Q & A: Manny Flores Discusses a Greener Chicago

By Matt Baker

In just a few years, First Ward Alderman Manny Flores has made an impression on the local political scene. Formerly an aide to Congressman Luis Gutierrez and a prosecutor in the Cook County State’s Attorney office, Flores has made political transparency and environmental consciousness essential to his platform.

The City Council’s youngest ward boss, Flores is also its most tech-savvy, frequently using Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites to reach his constituents.

Last May, Flores and Mike Bueltmann of Clear Content helped to launch GreenEconomyChicago.com, an online forum where users are encouraged to discuss and develop ideas to create green jobs in Chicago and implement effective green strategies. We had a chance to discuss this new venture with Flores, as well as several sustainable projects in his ward.

Your affinity for social media is well documented, which explains your involvement with Green Economy Chicago. Can you tell me a little about the website?

Green Economy Chicago was a project that came about through our belief that there is a need for helping to create and expand a market for clean technology and clean energy, more commonly referred to as a green economy. We were inspired by what President Obama was able to do in his historic campaign in using social networking online to mobilize people that perhaps had never even participated in politics before. Our notion was, if there’s a model of success for electing a person, why couldn’t we do the same to elect ideas and then help transform those ideas into policy or law? Or perhaps even a new business standard or application that wouldn’t necessarily even require the creation of a policy or law, that is something that’s just done privately and voluntarily, adopted by professional trade groups and other business organizations.
There have been more than fifty ideas submitted. A number of conversations and threads have developed around these ideas. There have been a couple that have received a lot of attention; one in particular is the notion of requiring energy audits at the time of the sale of a residence. My feeling is that the City Council should take a look at legislation.

Will you or someone else present that to the Council?

I will. I plan on doing that. What the legislation will look like at this point I still don’t know, but I think we should. There might be a proof point, showing how the thing would actually work, how we can develop communities of interest and grass roots support for such an initiative. Because undoubtedly there will be different points of view with regard to the legislation.
Another cool aspect of GEC is that it democratizes the way that we develop policy and law, by allowing a very open dialogue online that can be developed into real action. If you remember, the Obama campaign would develop meet-ups through the Internet and we can do the same thing. I’m optimistic it will be an effective tool in expanding the green marketplace.

Do you think that this proposed ordinance might eventually be watered down to something along the lines of offering benefits as opposed to mandating regulation?

I haven’t even considered it. But I feel we should further open up the discussion to see how people respond. What are some of the other views out there? And I’m not even necessarily talking about the responses you might get from industry folks. Real people, consumers. People who may at some point either be selling or buying a home. How do they feel about it? It’s easy for us to talk about these issues when we’re not the ones who have to pay for it directly. Which is, I think, a fair question to ask everyday folks. It’s also an opportunity to educate and better inform the public about what’s out there.

Have any other ideas made the transition from forum to reality?

There’s another idea that has already been implemented as a policy and that’s the commuter benefits ordinance that was passed in San Francisco. That requires businesses of a certain size to offer the commuter tax benefit that’s offered through the federal government. San Francisco is the only city right now that has passed such an ordinance. The Center for Neighborhood Technology and other groups have been convening to talk about the merits of such an ordinance here in the city, and that has also generated some interest.

Are these new media conducive to the mission of environmental consciousness, or could they be applied to any social cause?

I think its another tool. For us, we’re also using more traditional broadcast media: television, cable and I think we should expand to radio. I think we should use the full panoply and not limit ourselves to just one area. The reality is, you do still have a large population that may not be using the Internet, who may not have a computer at home. We certainly don’t want to exclude those folks.

What’s the latest on the eco-industrial park planned for the Addison corridor?

We’re in the process right now of finalizing a study that was conducted by the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity and the City of Chicago as well as the offices of Aldermen Gene Schulter, Richard Mell and my office and looking at how we can revitalize this industrial corridor. And not only planning for today but also the future. Trend lines are developing around manufacturing and industrial uses and also the use of land in the city. Also, looking at the city’s policy for expanding our manufacturing base and our industrial base. This is a plan that exceeds the boundaries of this corridor. It gives us an opportunity to evaluate our citywide policy and planning.

Along those same lines, what’s the status of the Green Exchange?

The Green Exchange is still moving forward. They are in the process of working with the city’s Department of Community Development. As you know, this was supposed to be a privately-funded venture, but now they are going to be asking for some governmental assistance, given that the financial industry has basically collapsed. They had loans lined up, they had the financing lined up, but like many businesses, unfortunately, the banks changed all of those rules mid-game. Again, I’m optimistic and confident that the Green Exchange will open sometime in the second quarter of next year.

Do you think the economy as it currently exists makes finding green tenants more difficult, or would it be challenging to get any businesses to move in right now?

I think the conditions exist everywhere. The Green Exchange is different though in that it’s about having one specific facility for this type of marketplace. There are advantages about going into the Green Exchange. First of all its going to be an energy efficient facility, so you’ll have an opportunity to cut costs on utilities. There’ll also be cross marketing opportunities for the various businesses that will locate there. The Green Exchange itself already has a very strong and positive brand as being a leading project in the clean technology and clean energy segment of our economy. There aren’t many places like it; I would still say that it is one of a kind. There are other facilities out west, but nothing of the Green Exchange’s size and scale.

You’ve been a big proponent of sustainability since taking office. Is that driven by your constituency or is this an idea you’re bringing to them?

