When the University of Chicago recently contacted Rhonda McFarland to see whether the community business support organization she leads could use dozens of planters of donated flowers, she was thrilled. “If you could have seen me smile when I got that email,” McFarland said. “I could not respond faster.”
After months marked by a devastating pandemic and civil unrest, McFarland, executive director of Quad Communities Development Corporation (QCDC), was eager to have work for her landscape contractor and to brighten some of the commercial corridors QCDC supports in the North Kenwood, Oakland, Douglas, and Grand Boulevard neighborhoods with the flowers — which had originally been purchased for planting on UChicago’s campus. “That allowed us to get that small bit of beautification in as soon as possible,” McFarland said.
Like so many communities, the ones QCDC serves have struggled in recent months. McFarland estimates the COVID-19 pandemic forced 90 percent of businesses her group works with to close during the state and city shut down periods. Calls for racial justice following George Floyd’s death, and subsequent vandalism and damage to businesses, took a toll as well.
But McFarland says partnering with the University and other local institutions during a difficult time, even in small ways, has made a positive impact. In April, QCDC was one of eight local business support organizations the University worked closely with to identify small businesses to receive bridge grants as part of the University’s COVID-19 South Side Community Support Initiative.
“It was nice to have the University up front early to help our businesses,” she says. “And those grants, people think they’re not large dollars, but for a few of the businesses I know for sure those grants were life savers. Small amounts that don’t come with a lot of [required] bells and whistles actually have the ability to be quite powerful.”
The past few months, McFarland says, have also been an opportunity to strengthen QCDC’s own skill sets and those of their businesses. After pivoting to virtual work, for instance, McFarland has found that since March, QCDC’s one-on-one business consultations are up 500 percent from the same time last year. Many of the restaurants QCDC works with that offer limited dine-in space have adapted quickly to a new carry-out-focused reality.
Going forward, McFarland hopes QCDC can build on what they’ve been able to achieve as their communities recover – whether it’s lining the Cottage Grove and 47th Street commercial corridors with flowers or deepening valuable partnerships.
“These relationships that we build with institutions like the University hopefully will continue to grow and strengthen and provide us with opportunities that aren’t just financial, but ways to tie into resources and professionals as well,” McFarland said. “I think the more they work with us at this level, the more they find out what we’re capable of and vice versa.”