”
Simmons points out that the work being done for local businesses is tied to other community organizing programs at WHPDC. For example, a local coalition of block clubs lobbied the city to bring the SBIF program to west Humboldt Park and for the infrastructure renewal started this summer along Chicago Avenue, a major project that will repave the street and install new lights, benches and other streetscape improvements. “This is a catalyst to create a stronger, more vibrant community,” she says. For Vizcaino, the renovations on Chicago Avenue are another sign that west Humboldt Park is a place where he can continue to grow his business. “For me, this is it,” he says. “I want to stay here.”