Chicago lost Amazon’s HQ2, but not its top-tier high tech future

This week, Chicago and Illinois took a big step in putting the city on the right economic path for tech-industry investment. We’re glad it’s happening.

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A conceptual rendering of the University of Illinois’ Discovery Partners Institute building at The 78.

A conceptual rendering of the University of Illinois’ Discovery Partners Institute building at The 78.

Related Midwest

It stung when Amazon took a pass on Chicago two years ago for its mammoth second headquarters.

Amazon HQ2 could have been the catalyst to redevelop expansive but long-dormant properties such as the former Michael Reese Hospital campus near 29th Street or the 62 empty acres along the South Branch of the Chicago River between Roosevelt Road and Chinatown.

Most importantly, HQ2 would have brought 25,000 jobs to Chicago — and would have helped cement the city’s reputation as a player in the tech industry.

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Chicago failed to bag Amazon, but the pursuit left City Hall and civic leaders convinced that a top-tier high tech business sector is a natural for Chicago. The city already possesses much of what’s necessary to make it happen — a centralized national transportation network, a concentration of quality universities, access to the whole world via O’Hare Airport, and a vibrant cultural life.

But, as Amazon let us know, the East Coast has a bigger pool of high tech workers.

This week, Chicago and Illinois took a major step toward addressing that weakness, and we welcome it. It feels overdue.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced that the University of Illinois’ Discovery Partners Institute has reached a deal to build a tech research center near 14th and Clark streets. The construction will be part of the first phase of The 78, a redevelopment project planned for the same 62 acres along the river’s South Branch that Amazon passed over in 2018.

Talent from “around the world”

DPI specializes in tech industry workforce development and tech research, training people in tech skills with a focus being on post-high-school to first-year-after-college employment.

In making the announcement, Pritzker said the nearly one-million-square-foot building would “attract talent to our state from around the world, strengthening Illinois’ long-term economic vitality for generations to come.”

DPI’s construction is to be funded by a portion of $500 million set aside by the Illinois General Assembly for tech centers around the state. Private investors are expected to kick in at least another $230 million.

Now listen, this is Chicago. So we realize that putting the tech center on the site of The 78 might look like another publicly funded gift to Related Midwest, a developer that could collect up to $1.1 billion in tax increment finance funds and other subsidies for the project. That funding was nailed down before Lightfoot took office.

But from an urban planning standpoint, putting the center in a brand new neighborhood — a South Side neighborhood, we should add — where infrastructure, transit, stores, schools and homes will grow up around it makes good sense. So much sense that even fierce political rivals Rahm Emanuel, Lightfoot’s predecessor as mayor, and Bruce Rauner, whom Pritzker defeated to become governor, came together to unveil plans for the institute — and tout the benefits of it — back in 2017.

As Lightfoot said at the recent announcement sealing the deal: “We are literally standing on a field of possibilities.”

Lightfoot has vowed that The 78, which could be under development for decades, won’t receive a dollar in TIF funds until Related Midwest has documented the costs for the public improvements that are to be covered by the subsidy. Civic watchdogs and this newspaper will be watching that.

But substantial public infrastructure investment is part-and-parcel of the growth and continued vitality of every big city, including Chicago from its first days.

Amazon took a pass on Chicago, but Chicago can’t afford to take a pass now.

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