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Meet Kelli Wefenstette of Six Corners Association in Portage Park

Today we’d like to introduce you to Kelli Wefenstette.

Kelli, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
As a professionally trained Community Organizer, I moved to Portage Park in 2009 knowing it was the neighborhood where I could invest my entire life I could buy a house here, work in economic development, shop at the grocery stores, support businesses, send any future children to the schools, and get involved in civic life. It’s the neighborhood where my spouse grew up and our roots were here.

As an undergrad student, I’d studied Asset Based Community Development in Chicago for a semester and declared at that time that I would return permanently upon graduation and become the Executive Director of a Chamber of Commerce because I saw the impact that these community organizations had on the quality of life and the revitalization of Chicago neighborhoods.

In 2013, I graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a Master’s Degree in Social Justice and Community Development During my final semester, I focused my work on Portage Park & Jeff Park and volunteered with Arts Alive Chicago, Jeff Fest, Six Corners Association, and the 45th Ward office. At the end of that year, I was hired by Six Corners Association. In 2015, I became the Executive Director.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
It has been an exciting, challenging, and inspiring time to work and live near Six Corners. I remember driving through Six Corners with my spouse in 2011 and exclaiming, “Do you see this art? Who is painting all these murals?!” Change felt palpable in the air. I joined the Six Corners Association team at a true growth point.

The organization had been established nearly 10 years earlier by progressive, focused business owners who had a vision and dedication to what the community could become. For most of a decade, the Association’s Board, Commissioners, and lone staff person worked tirelessly to lay a strong, safe, stable foundation upon which economic growth could prosper.

The work they did wasn’t always glamorous, but extremely necessary: establishing a Special Service Area (SSA), installing a new streetscape, cleaning sidewalks, removing snow, painting murals on boarded-up storefronts, helping the community understand that this is a place that is loved and well cared for. It took a number of years to change that public opinion and then the success we’re known for today almost seemed easy or expected.

Six Corners Association – what should we know? What do you guys do best? What sets you apart from the competition?
Six Corners Association is a community economic development non-profit that strives to enhance our thriving northwest side commercial district through one-on-one business assistance, neighborhood beautification, involvement, and promotion. We follow the Main Street America approach to community revitalization that centers around Transformation Strategies which are articulated, focused, deliberate paths to strengthening a commercial district’s economy organized around the four points of Economic Vitality, Design, Promotion, and Organization. Six Corners is the only designated, nationally-recognized Main Street community in Chicago.

In 2014, my first year, we welcomed 30 new businesses within a two-block radius. Today, we have twice as many more. As an Association, we’ve grown membership by 50%, expanded our special event programming by nearly 150%, and installed 20+ murals, four bike corrals, a Divvy station, and a People Spot. We now offer more than 100 hours of direct, one-on-one, individualized assistance to our business owners every quarter and are steadily increasing and improving resources for property owners to improve their storefronts. It’s a thriving, energetic place to be and the excitement for development grows with each passing day!

What moment in your career do you look back most fondly on?
In early 2016, The Portage Theater portfolio including the apartments and eight storefronts sold to a development company out of Northbrook. Upon finalization of the sale, I requested a meeting with the new owner. The day that we met, we didn’t even make it to my office. Instead, we stood on the east sidewalk of Milwaukee Avenue looking at the property and at a point in the conversation, he stopped mid-sentence, looked at me, and said, “Well, what do you want?”

Though caught off guard, I replied without hesitation, “I want these storefronts filled with businesses owned by local residents. They are the perfect footprint for independent retailers and I have a list of potential tenants interested in relocating their businesses to Six Corners.” He paused. Then he said, “Give me their contact information. If the numbers work for us, I’ll sign leases.” Within a month or two each one of those storefronts went under lease by a neighborhood business: Distinct Bath & Body, Beauty Crew Chicago, and Fischman Public House & Bottle Shop.

Today, approximately 30% of our businesses at Six Corners are owned by residents of Chicago’s northwest side. I’m extremely proud of this!

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
Dominick Maino, Kenji Kerins

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