Vice President for Civic Engagement and External Affairs Derek Douglas in February.

The University of Chicago has awarded $112,000 in rent relief and $110,000 in operating grants, $2,500-$7,500 apiece, to commercial tenants who rent from the university's Commercial Real Estate Operations (CREO).

In an interview, Civic Engagement and External Affairs Vice President Derek R.B. Douglas said more help is on the way. In late March, the university created a $2 million small business grant program with up to $7,500 for operations amid the pandemic. An email to an applicant business owner reviewed by the Herald said that the university received more than 600 applications, with decisions announced by April 20. 

The Office of Civic Engagement is additionally providing 225,000 meals into June with the Greater Chicago Food Depository to South Siders in need, made by food workers the university retained after the students left.

Douglas said the community's needs factored into the university's planning as the disease spread around the world, alongside considerations for students, faculty and staff.

"We wanted to really understand what are really the most pressing issues that the community is facing right now … that we could have an impact on," he said. "The two that we were hearing a lot about, when we were talking to officials and others, were the issues of food insecurity and the issue around the impact on small businesses and local nonprofits that are the backbone of our neighborhood."

On April 13 the university announced "the first wave of operating grants and rent relief the University of Chicago issued today to help its small business tenants." Eighteen tenants, seventeen in Hyde Park and one in the Washington Park neighborhood, received the aid. Nine more are expected to receive aid in a second distribution. 

Douglas said the university approached businesses about the grants and rent relief and encouraged them to apply, prioritizing local small businesses over national chains. The university furthermore encouraged spending to support employees amid the economic breakdown. 

"We were able to move most quickly with our tenants because of the prior relationships CREO had with all of them," he said. "The motivation for us is just about (how) we view ourselves as part of the South Side community."

Among the businesses that have received grants and rent relief are the Silver Room, 1506 E. 53rd St.; Kilwins Hyde Park, 5226 S. Harper Ave.; Rajun Cajun, 1459 E. 53rd St.; the Seminary Co-op, 5751 S. Woodlawn Ave.; and Virtue, 1462 E. 53rd St.

“I feel so grateful for the grant that the university gave to the tenants because that is going to be the reason why I stay,” said Jackie Jackson, who owns Kilwins, in a statement. “I have another store downtown on Michigan Avenue, and that store’s not going to make it. I have not been able to get any type of relief, I’ve been denied everything except for the university’s grant.”

The announcement comes as the U. of C., the South Side's largest employer and economic engine, confronts an economic catastrophe economists have predicted may compare to the Great Depression.

Over the past decade, the university has grown its real estate and business-related footprint in Hyde Park, spurring the development of the new Harper Court structure and several new businesses along 53rd Street.

Douglas touted the university's UChicago Local initiative that, according to a May 2019 release, has helped more than 300 South Side businesses grow capacity and connect to opportunities with the university. The university spends more than $25 million in goods and services from South Side companies, and Douglas said local hiring has also increased. 

The U. of C. has also invested in the South Side Business Development Network, which has drawn together 15 local business associations like chambers of commerce for collaboration and capacity-building. More than 1,300 local entrepreneurs belong the the Polsky Exchange co-working space and startup incubator.

Douglas named those initiatives as evidence of the university's "concerted effort to do more in the community to create programs and partnerships" — all of which has come in handy as the world faces the economic crisis.

"If we were having to start from scratch with no relationships and not having done anything, it would have been much more difficult to pull together something that was impactful," he said.

No one knows what the future holds, but Douglas suggested an evolving response to the pandemic informed by governmental directives and what local businesses are reporting. The grants and rent assistance are envisioned as one-time supports from the university before foundational, city, state and federal aid arrives. 

"Things on that scale take time to deploy," Douglas observed, "and our businesses … don't have time to wait on that."

"We have to take a holistic picture … when it comes to the role we play in the city and in the community when it comes to COVID," he continued. "There's economic dimensions; there's health dimensions; there's food security and safety dimensions. There's a variety of things, and we're looking to do whatever we can in all these areas to help out."

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