City Colleges to buy Harold Washington Cultural Center
January 7, 2011
The 40,000-square-foot Harold Washington Cultural Center (HWCC) is located at 47th Street and King Drive in Bronzeville

By Lisa R. Jenkins

The City recently announced plans to give the City Colleges of Chicago a $1.8 million subsidy to purchase the 40,000-square-foot Harold Washington Cultural Center (HWCC), located at 47th Street and King Drive in Bronzeville.

The center, which opened in 2004, features the 1,000-seat ComEd Performing Arts Theatre, a digital media and fine arts information resource center, a radio and television broadcast center, and a music and performing arts institute. Mayor Richard M. Daley has said he would like the center turned into an education and performing arts center, complete with a student-run jazz and blues-themed restaurant and a museum celebrating the history of Bronzeville.

The HWCC was the vision and innovation of former 3rd Ward Alderman Dorothy Tillman and is managed by Tobacco Road Inc., a non-profit group run by Tillman’s daughter, Jimalita Tillman. The center currently is in default of the grant agreement that provided $7.7 million in City funds to build the facility. Foreclosure proceedings were begun last year by ShoreBank, now reconfigured as Urban Partnership Bank.

Originally designed as an education center first and an entertainment center second, HWCC has not found success as either. Youth programming has been scarce, and the performance calendar has been sparse. As a result, the HWCC has failed to lure much tourism to the neighborhood. Daley said the center has fallen more than 200 events per year short of its booking obligations.

“I want the building to be alive with younger people,” Daley said. “That should be the center of attention, and the City Colleges can do that. We think we can have more use of it through City Colleges.”

Marie Smith of the Bronzeville Area Residents and Commerce Council said she thinks the City Colleges of Chicago buying the Harold Washington Center is a good idea.

“That corner needs more people coming to the area,” Smith said. “Hopefully the City Colleges will generate foot traffic needed to make the center and that area the success it has the potential to gain.”
Tillman has been very outspoken in her distaste for the City Colleges’ proposed purchase of the center. She has called the plan “totally illegal” and “political harassment,” and she vowed to “fight it tooth and nail.”

On Oct. 1, the center won a 30-day reprieve to see if its owners could save it from foreclosure, but that did not occur. So on Nov. 1, the Chicago City Colleges received the go-ahead and a $1.8 million City subsidy to proceed with a takeover.

Tillman argued the $1.8 million subsidy was removed improperly from the Bronzeville tax increment financing (TIF) district “under cloak of darkness” without public input or prior authorization from the City’s Community Development Commission.

“This money was illegally taken out, without the community knowing, to give City Colleges the money to purchase our building,” Tillman said. “It makes no sense when City Colleges is in major default right now. They have closed Olive-Harvey nursing school in the black community. They’re closing it at Kennedy-King. They have been eating from the trough of TIF over and over again, and they still have the same problems.”
Current 3rd Ward Alderman Patricia Dowell said Tobacco Road Inc. has had long enough to stave off foreclosure.

“This has been going on for almost two years,” Dowell said. “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. 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.”

Without the City-subsidized takeover, Dowell warned that the center, built with nearly $9 million from Chicago taxpayers, could fall into the wrong hands.