Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation (GAGDC), United Way’s lead community partner in the Auburn Gresham Neighborhood Network, is an essential pillar to the neighborhood’s economy.

GAGDC acts as a business resource hub, by helping local entrepreneurs start, sustain, or even close a business. They provide resources such as financial grants for security and facade enhancements, business readiness assessments, and advice on access to capital, among other things. They buy up vacant residential and commercial lots to revamp. All of their comprehensive, forward-thinking strategies for the coming decade are laid out in a detailed Quality of Life plan.

There’s no question about the source of the organization’s success: much of its staff are born-and-bred Auburn Gresham natives who have watched their community change year by year. They each have a vision for their neighborhood’s desperate needs, and a plan to get there. Like anyone who wants their home to thrive — the staff have a willful passion to direct and implement change within community borders.

Khayeem Anderson, manager of two special service areas and a 10-year-long employee, witnessed a rise in crime in the early 90’s and identified GAGDC as the major force combating it.

“I’ve seen major disinvestment,” Anderson said. “I joined GAGDC because I saw this storefront making economic changes along the business corridors, and I wanted to participate.” Others, like Director of Special Initiatives Norma Sanders, remember a vibrant economy and the service-lined streets of their childhood, and know it’s possible to return the community to that same vibrancy.

The pandemic’s far-reaching consequences solidified GAGDC’s role as Auburn Gresham’s economic support system. In 2020 alone, the neighborhood lost box stores, a Bank of America, a CVS, a Save-A-Lot, and dozens of mom-and-pop shops. In response, GAGDC created a covid relief grant to prevent further business shutdowns, and it had impactful results. Nearly every daycare in the community sustained themselves utilizing grants from GAGDC, according to Sanders. And though 10% of Auburn Gresham’s local businesses shut down due to civil unrest and COVID-19, there was a 20% increase in business openings during the same period.

The organization has ambitious dreams for the future, including the transformation of four vacant lots into a Metra stop to increase transportation access, and building a youth-oriented community center. By the beginning of 2022, their Chicago-prize winning Healthy Lifestyle Hub on 79th Street will be fully renovated and open to residents. What started as a deteriorating building that sat vacant for 30 years on a vital commercial corridor, will soon be a bustling hub of medical, business, and financial services.

“We are very successful in rallying the residents of AG together,” Anderson said. “There’s a strong housing stock here, and the people care. That’s why I stayed.”

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By Jessica Jones & Tate Samata, AmeriCorps Multimedia Journalists