Giving Chicago the business: 2021’s big stories and subjects
In an uneven year for the economy, there were highs and lows and many strategic bets on better — or at least more normal — times.
The gloom of infection hovered over Chicago business in 2020, with events and trends often occurring because of or in defiance of whatever COVID-19 variant was in play.
The year 2021 was a mixed bag for business. Big development deals moved forward, promising growth for Chicago. But crime, inflation and issues related to the pandemic took a steep toll. Some sectors boomed. Others withered.
The traditional New Year’s Eve ball drop will be a muted affair in most places Friday night. So, in partial recompense, here’s a countdown of the 10 biggest Chicago business stories or topics of the year, a look back that also tries to look ahead.
10 — Film studio blockbuster
Cinespace, the West Side film studio that has put Chicago on filmmakers’ maps, was sold in a deal reportedly worth $1 billion. Cinespace has supported 20,000 jobs and is the home of “Chicago Fire,” “Chicago P.D.” and other productions. The buyer was the real estate arm of buyout firm TPG, which takes over from the Pissios family. From actors to carpenters and stagehands, many have a vested interest in the place. Outgoing CEO Alex Pissios wore a wire to help an FBI investigation of a Teamsters boss. Maybe there’s material for a new TV series: Chicago Feds.
9 — Paper chase
The Chicago Tribune, erstwhile “world’s greatest newspaper,” was humbled in 2021. It fell under full control of hedge fund Alden Global Capital, leading to cuts in the editorial staff and changes at the top of the masthead. Alden gained control of the Tribune and eight other major dailies through its purchase of Tribune Publishing and at year-end was trying to add to its national collection of titles. No local players stepped up to save the Trib. The Sun-Times, meanwhile, is negotiating terms of a combination with the parent company of nonprofit public radio station WBEZ, marking a fresh effort to sustain local news.
8 — Next-generation skyline
When developers move billion-dollar projects through the regulatory process, it’s a sign of optimism, “going long” on the future, as traders say. City authorities approved plans for the redevelopment of the old Michael Reese Hospital site, a stretch of the Near North Side owned by Moody Bible Institute and the south end of Goose Island, an industrial pocket due for high-rise wealth. Casino operators made their best pitches for downtown sites, although some believe putting it in McCormick Place’s Lakeside Center is the quickest and easiest option. Developers insist crime and taxes have made investors cool toward Chicago, but you couldn’t prove it by the foregoing.
7 — Thompson Center turnabout
Gov. J.B. Pritzker spent months dissing the Thompson Center, inviting the conclusion that the state wanted to vacate the building and leave it to a developer’s whim. Then he signed on to a deal that would preserve the Helmut Jahn design. But it was about more than rescuing post-modern architecture. While still saving on office rentals downtown, the state gets improved space in an invigorated and more efficient building, with a developer bearing most renovation costs. At least that’s the theory. The project should help the Central Loop. The old LaSalle Street canyon has been hollowed out by companies moving closer to West Loop train stations.
6 — Gimme shelter
Expanding the availability of affordable housing was a prime topic throughout the year, with Mayor Lori Lightfoot dominant in the conversation. Her administration endorsed development deals in 10 neglected neighborhoods targeted by her Invest South/West program, and affordable housing figured heavily in those plans. Another notable project calls for 250 new homes in North Lawndale at below-market prices. For downtown developers, more stringent rules for affordable housing set-asides took effect, but this year’s initiatives drew more attention to housing needs outside Chicago’s gentrification bubble.
5 — Tokes for folks
In just under two years, authorized sales of marijuana have grown like, yes, a weed. Sales of recreational cannabis have reached nearly $2 billion despite lingering legal challenges preventing regulators from issuing new permits that would more than double the number of statewide dispensaries. The state’s 110 licensed dispensaries are on track to double their sales total of $670 million in 2020. Profits are going to multi-state behemoths, while an Illinois effort to diversify the business with more Black-, Brown- and women-owned enterprises is in legal limbo.
4 — Workers with issues
From the Art Institute of Chicago to the Nabisco factory to the El Milagro tortilla manufacturer, workers in the area felt pressured by the pandemic, which increased workloads and led to longer shifts. So they took to the streets, to organize as a union, demand better contracts or pressure their employer to make concessions. Some did so without affiliation with a union, risking employer backlash for staging walkouts and airing their complaints. Amazon workers in Chicago, for example, organized walkouts as part of an independent group. Behind it all was a sense that labor shortages had given employees more leverage than they’ve seen in decades.
3 — Storefront affronts
People got used to seeing signs at restaurants or retailers saying something like, “We are short-staffed. Please be patient.” A lot of things conspired against these businesses. The pandemic induced trouble with supply chains and it made it hard to fill open positions, while also curbing demand. On Michigan Avenue, vacancies grew. Macy’s delivered the biggest blow to the street when it closed its Water Tower Place store in March. High-end stores saw a rash of thefts that made customers scared to visit. At year-end, retailers were pressing government officials to crack down on thefts and considering their own responses but were frustrated when Lightfoot put the onus on them to lock goods away and hire guards.
2 — Westward ho!
If and when the workaday world gets back to normal, it’ll be apparent that Fulton Market and the broader Near West Side have become main business hubs in the city. They are now “downtown,” not next to it, and increasingly have the costlier office rents and the paucity of street parking to show for it. The big developments in item No. 8 are far off. Near West is happening now, fueled by young people’s desire to live close to work and for companies demanding their technology skills. It’s becoming an eclectic corporate mix, from McDonald’s and Mondelez to Flock Freight and CoinFlip. A planned Guinness brewery should keep the area chugging.
1 — All things Amazon
The company is impossible to avoid, from its 20 giant fulfillment centers in Illinois to the smaller delivery stations that blanket the region and its grocery stores, some touting no-checkout shopping, Amazon is so omniscient as to invite backlash. Some of it is criticism of its labor practices, mentioned in item No. 4. Its safety procedures got new attention after a tornado in December killed six workers and damaged a company location in downstate Edwardsville. But the backlash extends to communities opposing Amazon expansion plans on the grounds of pollution and increased truck traffic.
Will Amazon strengthen its hold over commerce and communities in 2022? Happy New Year, and may the algorithms be with you.
Contributing: Tom Schuba