Foreclosure and fire won't
extinguish plans for 47th & King Drive

By Barbara Kensey

After years of planning and anticipation, recent events at the crossroads of 47th Street and Martin Luther King Drive may finally become the spark that unleashes the redevelopment potential for the Bronzeville area.

When the 45,000 square-foot Harold Washington Cultural Center opened its doors at 47th Street & King Drive in March of 2004, it was hailed as the engine that would propel economic revitalization and prosperity for the South Side area officially known as Grand Boulevard. A cultural and entertainment mecca in the early 20th century, the Cultural Center would anchor a 47th Street "Blues District" that would attract international tourists; and serve as a training ground for the development of a new generation of artists and entrepreneurs.

The brainchild of then 3rd Ward Alderman Dorothy Tillman and the non-profit organization, Tobacco Road, Inc., the stately structure was built on the site of the historic Regal Theater on the southeast corner of 47th Street & King Drive at a construction cost of $19.5 million. Funded by public and private sources, the city provided $7.7 million in public grants. It houses a 1,000 seat theatre, a state-of-the-art media centre and workshop space.

The Cultural Center was joined by the 47th Street Marketplace which had opened across the street on the northeast corner of 47th & King Drive a few years earlier. Owned by East Lake Management, tenants in the two-story structure included the popular Afrocentric Bookstore, the upscale restaurant Blu 47, an art gallery, the offices of the Jamaican Consulate, a coffee shop, and other small businesses.

"From the beginning we wanted to supplement what was happening at the theater," said Eileen Rhodes, Vice President of East Lake Management, owner of Marketplace. "Our intention was to have some restaurants there because a lot of people leave Hyde Park and Bronzeville to go to Wishbone or Portillos."

With the Cultural Center rising on one side and the Marketplace on the other, and improvements like new streetscapes, signage and valet parking, the intersection quickly became a magnet for a mixed group of arts patrons, avant-garde and young urban professionals. With the addition of the comedy club, Jokes & Notes and the Nicole Haitian Art Gallery next door, the area was beginning to show signs of a rebirth.

Financial troubles
Despite some success, from the outset the Cultural Center was dogged by rumors of mismanagement and underutilization. In the fall of 2009, it was announced that ShoreBank (now reorganized as
  Urban Partnership Bank) had filed a foreclosure suit for $1.3 million, placing the Cultural Center in jeopardy. It was also reported that Tobacco Road, Inc. may have violated the terms of their agreement with the city.

Then on January 28, 2010, a pre-dawn fire ravaged the 25,000 square-foot 47th Street Marketplace. The fire that started upstairs in Blu 47 and took more than 100 firefighters nearly four hours to extinguish, destroyed all of the tenants' businesses. Estimated cost of damage was $1.5 million, with the greatest loss in human capital to Blu 47, all of whose employees were put out of work.

While acknowledging the tragedy of it all, Rhodes says rebuilding gave them an opportunity to fix the things in it that they didn't like. The company took immediate steps to re-house most tenants in some of their other properties and began the process of cleaning up and rebuilding.

In January of this year, the city announced that it would give the City Colleges of Chicago a $1.8 million subsidy to purchase the Harold Washington Cultural Center. Jimalita Tillman, who is Dorothy Tillman's daughter and responsible for the center's operations, said that the $1.8 million subsidy to Tobacco Road was improperly taken from the organization and granted to the City Colleges.

But the uncertainty had persisted for too long said Pat Dowell, present 3rd Ward Alderman. She told the Gazette, "This has been going on for almost two years. Now we need to just turn the page, look toward the future, and do something positive with that facility, which is really the catalyst for the whole redevelopment of 47th Street."

Chef Clifford Rome, who operates the Parkway Ballroom and Rome's Joy Catering at 44th Street and King Drive, is hoping that the larger development pieces will finally come together and help support his new local ventures. He's opened Blanc Gallery, an upscale exhibit space also at 44th Street next door to the offices of the Chicago Defender newspaper. On the drawing board is Peaches, a breakfast and lunch Southern cuisine restaurant he plans to open this year diagonally across the street from the Cultural Center.

Dowell is optimistic about the impact that new operators of the HWCC will have on the future. "City Colleges of Chicago will be able to create new collaborations with local schools, community organizations, and cultural institutions, which will bring a new vitality to the neighborhood and celebrate the rich history of Bronzeville."

Barbara Kensey is a regular contributor to Black Business Chicago and president of Kensey & Kensey Communications.

IN THE NEWS - Continued


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