Once a target for protests, Chicago’s new $128 million fire and police academy now sparks pride, excitement

It was once a target of nationwide protests and what critics, including Chance the Rapper, called a symbol of then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s misplaced spending priorities.

Now, as the expanded and more costly campus nears completion, it is source of excitement and possibility for a West Garfield Park community no longer forgotten.

With a $128 million price tag — up nearly 35% from the original cost — Chicago’s new police and fire training academy will have a mock neighborhood and just about everything first-responders need to train.

With Fire Commissioner Annette Nance-Holt appearing at Thursday’s budget hearing, Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) used the opportunity to do a little indirect bragging about the project (“a beautiful place,” she called it) that she fought so hard to bring to 4400 block of West Chicago Avenue in her impoverished West Side ward.

“I want to know now from you, what are your plans once you come into the new fire academy that’s being built in my ward?” Mitts said.

Nance-Holt said it was “very exciting” to think about the types of training that can be offered at the state-of-the-art facility.

“It’ll be a soft launch for a lot of us. They’re still going through a lot of training. Getting to know the building,” Nance-Holt said.

There will be opportunities for firefighters to train with each other and also with other first responders, she added. That includes special operations teams and CTA training, she said.

There’s also “a model city” with shells of buildings, and an ambulance, which is very exciting, too, so they can have real-life experience being on an ambulance,” she said.

“Our recruits get trained there. We’re looking at promotional training there. We’re looking at executive development training for our staff as well. And even maybe … how we can help people prepare for future promotions maybe even there. And being there by the [new] Boys & Girls Club is actually a benefit, too, because now, we can interact with those young people…and try to give them some insight into what we do and maybe considering doing what firefighters and paramedics do every day.”

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Last summer, the City Council agreed to lease 20,000 square feet of land on the 34-acre-campus to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago at $1 a year for up to 75 years.

That paved the way for an $8 million, 18,000 square foot youth development center with an open-air plaza between the club and the new police and fire training academy.

At the time, Mitts called it a “history-making moment” for a West Side that desperately needs youth programming to provide a constructive alternative for young people.

“When I first came in, the first thing I asked for was a youth center for our children. It took me 21 years,” Mitts said that day.

Without mentioning the #NoCopAcademy movement by name, Mitts noted Thursday that there were those who asked, “Why have a Boys & Girls Club next to a public safety academy.”

“Why not, I say? They can’t be what they can’t see,” Mitts said.

She told Nance-Holt: “I am so glad to hear you echo that same sentiment. We have to look for the positive. We can’t look for the negative.”

The value of having a the club next to the academy became evident later in Thursday’s hearing, when Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) hammered Nance-Holt about the continued shortage of minorities in CFD — despite repeated outreach.

“We have all been out there trying to recruit. [But] I’ve found a lot of our youth don’t want to do this job,” the commissioner told Taylor.

“I need to take you with me in my car when I go talk to young people in high schools and they look at me and go, `I don’t want to do that. I ain’t doin’ that. Are you crazy? I ain’t going in a fire?’ “

A $33 million “mock neighborhood” is responsible for the revised cost over and above the $95 million original estimate.

The “tactical scenario village” is almost like a movie set. It includes a pretend city block complete with a six-story burn tower and a car crash rescue area to simulate emergency rescues.

“The areas where they do the training on the upper floors — if you had a fire, a true-scenario, once they destroy, how long are you looking for the re-build so that you can keep it going?” Mitts said.

District Chief of Special Operations Jamar Sullivan said the burn tower is constructed with “very resilient material that can actually withstand repeated use.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot was president of the Police Board in March 2018 when criticized the proposed location for the facility.

“Putting this edifice to policing in this high-crime, impoverished neighborhood where relations between the police and the community are fraught, without a clear plan for community engagement, is a mistake,” Lightfoot said then.

“The allocation of any funds for a police academy is viewed by many as further affirmation that needs of the people will never be prioritized over those of the police.”

A month after taking office, Lightfoot dramatically changed her tune.

In June 2019, after she toured the police academy and watched recruits apprehend mock suspects in a dark hallway, Lightfoot came away convinced a new academy is essential.

“This is gonna be a significant investment on the West Side that desperately needs investment, but if we’re gonna make that kind of investment, I want to get it right. I want it to be the best-in-class training facility for first-responders anywhere in the country. That’s what we ought to aspire to,” she said on that day.

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