Throughout Chicago, and in the Roscoe View and Center Square neighborhoods, Special Services Areas are a little-known force for improving business districts. The quasi-governmental agencies, known as SSAs and created by City Council ordinance, collect property tax levies, usually a quarter to a half percent, adding up to big dollars and big local influence.
In the Roscoe View and Center Square areas four separate community groups employ very different SSA strategies to boost local business climates. With varying budgets, Special Service Areas 21, 27, 31 and 38 represent portions of Lincoln Square/Ravenswood, West Lakeview, Greater Ravenswood and Northcenter, respectively.
The annual local SSA budgets are not small. For 2012 they are approximately $143,000 for SSA 21, managed by the Lincoln Square-Ravenswood Chamber of Commerce, $170,000 for SSA 38, managed by the Northcenter Chamber of Commerce, $336,000 for SSA 31, managed by the Ravenswood Community Council and $768,000 for SSA 27, managed by the Lakeview Chamber of Commerce. City law allows managing organizations to take a management fee of up to 10% of the collected funds.
“Our overarching goal is to develop and maintain as vibrant and sustainable a commercial corridor as possible,” said Heather Way, executive director of the Lakeview Chamber of Commerce, which manages SSA 27 and uses it to provide security patrols, beautification and parkway maintenance, advertising and marketing for local business like the new Belmont Theatre District, and even funding for building facade improvements.
Northcenter’s approach to SSA 38 is more hands-off than others in the surrounding area, but Garrett FitzGerald, executive director of the Northcenter Chamber of Commerce, believes that focusing on beautification leads to more people exploring the neighborhood and, ultimately, more business revenue.
“We look at [the SSA] as a tool to elevate the community,” FitzGerald said. “When you have nice, pretty-looking arterial streets, people want to get out and walk around. It makes a clean street feel safer, more people getting out on the street actually makes it safer and a safe, visible, clean community brings people out and it helps our businesses.”
Of the 54 SSA’s throughout the city, FitzGerald said, Northcenter has one of the lowest tax levies and he expects SSA 38′s budget to slowly shrink in coming years.
Often a two-year process, the path to creating an SSA is not easy, and usually requires an upfront investment in the tens of thousands of dollars by a sponsoring organization to pay for the studies required by the city for approval. According to City of Chicago’s Office of the Inspector General, “A sponsoring agency (usually the future Service Provider Agency of the SSA) interested in establishing an SSA completes an application that includes economic analyses and demonstrated public support amongst the owners and leasers of the affected properties. Once the SSA application is reviewed by the City’s Department of Housing and Economic Development and approved by City Council, the local aldermen and sponsoring agency nominate SSA Commissioners.”
Once appointed by City Council, SSA commissioners, usually community business owners, serve three-year unpaid terms. However, the decision of which projects to take on ultimately is made by the service provider agency.
“When we’re recruiting [commissioners], we look at geography and types of property that they own. We look at what their business interest might be,” Way said. “And we want to have some residents, we want to have retailers. We want to have just traditional property owners. Right now, our commission reflects that.”
Ravenswood Community Council, which manages SSA 31, is seeing a shift in where it receives the majority of its tax levy revenue. Historically, businesses on Ravenswood Ave. have brought in the majority of funding, but now there are more popping up elsewhere, according to executive director Charles Daas.
“The other streets are going through a metamorphosis. We’re seeing more retailers on Montrose, more retailers on Clark,” Daas said. “But the lion’s share of the revenue comes from the Ravenswood Corridor because of the diverse mix of businesses and intensity of use.”
The Lakeview Chamber of Commerce, which overlaps with SSA 27, not only works on beautification and street cleaning, but advertising and promotion as well.
“Right now where we’re working the most is the redevelopment and revitalization of Lincoln Avenue from Diversey to Addison and overcoming that challenges that will be brought forth with the elimination of the Number 11 [Lincoln Avenue] bus,” Way said.
“We are working with the Lakeview East Chamber of Commerce because the district itself stretches from on the western side [at] Southport, Wellington and Lincoln by St. Alphonsus [Church] with the Athenaeum Theatre all the way to Belmont and Broadway where The Laugh Factory is,” Way said. “We identified that that section of Lakeview is home to many theaters and many theater companies and live entertainment.”
After working with the Lakeview East Chamber of Commerce, an SSA 27 steering committee met with local leaders and authorities to present their plan of making the area a cultural hub.
“Our biggest thing is to not make a decision in a vacuum,” Way added. “We have a lot of input from a lot of different sources before we start moving the ball down the field.”
Like West Lakeview, the Lincoln Square/Ravenswood SSA 21, is working to help promote local business. In the coming months, the SSA is helping to organize an ad campaign to be featured on CTA Brown Line stations to help attract holiday shoppers to the Lincoln Square and Ravenswood area.
“We feel that’s a creative way to give a lot of bang back for the buck for the members in the SSA,” said Melissa Flynn, executive director of the Lincoln Square-Ravenswood Chamber of Commerce. “The more people we can get to shop local and transform their ideas abut shopping local, the better it is for all our business districts.”