Suspicions mount over motivations behind proposed Chinatown SSA tax
November 2, 2017

Photo by Christopher Valentino
Special Services Area opponents have hung banners in Chinatown Square urging “No to SSA tax.” Opponents feel the SSA process lacks transparency.

By Madeline Makoul

As Chinatown continues to debate implementing a new tax, suspicions over the motivations behind it are mounting.

In order to improve Chinatown’s appearance and increase tourism, the Chicago Chinatown Chamber of Commerce continues to push for a Special Service Area in Chinatown, which would levy a new tax on business owners. Despite the ongoing debate, some community members believe the process for implementing this SSA still lacks transparency.

Robert Hoy, member of the United Chinatown Organization, said he was surprised to learn the SSA proposal submitted on July 17 was the same one submitted last year.

Because officials postponed last year’s application due to misinformation on the SSA, Hoy does not believe the SSA would have the same support now that community members understand better.

“There was a lot of misinformation out there” in 2016, Hoy said. “They submitted this old application with signatures from people who, if you approached them now with full knowledge, they wouldn’t support the SSA.”

Peter Strazzabosco, deputy commissioner at the Chicago Department of Planning and Development, said the DPD allows a one-year extension for SSA applications, which it granted in this case. DPD also required SSA supporters to conduct additional meetings and outreach to continue informing the public. Since the SSA application filing, Chinatown has seen two community meetings in April 2016 and two more in July 2017.

Darryl Tom, former president of the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce and proposed commissioner for the SSA, said proponents have continued to listen, and as a result, are amending the proposal to exclude Chinatown Square.

Despite these meetings, Hoy and other community members believe the SSA still lacks clear goals. With an overarching claim to “beautify” Chinatown, the proposed plan consists of concepts already in place as well as ideas that will not bring the financial results needed to justify the tax, Hoy said. Ideas include more garbage cans and improving facades, for example. Hoy and others do not believe these improvements will create tangible results benefiting the business owners paying the tax, he said.

With tourism such an important part of Chinatown, however, Tom said the SSA improvements will ensure people continue to be attracted to the area. A small portion of the SSA budget will go toward marketing existing events in Chinatown, while a larger sum will be dedicated to aesthetics for beautification.

“The improvements are aimed directly at making Chinatown more welcoming,” Tom said. “We are installing garbage cans that the City took away on Wentworth and will have regular pick-up in addition to street cleaning, sidewalk cleaning, power washing, and snow removal. People will see the tangible benefits.”

Other options officials have explored are unviable for Chinatown. Strazzabosco explained that, while the city can provide grants for facade repair, the area must be eligible through the Small Business Improvement Fund Program; Chinatown does not qualify because the area is not a tax increment financing district (TIF), Strazzabosco said.

According to Hoy, the disconnect over what Chinatown needs in order to increase tourism stems from the Chamber of Commerce’s driving role in these decisions. He believes the chamber is out of touch with the average business owner in Chinatown.

“These people are not part of Chinatown, they aren’t part of the common guys that work here,” Hoy said. “They are white collar guys who sit back in their ivory towers and pass legislation and say ‘Hey, this is what we are going to do.’ They just want the money, and I think they want it so they can become the quasi-government. They aren’t representing the people.”

Daniel Ing-Hsu I. Wu, long-time Chinatown resident and doctor at Rush University Medical Center, reiterated Hoy’s concerns over the Chamber of Commerce, stating he believes having chamber members serve as SSA commissioners creates a conflict of interest.

Tom disagrees, saying most of the 200 Chinatown Chamber of Commerce members are from Chinatown and own businesses there. He added that only two of the proposed commissioners are former Chamber members.

“None of us are personally benefiting from this,” Tom said. “We are doing this because we believe it is for the best for the whole community.”

As the debate continues, Hoy hopes City officials listen to residents’ concerns and come up with a better way to promote commerce in Chinatown. To ensure officials properly inform people, Wu said the community needs more transparency from the SSA and increased communication with the people who truly will be affected, not just with those involved in the proposal.

“I hope the alderman [Danny Solis, 25th] is really the representative for the whole community, not just a small interest group because they are biased,” Wu said. “They are against the community.”

A public hearing about a Chinatown SSA will be held at 10 a.m. on Thursday, Nov. 16, in City Hall, Room 201-A. Strazzabosco said officials could introduce the proposal to the City Council as soon as November. If approved, it would go into effect on January 1, 2018.