Facing lawsuit by white business owner, Cook County retools grant program for minorities, women

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle in 2022 announced a program that would target businesses owned by minorities, women, the disabled and veterans to receive $10,000 grants from federal COVID relief funds. County officials have yet to award the money, and have announced they are retooling the program after a white Edison Park business owner filed a class action lawsuit.

Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

A lawsuit by a white North Side businessman has forced Cook County officials to revamp a program that would have paid out $10,000 grants to minority- and women-owned businesses hurt by the COVID 19 pandemic.

Announced in 2022, the Source Grow Grant Program was to pay out some $71 million in federal COVID relief funds as grants to “historically excluded businesses — including those owned by entrepreneurs of color, women, veterans, LGBQT+ and persons with a disability — to close racial wealth and opportunity gaps.”

Three months after the program was launched, Edison Park chiropractor Domenic Cusano filed a lawsuit backed by the California-based Pacific Legal Foundation, seeking an injunction to bar the program from releasing any grants because the program would “disadvantage his application in comparison to similarly situated applicants who identify as nonwhite or Hispanic.”

The county received 22,000 applications from business owners, but no funds were awarded and county officials this week announced they would redesign the program and ask applicants to resubmit.

Court records indicate Cusano’s request for an injunction was dismissed earlier this month by the judge because the county had announced the program was “rescinded” on Feb. 27.

It was not clear from the lawsuit whether Cusano, who said he identifies as “white and Caucasian,” applied for a Grow Grant, which would have required him to list his race on the application form and certify that the business was at least 51% owned by a minority, woman, person with a disability or veteran. Cusano did not return a phone call Friday from the Chicago Sun-Times.

“While a motion to dismiss the suit has been filed, a determination by Cook County was made to rescind and restructure the grant,” Preckwinkle spokesman Nick Mathiowdis said in a statement. “To that end, and in an effort to assist small businesses as quickly as possible, we have chosen to restructure the grant program rather than litigate the matter in court.”

The program would have allotted grants to 2,250 applicants. Mathiowdis said the pool of funding would be increased in the restructured program, and will target businesses that had been “disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and historically disinvested communities.”

Businesses would have to resubmit applications for the grants, Mathiowdis said.

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