Jorge Perez, SFDS Class of 1990, Building Community
Growing up in the Bush neighborhood, St. Francis de Sales High School (SFDS) alumnus Jorge Perez got his education in Community 101 at an early age. His lessons took place in the bakery and grocery store his family owned and lived above at 83rd and Houston. “It was a town within a town,” recalled Jorge. “Everyone knew each other.” Working for his parents taught him skills that would form the foundation for his personal and professional future. “I learned early on to talk to everyone on a first-name basis, to maintain relationships.”
After graduating from SFDS, Jorge continued to manage his parents’ store during the day while studying economics at night at Roosevelt University. His most powerful real-world economics lesson came during that time period. “The steel mills closed down,” explained Jorge. “To see that all fall apart in your neighborhood, you ask yourself, how can I get involved, how can I fix those things?”
One look at his resume makes it clear that “getting involved” has been Jorge’s lifelong mission. After obtaining an MBA from Loyola University, Jorge served as President of the Calumet Area Industrial Commission (CAIC) from 2001 – 2008. There, he recruited many new local and regional business leaders, and worked with members and elected officials to promote the new face of industry in the Greater Calumet Region.
Jorge went on to serve as Deputy Commissioner for Chicago’s Department of Aviation, then as Vice President of Strategic Planning and Policy for the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), before taking the helm as Executive Director of The Hispanic American Construction Industry Association (HACIA) in 2011. Founded in 1979, HACIA has been a leader among organizations of its kind, providing training, education, and leadership development for its more than 300 members; lobbying for legislative change within the industry; and giving scholarship assistance to students in related fields of study.
With its 40th anniversary on the horizon, HACIA continues to expand its own horizons. Under Jorge’s leadership, HACIA has teamed up with similar organizations in Texas, Florida, and New York to collaborate on projects. “We have a much bigger opportunity to work together regionally or nationally, which is exciting,” said Jorge.
Jorge’s economic development efforts have not gone unnoticed by city leaders. In 2016, Mayor Emanuel appointed Jorge to be Chairman of the City of Chicago’s Community Development Commission. As someone whose economics experience had previously focused on managing TIF dollars and land acquisition sales, Jorge says that overseeing the designation of new TIF districts has given him a new perspective. “Seeing the pipeline of projects coming through the city, you get a really good sense of what’s happening. If it weren’t for TIF dollars, many of those projects wouldn’t be possible.”
When he’s not focusing on the city’s economic growth, Jorge says that much of his time is spent trying to keep up with the growth of his 10- and 13-year-old sons, including their voracious appetites. His latest venture may help. Years ago, Jorge bought the building he grew up in from his dad, and lived there with his wife and sons until three years ago, “when we moved a whopping mile south,” laughed Jorge. The storefront has been vacant since 1994, but still has the baking equipment and zoning permits, leading to a project Jorge affectionately dubbed, “I want to hang out with my dad, and he’s bored out of his mind.”
“There are a ton of kids at the new charter high school down the street,” explained Jorge. “Dad and I have been slowly working on the building for a couple years, and we plan to sell pizza and a couple items on the weekend from a walk-up window.” He is quick to explain that this latest project is purely a labor of love: “It’s not intended to make money. Just to hang out and have fun with it, that’s the goal.”
For someone who has spent decades building connections, it comes as no surprise that the relationships that Jorge made at SFDS are what stand out most to him now. “There was a close knit group when I was in school, and we still get along really well. It’s great to see everyone still encouraging each other, and to see [my former classmates] doing well.” His advice to current students is to focus on making their own connections: “Make a lot of friends, get to know people, and keep all of those relationships warm.