The parking lot of the shuttered Emmet Elementary School is typically empty, the fence surrounding the property locked to visitors. The vast rust-colored brick building at Madison and Central was closed in the spring of 2013 and has remained vacant ever since. But behind the scenes, leaders in the Austin community have been working for years to revitalize the property, to transform it into something special.
On May 3, 2023, ten years after Emmet closed, these same community leaders and their partners broke ground on the Aspire Center for Workforce Innovation in the school’s parking lot. More than 100 guests gathered outside on the sunny, mild day – the first after a string of gloomy, chilly weather – energized and excited to celebrate the next step in the development of this catalytic investment in their neighborhood.
As Darnell Shields addressed the crowd, he paused to compose himself, reflecting on the significance of the day – and what it took to get there.
“This is what it takes. It takes a village,” said Darnell Shields, executive director for Austin Coming Together, the community quarterback agency for United Way of Metro Chicago’s Austin Neighborhood Network. “That’s what it takes to be able to transform, to make it right, to rebuild your community. This is what moving forward together looks and feels like.”
The Aspire Center will be a workforce development hub, with a manufacturing training center, local businesses, and community space. Owned by Westside Healthy Authority (WHA) and co-developed by Austin Coming Together, the Aspire Center began as an idea. A project that could fulfill goals in Austin’s Quality-of-Life Plan. An investment in infrastructure that would be so much more than a building, but an incubator for economic development and youth empowerment.
“Darnell and I would just sit and dream about what we could have,” said Quiwana Bell, chief operating officer for Westside Health Authority. That dream is now a reality, thanks to their leadership, plus investments from public and private partners. United Way’s contribution of more than $5 million in the Aspire Center is the single largest investment in our organization’s history – a testament to our commitment to placed-based, community-led transformation.
“We’re here for a building, but people are what inspired and created the [Aspire Center] plan,” said Sean Garrett, president and CEO of United Way of Metro Chicago. “We’re really proud at United Way to be able to make the largest investment in our history, but it’s actually 30,000 people who invest in United Way – everyday people who give $2 and want to be a part of this community to make it stronger.”
The Aspire Center is also supported by the City of Chicago through Invest South/West and state funding garnered by Representative La Shawn K. Ford, plus millions of dollars from BMO and other generous corporate and foundation partners.
The first $20,000 raised, though, came from Austin residents. “It came from $50 and $100 and $500 and $1,000 coming out of sock drawers,” Bell said. “People believed in this project and said, ‘I want to have a stake in what goes in our community.’”
As Darnell said, it truly takes a village.
“It takes strong community leadership, committed philanthropic support, and trusted corporate community investment to make change a reality. And you’re doing that here,” said Darrel Hackett, president of BMO Wealth Management – U.S. “Through all the obstacles, this community right here in Austin thrived and persevered.”
Corporate investment in community is key, but so is the physical presence of that investment. Not only is BMO a key investor in the Aspire Center, but they will also be a tenant in the building. At the groundbreaking event, another longtime United Way corporate partner, Illinois Tool Works (ITW), also announced its investment in Austin through the Commit to a Neighborhood Initiative, in partnership with United Way and Austin Coming Together. To support jobs and economic growth, ITW will establish a manufacturing facility in the community and partner with Austin-based workforce development organizations to recruit, train, and support residents in their career development.
“The Commit to a Neighborhood partnership was developed to build on the strong community-led Neighborhood Network and to further stimulate economic growth here in Austin,” said Kenneth Escoe, executive vice president, specialty products, ITW. “The goal is to highlight the significant overall investment in Austin and to serve as a catalyst and potential model for private sector investment in the growth, strength, and resiliency of our community and our region.”
As the groundbreaking event came to a close, Darnell, Quiwana, Sean, Darrel, Kenneth, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, and other community leaders and partners each grabbed a shovel and donned a hardhat. Together, they posed for a photo and tossed some soil onto the cracked pavement, both as a symbol of the groundbreaking of the Aspire Center – and the power of coming together to build a thriving Austin.
“Today starts another turning point toward our victory in setting things right,” Shields said. “We are more than just resilient, we are united. Making the impossible, possible. This is a faith story.”