PROGRESS ILLINOIS / La Risa Lynch
A day after taking office, Chicago Treasurer Kurt Summers hit the ground running launching a 77 communities in 77 days listening tour throughout the city.
That tour brought Summers to the Bronzeville neighborhood last week, where he met with residents and business owners to discuss black communities getting a slice of the $50 billion fiscal pie the city has to invest each year. Summers spoke to a group of 50 at the Bronzeville Visitor Information Center, located at 3501 S. King Dr.
Summers told the crowd that his office manages a combined $50 billion in investments as well as employee pension funds and retirement plans. He said he would like to see some of that money invested in neighborhoods like Bronzeville.
“I don’t view a neighborhood investment strategy as a risky strategy,” said Summers, a product of Bronzeville. “I don’t view that as any more risky than investing in Korea’s debt, which we do, or investing in a cement company in Mexico. I don’t believe investing in Bronzeville is any riskier than that.”
In fact, investing in neighborhoods makes good business sense, he said. It would boost the local economy, create jobs and a stronger tax base from new businesses and the entrepreneurs those investments would generate, Summers pointed out.
To invest in neighborhoods, changes need to be made to the city’s investment policies. Currently, Summers said, there is no mandate to invest pension fund money back into the city, even though cities in other states like New York, California and Florida already do so.
“City Council gives me an investment policy and parameters that I can invest with,” he said. “I likely will be proposing a new one to allow me to do some of the other things I want to do like invest in this community, which it doesn’t have a mandate for today.”
Bronzeville was his 15th stop since being sworn in on Dececember 1. The tours, he said, are an effort to better understand the needs, challenges and opportunities of each community and bring investments suited to each community.
“I can’t govern from downtown,” he said. “I can’t govern from City Hall. I can’t know what the investment opportunities are in a community by looking at a spreadsheet and by looking at a white paper that somebody who is not from here produced.”
The tours, he added, is his office’s “due diligence” to show banks that these communities are good places to invest “especially communities — that unfortunately too many of us live in –that have suffered from disinvestment for decades.”
As a result, his office created a 90-day action plan to drive investments to city neighborhoods and entrepreneurs. The document, Summers said, serves as a “road map” to achieve those goals. He urged residents to provide feedback on ways to do that.
“Tell me how to make some of these ideas that are high-level strategies specific to this community,” he said.
Summers, who worked at the hedge fund company Grosvenor Capital Management before his appointment to office, bills himself as an activist, a description, he said, that roused an audience at a recent City Club of Chicago appearance.
“They looked at me like I said a dirty word,” said Summers, the grandson of community activist Samuel Patch, an advisor to former Mayor Harold Washington.
“I am an activist for the interest and for the rights of people in our communities,” he said. “I am Harvard-trained, Goldman Sachs-trained activist with capital for our communities. People got a little bit scared.”
That activism, Summers noted, means that the free ride Wall Street has gotten is over. He said the city deposits millions of taxpayer dollars into banks “that won’t lend that money to you.”
“The gravy train stops here,” added Summers, who is seeking election to the seat appointed to him by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Summers fills the remaining term of former city treasurer Stephanie Neely, who left office in November to take a job in the private sector. Summers is no stranger to politics, having served as Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s chief of staff.
Attending the meeting was Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd). When asked what can the City Council do to facilitate Summers’ neighborhood investment strategy, she said she couldn’t say until he puts forth “ordinances that the council could consider.” But, she noted, Bronzeville businesses are challenged by a lack of access to capital.
“I think Summers … will help increase opportunities to access capital and look at ways we can use some of this public money to make investments in small businesses that’s going to drive job growth in our community,” she said.
Derric Price, president of the African-American Community Trust, a thinktank focused on investing in black communities, called Summers’ investment strategy a “mind shift.” For years, Chicago pension investments have gone to build up cities like Vegas, Miami and Puerto Rico “when we should be building up Chicago,” Price added.
Summers, he said, wants to bring some of that $50 billion that’s been invested outside of Chicago back to the city. That would bring new housing, construction, tourism and smart and digital manufacturing to the city, Price noted.
“It’s a new turning point for what he is doing,” he said. “We just hope he can get everybody on board and pull it off.”
The tourism piece is what Harold Lucas of the Bronzeville Visitor Information Center wants to see his community benefit from as part of Summers’ plan. Steeped in history, Bronzeville is considered a Black Metropolis National Heritage Area.
That designation, he said, could be leveraged to build entertainment and culturally-related businesses along the community’s commercial corridors, like King Drive and 47th Street. Lucas believes Summers, who he describes as a “native son with one percenter capabilities” has the muscle to reverse longstanding disinvestment in Chicago’s black communities.
“He knows all the skills set of an investment banker much like the mayor and governor[-elect Bruce Rauner], so he understands that language and would be able to leverage those resources,” Lucas said.