City of Chicago SSAs: What are they? What do they do? Who runs them? Example: Wicker Park and Bucktown SSA#33


Blue lines show SSA#33's district

Though Special Service Areas (SSA) began in Chicago with SSA #1 State Street in 1997, mention "SSA" to a Chicagoan and often the response is a blank stare or they say, "What? What is an SSA?" So let's start at the beginning.

In 1970 the Illinois Constitutional Convention granted municipalities and counties the authority “to levy or impose additional taxes upon areas within their boundaries in the manner provided by law for the provision of special services to those areas and for the payment of debt incurred in order to provide those special services.”

In other words, special taxing monies collected along the streets identified as a Special Service Area stay in that district. Structurally, a panel of volunteer commissioners, appointed by the Mayor, is responsible for determining how the monies will be expended. There are 44 SSAs in Chicago with about three new ones initiated each year. Some also "close" from time to time.

While vision, planning and programs are determined and executed by the commission and its committees, staffing is done by an administrating entity.  That entity for Chicago SSAs is generally an existing chamber of commerce in the SSA's service area. A few use community development organizations as their administrator.

What is the overall reason for having such a program in an area? "It enhances an area's economic viability, giving it a more fertile foundation that can stimulate business growth," explains Peter Strazzabosco, Deputy Commissioner, Department of Housing and Economic Development (DHED). DHED administers the SSA program on behalf of the City of Chicago. "The more economically viable the businesses, the more stable the surrounding community."

As described by Chicago's Inspector General, each SSA is funded by its own incremental tax rate applied to the Equalized Assessed Value (EAV) of properties within the SSA. Although the tax rate in any given year may vary depending on the tax revenues needed to deliver the budgeted services, the rate may not exceed the particular SSA’s authorized tax rate cap which is set during the creation of each SSA. SSA budgets are reviewed annually by DHED and approved by the SSA Commissioners and City Council.

SSA#33 (Wicker Park/ Bucktown) is a local example of an SSA from inception  through reality. In 2003 former 1st Ward Alderman Manny Flores believed that it was important for the Wicker Park and Bucktown area to solve problems not being paid for by the City such as garbage pickup, graffiti removal, snow removal and helping local artists figure out how to stay in  the neighborhood. "We had an impressive all-star group of community people on the initial round of commissioners," Flores commented.

The Chamber hired a consultant to aid in planning and implementing the steps to becoming an SSA which included determining the district streets and getting the property index numbers (PIN) within the district. Public meetings were setup and potential commissioners were identified who owned property or had a business on the district streets.

Realizing the importance of spreading involvement throughout the community, Flores held to the concept that those serving as commissioners for the SSA should not be serving on the Wicker Park Bucktown Chamber of Commerce board. "We in the Chamber were fine with that," commented Diedre Papp who was long-time Chamber secretary, former Wicker Park resident and bar owner and currently works for the Chamber.

While the Mayor appoints the commissioners, recommendations are generated by the individual SSAs and their Alderman who submits their names to City Council. Prospective commissioners are vetted by the City before being appointed. (The first commission included: Payton Chung, resident; Joseph Hall, shop owner; Lelia Head, Chopin Theatre; John Hoyt, Joseph Freed; Dan Kuruna, retailer; Jan Metzger, Center for Neighborhood Technology; Jessica Peterson, real estate management; Debra Sharpe, restaurateur; Claudia Skylar, architect; Art Sundry, developer and restaurateur and Laura Weathered, Near NorthWest Arts Council.)

After the long and arduous process, which included a great deal of public input, the SSA was accepted and the volunteer commissioners put in place, a search ensued for the Program Manager's position. Jamie Simone became the first Program Manager.

"It took time for the SSA to get on track," explained Paula Barrington who was the Chamber's Executive Director from 2004 until 2010. "But then they began realizing that it was important to support the arts, promote the area as a destination and how best to supplement the basic services of the Chamber, City and State."

"We had a lot of confusion internally with the Chamber and the SSA roles," confessed Robert Gomez, then Chamber President. Gomez owns Subterranean and lives in the area. "So, while those on the outside were not clear about who was responsible for what, we internally were not either. But we got through it and I am thrilled. I believe that we paved the right path. I eventually resigned as Chamber President so that there was no confusion about the Chamber taking over the SSA.

"Communications are important, whether between the SSA and Chamber or Chamber and businesses or SSA and residents. I encourage everyone to get involved. 'Don't just complain, get involved' is what I say to people."


John Paige holds a copy of the Master Plan as he explains SSA#33's activities

At the Wicker Park Committee's January meeting, Thurs., Jan. 2, that confusion was evident. (See details of that meeting.) SSA Commissioner John Paige, who is a resident on North Ave. in the SSA#33 district, presented a "Mid-Course Review of the SSA#33."

He pointed out that the SSA's Mission Statement is:

To sustain and promote the prosperity and unique qualities of life of the Wicker Park/Bucktown neighborhood and commercial district, while preserving its diverse character for the benefit of its residents, visitors, and businesses through the wise and discerning investment of resources to enhance our public ways.

He said that in 2008 the more than 280-page Master Plan lays out as follows:

     Walkable, Bikeable, Independent, Artistic
     Business Ownership, Resident Activism
     Diverse, Eclectic, Collaborative

     Public Safety
     Clean but with “Grit”
     Advertise WPB; Promote the Arts
     Sustainable Development; Multi-modal Mobility

     Work with community, City, Businesses
      Phase Priority Projects
      Implementation – Studied & Cost-Effective

Seven recommendations (spread the word, promote local arts, guide development. make connections greenify, keep an eye on things, spruce up the place) that resulted from the Master Plan translated into five committees: Promote WPB, Arts, Guide Development, Transportation and Clean, Green and Safe.

Through that structure, they have completed a tree inventory of all the trees along the district streets and in Wicker Park; added or replaced trees; done other tree related projects; had a mural project; installed art sculptures; sponsored performance art events; given facade rebates; washed sidewalks; have continuing street cleaning; provided grant money; held market place in Polish Triangle for two years; added bike racks; added trashcans; continue to work on the multi-year project changing the intersection of Wolcott, Milwaukee and Wood; and many other activities.

Pointing out that an SSA provides local people with the opportunity to determine their needs and find the best solutions. He encouraged everyone to participate in the committees, which do not have a district residency requirement, as well as attending SSA monthly meetings. You can participate right now by taking the SSA survey to determine future programming. Click on the ad on your right to take the survey.

He concluded his presentation by going over what each committee does and listing many grants that have been given out.

Paige will be giving his presentation at other community organization meetings: East Village Assn.(EVA), Jan. 7; Bucktown Community Organization (BCO), Jan. 15; and Ukrainian Neighors Assn. (UVNA), Jan. 17.

There will be a community meeting in a month or two.



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