New boss at Business Affairs and Consumer Protection vows to revive long-neglected commercial corridors

Ken Meyer said his goal is to “get people off their personal computers, shopping on Amazon and other places and actually back into the streets.” The 27-year City Hall veteran replaces his former boss, Rosa Escareno.

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The Chicago skyline, viewed from the inbound Eisenhower Expressway.

The Chicago skyline, viewed from the inbound Eisenhower Expressway.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s choice to serve as Chicago’s $175,000-a-year commissioner of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection vowed Wednesday to revive long-neglected neighborhood commercial corridors by luring online shoppers away from their computers.

At Ken Meyer’s confirmation hearing before the City Council’s License Committee, Council members and business leaders sang the praises of a 27-year veteran City Hall insider known for his tireless work ethic and ability to get things done.

Meyer has big shoes to fill.

After five years as first deputy, he replaces his former boss, Rosa Escareno, who delayed her planned retirement for two years to see Chicago through the shutdown triggered by the coronavirus pandemic and two rounds of looting that took a devastating toll on the business community she was charged with regulating.

Now that Escareno has moved on to the Chicago Park District, it’ll be up to Meyer to guide city businesses on the road to economic recovery and implement the 150-page, 20-program pandemic relief package Lightfoot likes to call “Chi-Biz Strong.”

Chicago Park District Interim CEO Rosa Escareño sits near Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot during the awarding of Invest/Southwest winners at the South Shore Cultural Center in the South Shore neighborhood, Thursday morning, Nov. 18, 2021. Lightfoot awarded a total of $126 million to three different teams that will build three residential, commercial and community spaces in Humboldt Park and South Shore.

Chicago Park District Interim CEO Rosa Escareño (black mask) sits near Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot at a November event for the mayor’s Invest South/West program in the South Shore neighborhood in November. Escareño previously was the city’s commissioner for Business Affairs and Consumer Protection; a City Council committee on Wednesday held a confirmation hearing for her successor, Ken Meyer.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

During Wednesday’s hearing, Meyer argued that after enduring a “once-in-a-century pandemic and its challenges,” City Hall has laid a “strong foundation for Chicago’s post-pandemic recovery” with “many opportunities ahead of us.”

“At the heart of my character is the ability to build relationships,” Meyer told Council members, many of whom have known him since his days as a legislative liaison under Mayor Richard M. Daley.

“My goal as commissioner is to ensure that each Chicagoan’s voice is heard, all business owners’ concerns are noted, the rights of every worker are upheld and every consumer is protected. My vision for Chicago’s business community is to be restored to inclusive economic development and support across the city.”

Meyer got more specific when South Side Ald. David Moore (17th) put him on the spot about rebuilding long-neglected commercial corridors.

“I’m not trying to put a burden on business. But, we have to … strike a balance between businesses looking like businesses, especially on the South and West Sides, and them looking like just shacks,” Moore said.

If they looked better, he added, “they would gain more business. They would make more money. ... It would also benefit our community. How do you propose to work to enhance the facial make-up of a lot of businesses in our community?”

Ald. David Moore (17th).

Ald. David Moore wants to improve some of Chicago’s more neglected commercial areas.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Meyer noted that $46 million of the recently-approved 2022 budget is earmarked for his department, thanks to an avalanche of federal relief — and $18 million of that will be used to revitalize neighborhood commercial corridors.

“Which is exactly what you’re describing. So that we can kind of beef up our commercial corridors and really kind of enhance our small businesses and look at our corridors,” Meyer told Moore.

“My goal is to get people off their personal computers, shopping on Amazon and other places and actually back into the streets. During this holiday season, I’ve been out on a couple Saturdays along our small business corridors, kind of helping to promote shop small, promote your local businesses as we’re getting out of this COVID recovery.”

There’s nothing Council members despise more than being forced to break in a new commissioner, particularly from outside Chicago.

There’s nothing they like more than having the mayor fill a vacancy with someone they have worked with for years.

That was evident during Wednesday’s love-fest.

“Ken was one of the first people I met some 23 years ago when I came into City Hall. And Ken was running all over the place trying to do everything for everybody,” said veteran Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) one of Lightfoot’s most outspoken critics on the Council.

“Ken was trained under an administration [to], `Get it done.’ That was under Mayor Daley. He had a philosophy about ‘just get it done.’ Ken, you have taken that attitude and that drive. It has carried you throughout your entire career. I couldn’t think of a better appointment than yourself. You have worked hard. This is just due for the hard work and dedication you have shown to this city.”

Ald. George Cardenas (12th), the mayor’s deputy floor leader, said he’s “just glad the mayor didn’t have to go out of the city and look far and wide to get somebody like Ken. I’m glad he’s getting it. He knows the city. He knows how to get things done.”

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