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Illinois governor signs cultural communities investment bill into law

The legislation, signed by Governor Pritzker on Friday, is meant to help support communities negatively impacted by gentrification and historical divestment, but lacks any material mechanism to accomplish this goal.

CHICAGO (CN) — Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker signed Senate Bill 1833, which will provide direct support to "cultural communities" negatively impacted by gentrification, historical divestment and the Covid-19 pandemic, into law Friday.

The bill was sponsored by several Black and Latino Illinois lawmakers, including Democratic state Representatives Delia Ramirez and Lamont Robinson Jr., and Democratic state Senators Cristina Pacione-Zayas and Mike Simmons. Several nonprofit groups in the state, such as the Puerto Rican Agenda, also offered their input in the bill's construction.

SB 1833's purpose, in its own language, is to compel the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity to "foster local cultural development and education, provide a focal point for celebrating and strengthening the unique cultural identity of the community [and] promote growth and opportunity without generating displacement or expanding inequality," among other points.

It seeks to establish an application system by which communities can apply for the certified status of a cultural district. This status, once conferred, will last for 10 years and can be renewed every following five years. The legislation itself states that it expects this application will be "competitive." No more than five cultural district certifications will be awarded per year once the law takes effect in 2022, and no more than 15 cultural districts will be allowed to exist at once.

Those communities awarded cultural district status do not have to be municipalities unto themselves, though they can be sponsored in their application process by any municipalities they may be a part of.

"Illinois' diverse cultural and ethnic communities not only deserve recognition through a state designation, but also an opportunity to leverage their unique identities and countless contributions. This legislation affords various communities a tool to preserve their legacies for generations to come," Pacione-Zayas said in a statement on the legislation. "I commend the hard work of the Puerto Rican Agenda and my colleague Leader Delia Ramirez, as well as Gov. JB Pritzker for signing this measure today."

However, despite its stated goal of helping preserve and invest in communities slighted by inequality, the legislation makes few concrete promises as to how it would help these communities. It does not establish any new state fund to invest in cultural districts, and makes no mention of direct financial or material aid. Instead, it promises only "promotional support" of cultural districts and, even more generally, "support" for local small businesses within them.

Indeed, the bill puts much of the onus for development of cultural districts onto the districts themselves. It requires that designated cultural districts formulate their own plans for community retention and revitalization, with only the "encouragement" of the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity to aid them. Cultural districts also run the risk of losing their status if they fall behind on their paperwork.

"Within 12 months after being designated a cultural district, the state-designated cultural district shall submit a report to the department detailing its current programs and goals for the next 4 years of its designation. For each year thereafter that the district remains a state-designated cultural district, it shall submit a report to the department on the status of the program and future developments of the district. Any state-designated cultural district that fails to file a report for two consecutive years shall lose its status," the legislation states.

Nevertheless, the bill's sponsors presented an optimistic take on their new law on Friday.

"Recovering from the harm of this pandemic will require strategic investment into our hardest hit communities. It is important that we recognize and invest into the rich cultural heritage of Illinois diverse communities," Ramirez said in the Friday press release. "This initiative to create State Designated Cultural Districts will empower DCEO to partner with communities to foster and preserve their distinct cultural legacies."

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