Editor’s note: This story has updated to correct the balance in the West Evanston TIF.

Members of the city’s Economic Development Committee backed major assistance to a non-profit and restaurant that have been bright spots in the city’s economic picture and are looking to take major moves to expand their operations.

At their Oct. 26 meeting, EDC members:

  • Recommended the city allocate up to $1.2 million in federal American Recovery Recovery Act (ARPA) funds to the Rebuilding Exchange, looking to purchase a warehouse at 626 Hartrey Ave. to serve as a building trades training center.
  • Recommended $650,000 of tax increment financing go to Soul & Smoke, a restaurant seeking assistance with their restaurant expansion at 1601 Payne St.

Both proposals will next go to the full City Council for possible action at the council’s meeting on Nov. 14.

In discussions, committee members praised the Rebuilding Exchange’s contributions addressing an important city issue, workforce development, but pulled back approval for the business’s full $2 million request.

A luxurious bathtub marks the end of aisle three at The Rebuilding Exchange. (Photo by Adina Keeling)

The Rebuilding Exchange, located at 1245 Hartrey, was seeking $2 million from the city’s ARPA fund to help finance  the acquisition of the 626 Hartrey warehouse, said Paul Zalmezak, the city’s Economic Development Manager, in a memo to the committee.

Recent unexpected grants from State of Illinois has doubled the number of individuals enrolled for training at the current Rebuilding Exchange, increasing from 35 to 70 individuals, said Zalmezak in his memo. There have been growing workforce needs on the part of the community, too, he noted.

If sale of the 18,000-square-foot warehouse goes through, Rebuilding Exchange’s plans call for converting the structure into a building trades training facility that “will guide participants through work-based learning, pre-apprenticeships, industry recognized certifications, barrier reduction support, career readiness coaching, and job placement services,” wrote Zalmezak.

Committee balks at non-profit’s total ‘ask’

At the meeting, a number of  committee members praised the Rebuilding Exchange’s contributions but raised questions about the amount of the assistance that the non-profit was seeking.

Speaking in favor, council member Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, said the issue has been on the city’s agenda for more than a decade and the problem is “we’ve never been able to connect all the dots, and the Rebuilding Exchange was one of those places that was doing that.”

Council member Jonathan Nieuwsma, 4th Ward and committee chair, called the Rebuilding Exchange “an awesome organization, doing great work and would be a really, really good investment for the city.”

Further, he said the firm’s current site is one of his favorite places to visit.

“There’s a lot of stuff in our house that is made out of materials that came from the Rebuilding [Exchange] and a lot of stuff in Rebuilding that came out of ours,” he said.

That said, on the Rebuilding Exchange’s total request, “I’m really looking for a way to get to yes, but I’m stumbling on the magnitude because money doesn’t grow on trees.”

Council member Devon Reid, 8th Ward, spoke in support of recommending $1.5 million, more than other committee members were willing to back. He noted he had initially expressed some skepticism about the money  the organization was seeking.

He spoke, though, of how critical the Rebuilding Exchange’s work is, “and how robust their services are and the numbers that they’re producing. They are producing maybe some of the best numbers and workforce development that I’ve seen in my time in the city and maybe beyond that,” he  said.

The Rebuilding Exchange’s mission “is to reduce building materials, reduce construction waste, and train, support and connect folks overcoming barriers to employment,” said Aina Gutierrez, the Rebuilding Exchange executive director.

Rebuilding Exchange crews take apart “houses by hand for recycling and reuse. And it [the current site] serves as a training ground for our transitional employment workforce,” she said.

This year the Rebuilding Exchange has started a pre-apprenticeship program, which includes classroom study and work in the field, “to get folks into apprenticeship programs,” she said.

“And finally,” she told EDC members, “we teach community members to repair and repurpose building materials. We have a series of really fun workshops we do a ton of community outreach, including piloting our first-ever middle school woodworking program. This fall that was sold out and will be running again.”

Zalmezak said with the extra support, Rebuilding Exchange  will be able  to connect 100 people to living wage employment, provide 50 local employers apprentice programs with a qualified workforce, produce increased diversity in building trades workforce, and divert waste – an estimated 1,500 tons of building materials, he estimates.

Much needed on-ramp

A number of community members and local institutions supported the Rebuilding’s Exchange’s request.

In a letter of support to the city, Marcus Campbell, superintendent of District 202 at Evanston Township High School, wrote that the  Rebuilding Exchange’s quest for a building traders training facility “has the potential to be transformational for our students,” he said.

 Joianne Smith, President of Oakton Community College, noted that Oakton supports the Rebuilding Exchange’s request and the opportunities that it would create for Evanston residents, “and we are prepared to partner with Rebuilding Exchange to provide workforce training and credentials for program participants.”

EDC members voted unanimously for the up to $1.2 million allocation to be considered by the council at its Nov. 14 meeting.

Soul & Smoke

At the meeting, EDC members also approved a request for financial assistance to  Soul & Smoke – $650,000 of tax increment financing to assist with the restaurant’s  expansion at 1601 Payne St.

Soul & Smoke’s brisket sandwich logo. Credit: Provided by Soul & Smoke

Tax increment financing is a public financing method that uses the additional property taxes paid as a result of new development in a specified district to pay for part of the development costs.

Soul & Smoke is looking to expand from 1,500 to 6,500 square feet, Zalmezak  said in a memo. The restaurant plans to redevelop three storefronts, two of which are currently vacant, he said.

Owners Heather Bublick and D’Andre Carter are requesting the assistance to expand their business. Soul & Smoke would help offset the expansion of their business.

The expanded restaurant would generate an additional $250,000 in annual sales and liquor taxes, double what it is currently generating, Zalmezak said. It will also result in an additional 20 jobs, 10 of them full-time, he said.

Soul & Smoke’s presence in Evanston’s 5th Ward dates back to 2014. During the pandemic, Bublick said, “we were  determined not to furlough any of  our employees and we [succeeded] despite all  events being cancelled.” The restaurant also dispensed meals to the community.

Emerging from the  pandemic, the restaurant has won strong reviews for its food, Bublick said.

“To say it’s been an unbelievable run would be an understatement,” she added.

“But what we also learned, starting with COVID, was our restaurants can’t rely on to-go [orders] alone…and we also have half the building that remains empty.”

“We can certainly find a site that works for us in Evanston,” she told committee members, “[but] hate the thought of flagship being anywhere else. We love our building and our community and  we want  to create a space for all [community members to enjoy.”

Zalmezak pointed out that funding for the restaurant’s request would come from  the city’s West Evanston TIF, which has a current balance of $4.1 million.

Committee members voted unanimously in favor of Soul & Smoke’s request, sending the proposal to the council to also be considered at the Nov. 14 meeting.

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.

One reply on “City panel backs aid to expanding workforce center, restaurant”

  1. I just absolutely love both of the businesses you mention here. My son and I go to the rebuilding warehouse almost every weekend to see what kinds of cool stuff they have in stock for improvements on our place! He’s obsessed with fans and they’ve even given him a free box of random fan parts, which he LOVED! Soul and Smoke is also an amazing business and, by far, the best BBQ you can get in Chicagoland. Kudos to both!!

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