New SSA tax approval has Chinatown focused on the future
May 4, 2018

Photo courtesy Chicago Food Planet
With the Chinatown SSA in effect, commissioners will take requests for proposals for improving area aesthetics.

By Madeline Makoul

After nearly two years of hotly contested debate, a new tax has passed in Chinatown, and both supporters and the opposition are keeping a watchful eye on the results.

Since 2016, Chinatown residents have debated a Special Service Area (SSA) tax, which the City Council officially passed on December 13.

The tax, which will be in effect for ten years, is intended to raise funds to beautify the area in hopes of attracting more tourists and keeping the historic neighborhood strong.

The SSA, which excludes Chinatown Square, will focus on marketing and aesthetics, said Paul Poy, one of the commissioners for SSA #73, the Chinatown SSA. Poy, also one of the nominees for SSA chair, said that, though the commissioners have not met officially yet, they plan to take requests for proposals for aesthetic improvements including garbage pickup, power washing streets, snow removal, and general landscaping.

Darryl Tom, former president of the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce and a commissioner for the Chinatown SSA, said the SSA can use the budget to support local tourism, allocating some of the funds for the Chinatown Summer Fair and the Chicago Dragon Boat Race for Literacy. Funding these large events, coupled with aesthetic improvements, will work hand in hand to increase business in Chinatown, Tom hopes.

Opponents remain skeptical of the SSA’s potential benefits and expressed concern about the burden this tax will have on hardworking community members, however. They had 60 days to gather signatures against passing the SSA but fell short of the required amount, Poy explained.

Robert Hoy, member of the United Chinatown Organization and an SSA opponent, said the odds were stacked against them. Hoy explained SSA supporters needed only 20% of the owners of the area’s commercial properties to support the tax. Yet the opposition needed 51% of the commercial properties plus 51% of the voters in the SSA area to stop the SSA from passing.

Future action sought

Though opponents fell short in gaining enough voters’ signatures against the SSA, Hoy said, “My hope is that the 80% of people that will be adversely affected will get together and show up for votes. They were betrayed.

Yet, with the SSA in effect for ten years, Hoy said, “there is nothing” opponents can do to stop it in upcoming years.

Hoy does not believe the SSA can deliver results.

He added that, had SSA proponents clearly laid out measurable benefits the tax would produce for commerce, they would have won more support, including his own. In his opinion, the SSA will not offer the services Chinatown really needs to drum up business and lacks any way to track the direct effect it will have on commerce.

“Nothing is measurable, so how can they [proponents] be held accountable?” Hoy said.

Tangible results expected

Poy disagreed. He said residents and businesses will see tangible results via aesthetic changes throughout Chinatown. Furthermore, Poy wants to figure out how to track the SSA’s success, although gathering metrics may prove complicated.

As the SSA commissioners looked forward to their first meeting, Poy remains aware of the opposition’s concerns, something he said results from “fragmented and competing realities.” Despite the difficulty in changing people’s minds, Poy hopes the commissioners’ transparency will show the community that leaders allocate funds to benefit Chinatown.

Competing Philosophies

“I understand that there are competing philosophies,” Poy said. “We have to demonstrate consistency and proper use of funds, accounting for those funds so people get an idea of how this really flows. We will learn together and make some choices.”

Poy is looking ahead at the next ten years, with a goal of making the most of funds gathered through the SSA.

“We are looking in the mirror at who we are and what we stand for, Poy said. “We are a bunch of volunteers trying to make Chinatown better. I hope that ten years from now we not only justify our existence, but we did what we were asked to do: spend money judiciously to keep Chinatown as a viable tourist attraction.”