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World Business Chicago CEO bullish on post-pandemic recovery

The Chicago skyline is seen from Maggie Daley Park in the Loop.
The Chicago skyline, seen from Maggie Daley Park.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The new CEO of World Business Chicago on Tuesday painted a rosy picture of Chicago’s post-pandemic recovery driven by four “industry sectors” that can be grown faster here than in other North American cities.

Michael Fassnacht identified those sectors as: health care and life sciences; food and agriculture; transportation, distribution and logistics and manufacturing.

“Then, there are other opportunities that we saw in the pandemic. Companies — they want like a second headquarters. They don’t want everything in one location,” said Fassnacht, who doubles as Chicago’s $1-a-year chief marketing officer.

“So we’re reaching out more and more to companies to encourage them to look and consider Chicago as a second headquarters for you. Like some of the customer care and call-center opportunities that we successfully convinced Discover Financial Services to open up [in a shuttered Target store] in Chatham. It’s a huge opportunity for us — especially for our neighborhoods on the South and West sides.”

Fassnacht described Chicago as the “next big thing” in life sciences, but said we have a long way to go. The city of Boston is the first big thing, with roughly 35 million square feet of life sciences lab space in development, compared to Chicago’s 5 million square feet.

“I’m very, very bullish that Chicago will become one of the top, top leaders in life sciences in the world. … We think a huge opportunity [exists] in connecting all the real estate developers’ start-ups, with life science and health care to make sure we have enough lab space,” he said.

“One of our big constraints in the past is we didn’t have enough space for companies … that incubated in Chicago and had to leave Chicago because we did not have the right space.”

Similar growth potential exists in the food industry, which was one of former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s top recruitment targets.

Three years ago, Chicago was the headquarters home to fewer than 100 food companies. Now, that number has more than quadrupled.

“The pandemic has shown that food and agriculture is a tremendous growth sector. Money raised in venture capital that’s been invested in companies has been at an all-time high in 2021 and one of our biggest employee bases in this sector. We have the large firms like Mondelez, Conagra, Kraft. But we also have some amazing innovative companies,” he said.

During a hearing before the City Council’s Committee on Economic Development, Fassnacht told aldermen Chicago restaurants — twice forced to close their doors to indoor dining, then swallow strict capacity limits — also are coming back.

Citing numbers compiled by Open Table, Fassnacht said restaurants are “roughly back at 80 percent of pre-pandemic numbers.”

“The demand of people wanting to go to restaurants is there. The biggest constraint right now for restaurants does not seem to be the demand for customers, but the workforce,” he said, citing 145,000 open positions and only 125,000 people “looking for jobs.”

Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) serves with Fassnacht on the board of the convention and tourism agency known as Choose Chicago.

Just days before Thursday’s opening of the re-imagined and shortened Chicago Auto Show, Burnett asked how the convention and tourism comeback is going.

“We should be back to pre-COVID numbers by the end of the year. Conventions are lagging. But after September, we have strong bookings. And 2022 looks very, very promising,” Fassnacht said.

“Business travel seems to be coming slightly faster back than we expected. I think September to December for leisure travel will be strong. Conventions will lag. But 2022, the bookings we are seeing and the demands seem to be very promising.”