Google turns up big in Chicago’s search for a benefactor

In buying the Thompson Center, the search engine company is helping state and local governments answer some knotty questions. But will the partnership go a tiny bit further?

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The interior of the Thompson Center, 100 W. Randolph St.

Google is buying the James R. Thompson Center for $105 million.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

Ken Griffin — who needs him?

Nobody at the announcement last week of Google taking over the Thompson Center uttered anything close to that sentiment, but it hung in the air of the building’s atrium as Gov. J.B. Pritzker and others paraded to a podium to heap praise on Chicago’s new BBF — best business friend.

Joining the governor were the mayor, an alderperson, the chamber of commerce chief and the developers involved in the Google deal, all celebrating an economic triumph and engaging in some justifiable chest thumping.

It’s been a rough few weeks for most of them. The crime rate is horrible, especially in places not used to dealing with it. COVID-19 still has a grip on office routines with many workers keeping their discretionary bucks at home any given day. Boeing and Caterpillar moved their headquarters for new ones in the southern U.S.

Griffin, in a snit to fit a billionaire with control of hundreds of jobs, said his Citadel companies are leaving for Miami because of Chicago’s mayhem. He’s headed where crime isn’t much better but where there are ocean breezes and no state income tax.

Pritzker was in his element at the Google announcement. He knows the lingo of tech, having harvested promising ideas as a venture capitalist while launching the proving ground for startups known as 1871. On a prior occasion when Google was touting new jobs here, Pritzker said, “We think of Google as a Chicago-based company.”

Pritzker got things rolling at the Thompson Center news conference, saying, “We’re saving taxpayers money. We’re growing high-paying jobs. We’re adding vitality to the Loop and improving the work environment for thousands of private and public-sector employees. Let the word go out that Chicago and Illinois are open for business.”

He’s thrilled not just for political purposes but because by buying the Thompson Center at La Salle and Randolph streets, Google is solving two civic problems: What to do about the state’s former office hub in Chicago that needs expensive work but that the state no longer wants, and what to do to help the Loop, especially the spine along La Salle that even before the pandemic saw an exodus of marquee office tenants?

For the state, the sale to Google is a cleaner deal than the one Pritzker hatched last December. It called for selling most of the Thompson Center to developer Michael Reschke of the Prime Group but keeping some government offices there, making the state liable for a share of the rehab costs.

With the straight sale to Google for $105 million, state government gets out of that burden. It then buys for $75 million from Reschke the building at 115 S. La Salle St., once BMO Harris’ headquarters, and consolidates its downtown leases there.

Reschke is happy because he and Quintin Primo III, chairman of Capri Investment Group, are getting paid by both the state and Google. They will manage Google’s improvements to the Thompson Center. Reschke boiled down the pitch to taxpayers well. “The state will own 50% more space on La Salle Street at 50% less cost,” he said.

Everybody hopes Google will do for downtown what it did for Fulton Market when it moved there in 2015, landing with fanfare to show the old meatpacking district is A-OK for hip employers. Its executives saw something in the idea of moving into an old cold storage warehouse. Job growth ensued for Google.

Now, Karen Sauder, Google’s head of Chicago operations, sees similar potential with the Helmut Jahn-designed Thompson Center, a postmodern flight of fancy that never got executed right. Maybe Google’s money can fix that.

Google executive Karen Sauder, with Gov. J.B. Pritzker applauding, speaks Wednesday about the company buying the Thompson Center.

Google executive Karen Sauder, with Gov. J.B. Pritzker applauding, speaks Wednesday about the company buying the Thompson Center.

Screenshot

People ought to keep an eye on Sauder. She does a great job selling Chicago. She spoke generously of its attributes a month ago when the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce released research testifying to the growth of the local tech sector.

And at Pritzker’s event last week, Sauder said, “Chicago isn’t just a world-class city, it’s also an incredibly important and attractive place for Google to deepen our roots in. We’ve been fortunate to call it our home since 2000 and have loved being part of Chicago’s diverse and vibrant community. Googlers love Chicago and all this city has to offer.

“That’s why we’re excited to deepen our long-term commitment to Chicago in such a meaningful way with our plans to occupy and purchase the renovated Thompson Center building in the future.”

She and Google have given Chicago a great gift. The local boosters have been on the defensive for months. Even the Chicago Bears are making serious noise about going to the suburbs, causing the city to counter with plans to rebuild Soldier Field a second time with corporate naming rights in play.

Hmmm. Veterans groups won’t like it. But is that one more problem Google and Sauder will solve for the city?

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