For me, the flashpoint was when the Cooper Lamp Company closed its doors and we lost 110 jobs. We lost a manufacturing company that was an important community business and employer of residents. Trying to figure out how to replace those jobs led me down the path of exploring clean technology and clean energy. But that whole exploration involved meetings with residents and interaction with people from the sustainability community, so I would say a little bit of both.
My experience with Green Exchange, as well as the revitalization of the Addison industrial corridor and of Lathrop Homes, has now led me to expand, to include and develop new standards to align the three assets so that we have an incubator of clean technology and clean energy. An incubator not just of the products and services but also the processes and the way that communities organize and work toward achieving sustainable communities; where there is economic opportunity, social justice and also a plan for protecting our environment and supporting responsible environmental stewardship.
There are policies that I have developed through experience, and in some instances in response to economic challenges. We need to build off of that and use this knowledge in moments where we’re not even reacting anymore but were being proactive. The Green Exchange was reactive. It was a good reaction, a good response, but from that experience, we’re saying, “Why don’t we extrapolate and why don’t we build off of that?” And now, look at Lathrop Homes and the industrial corridor. Why not adopt the most cutting edge standards for developing new communities and use new building practices and technologies?

The crippled economy has many in the green building movement talking about the federal stimulus package. Have any of those funds made it into your ward?

The blue line is one of the oldest lines in our system and there was some track work that was done. And some monies are being used for weatherization plans and other initiatives, but there is still a lot of money on the table. There will be opportunities for competing grant proposals, given what were doing, and you’ll see more stimulus funding directed specifically at Green Exchange and the Lathrop Homes and also the industrial corridor. That’s why the plans are so important. You first have to have a vision, you have to have something on paper that lays the ground work for how it is you are going to use these assets and revitalize the assets. And we are basically finished with the three where we have pen to paper and there is a plan.

Is there anything else down the line after those three?

Those three are big. [laughs] I have to finish what I started. Green Exchange is 270,000 square feet. The Lathrop Homes are 34 acres. That’s huge. Usually those projects take four to six years. The industrial corridor, just the first ward side alone–mind you it covers three wards–is about twenty-something acres. So that’s a lot of land to cover.
What we need in Chicago are more examples, more proof points of what these green collar jobs, what these green businesses look like. What does a green economy look like? What I get most excited about with the Green Exchange, Lathrop Homes and the Addison industrial corridor, they’re small enough where we can get work done today, but they’re big enough, especially if you combine the three, where we can really set a new standard here in Chicago and separate ourselves form the pack where other cities are trying to do the same thing.
This really gives us a unique opportunity, I believe, to establish ourselves as a premier clean technology, clean energy and economic hub. My view is that the city should be striving to be the green Silicon Valley of the world. Where this is the incubation place if you want to try out the most cutting edge technologies, if you want to invest. The university system and colleges doing R & D, preparing the work force of the 21st century. We should be leading the pack in all those fields.

If you had infinite funding, what changes, plans or programs would you like to see either in your ward or the city as a whole towards those goals?

I don’t think we need infinite funding. I think we need to set the right priorities and use what we have today. Nothing is holding us back from saying we are going to do everything we can to make this city the green Silicon Valley of the world. And that means aligning legislation and policies, engaging the business community, the not for profit community and everyday citizens in a way where we have a purpose, where we are working with a vision and a mission that will enable the transformation that we need.
There is a lot right now that we can do. The city’s purchasing power alone, for example. Using the power of our procurement to better promote and expand the green marketplace. Requiring that our vendors and people who are building for the city be certified as green businesses, that they engage in clean business practices, using clean technology and clean energy. Look at the power of TIF. There are TIF investments being made every day; why not direct our TIF dollars in a way where we’re expanding the green marketplace?
We need workforce development directed toward teaching our children more math and science, and doing it in a way where they are applying it to the very things they’re going to need to be competitive in this new global economy. We’re not just talking about elementary education. What about our universities and our colleges? The City of Chicago is a leader in commodities and futures. As you know, we have the Climate Exchange here. A lot of people don’t realize that, in terms of what they trade, if it’s not the most volume, they’re up in the top three in the world for carbon trading. Which is huge because it’s not mandatory here. It’s all voluntary. So how can we better leverage those resources and direct them with a purpose in mind to invest more capital in clean technology and clean energy? We need more resources, yes. But what about the resources we have now? Why can’t we do a better job of repurposing them and redirecting them in a more effective way?

What city services or initiatives do you feel are underutilized by the public and businesses?

TIF offers a remarkable resource for more of this clean technology and clean energy investment. I don’t know if I would characterize it as an underutilization, but I think on some level we’re still trying to figure how to create the alignment I was just referencing in the previous question. We just developed the Climate Action Plan which was a study on the greenhouse gas emissions in the city. Not only evaluating the sources but also taking a look at setting some goals and benchmarks and also developing some remediation strategies. What we’re trying to do now is to figure out how we can marry those strategies with economic development opportunities. We’re attempting this alignment now.
What I’m hoping happens though is that we have buy-in from all stakeholders and that this doesn’t just become another governmental mandate. That everyone develops an appreciation and an understanding of the real potential for economic growth and prosperity around this effort of reducing the greenhouse gas emissions in Chicago. That’s going to require a lot of grass roots work, a lot of retail one-on-one, talking about the merits of this effort and the opportunities. That’s not going to happen overnight; it’s going to be an ongoing campaign. Getting people to understand the nexus between the plan and what we do everyday in our decision making. Things from consumer purchase and behavior to other lifestyle choices. And also the policies that we call on our elected officials to champion.

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