suburban partnerships

By MarySue Barrett

In communities like Park Forest just south of Chicago, there's a natural longing for the past. Life used to seem logical in this planned community. A high school graduate could get a decent job at Hollymatic, which until 1982—almost 20 proud years—manufactured the machine which made standardized hamburger patties, revolutionizing the fast food industry. A Hollymatic employee could earn enough over time to buy a home, shop at Sears at Park Forest Plaza, and even support a family.

Starting in the 1970s, the world seemed to develop a fissure, swallowing up this grand bargain. Calculated business decisions triggered a tsunami that closed plant after plant. Thousands of laid off workers quickly slid from middle-class status to barely getting by. As more jobs left and businesses closed, taxes on remaining residents and businesses climbed, becoming uncompetitive with neighboring communities.

The Great Recession of 2008 delivered another body blow to communities that never fully regained their footing during the late 90s boom. The damage wrought was physical—abandoned commercial strips, vacant industrial sites, foreclosed homes—and deeply psychological.

In this inhospitable environment, one of the most exciting experiments in collective action was born. Illinois is infamous for having more units of local government than any other state and has long subscribed to the every-town-for-itself school of economic development. But desperation can breed innovation. After south suburban towns like Chicago Heights and Richton Park saw housing values slide by more than 25 percent since 2000 and pressures on their budgets intensify, local leaders became more receptive to joining forces to pursue redevelopment.

Inspired by Seattle's ARCH venture across 15 suburbs, the Chicago Southland Housing and Community Development Collaborative today comprises 23 communities. They jointly analyze vacant property trends—in 2012, more than 7,000 Southland properties filed for foreclosure—and target limited resources, linked by shared staff.

Every step of the way, these communities have been tested. The Collaborative’s theory of change is solid: that developers and investors look at markets, not individual municipalities and that smaller communities must band together to promote their shared assets. And the vision of clustering economic activity along transit, freight, and river corridors is sound. The intermodal assets of this part of Chicagoland are astounding: There are two major intermodal terminals plus four commuter rail lines with 33 stations and five freight lines that crisscross the region, attracting interest from the growing transportation logistics sector.

But the resource pyramid needed to implement land acquisition and redevelopment is still shaky. Early philanthropic support launched the Collaborative. More than $450,000 in foundation support leveraged over $26 million in public funds. Those resources are laying the groundwork for attracting private investors. However, like a triangle balanced on one point, some of those public sources have destabilized the Collaborative. One example is a $6 million dollar grant from the state that came from a disaster recovery source which limited the funds to being used in only four communities. The good news: More than 90 homes were demolished or rehabbed. The bad news: The Collaborative's hands were tied and they were unable to target those dollars in priority development corridors.

Despite challenges, the Collaborative’s track record suggests that other regions could benefit from this development model. And national advocates could help remove antiquated federal formulas and other roadblocks that discourage communities from coming together and, ironically, reward competition rather than cooperation.

Collaboration is aptly referred to as an unnatural act. Our culture is so skewed to a winner-take-all mentality that the idea of joining forces requires inspired leadership. The Southland Collaborative is seeing early, promising results from a shared development fund and land bank. In the diverse community of Blue Island, the new TOD Fund has supported preservation and rehabilitation of an affordable housing development while the Land Bank has acquired a distressed condo property in the midst of their walkable downtown, halting further disinvestment.

Having tools that are up to the job of larger-scale challenges is another replicable lesson. An explicit focus on the cargo sector’s potential in the south suburbs has attracted Sterling Lumber to expand their operations on a newly assembled 40-acre site in Harvey and Phoenix. The company is investing $10 million in this public-private venture and will hire 200 people.

While bootstrapping and creativity is beginning to reverse the Southland's downward spiral, the Collaborative will be difficult to sustain without federal and state policy changes. Formula funding to municipalities must be complemented by competitively-awarded, flexible allotments for interjurisdictional efforts. Innovative, locally-designed tools like land banks and development funds must be rewarded with advantageous financing terms. And federal, state, and county leaders must blend their voices with these local entrepreneurs who are clearly signaling just what reinvention looks like.

This post was originally published in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)/Ford Foundation Workshop pamphlet "Changing the Conversation on Growth: Going Inclusive" on Feb. 27, 2014.

Photo Credit: Suburban Partnerships/shutterstock