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Emanuel embraces economic plan to move past city's ‘lost decade'

Mayor Rahm Emanuel talks about the newly released " Plan for Economic Growth and Jobs", created by World Business Chicago, to drive Chicago's leadership in the global economy and articulate clear, actionable strategies for economic growth and job creation, At WaterSaver 701 W. Erie. Wednesday, February 29, 2012. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

Chicago is emerging from a “lost decade” economically and needs to take bold action to avoid a repeat over the next ten years, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Wednesday.

The mayor offered that candid, but bleak assessment as he accepted and embraced a ten-year blueprint for revitalizing the area’s moribund economy.

Emanuel noted that Chicago roared into the 21st Century with underlying strengths: a diverse economic base with “no single sector” responsible for more than 13 percent of total employment; a “highly educated” pool of nearly four million workers and a central location and infrastructure that has made the city an established hub for air and rail transportation.

Despite recent population losses, Chicago is also the nation’s only city projected to become a new “megacity” – with a “metropolitan population” of more than ten million people – by 2030, the report states.

“We had a lot of strengths. But in the first decade, we as a city and a region lost economic might. Without wanting to cast judgment why and how, it was a lost decade. That was true for the country. It was true for Chicago,” Emanuel said.

“We’re coming out of that decade with some core strengths. [But], if we do not focus on those, we’ll have another decade that’s lost economically – both in economic power, economic growth and job growth ultimately. So, the goal of the report is to give us a blueprint, establish our north stars and make sure that we don’t have another decade piled onto the first one that’s lost from an economic standpoint.”

The 60-page report was developed by World Business Chicago, the not-for-profit economic development corporation that Emanuel tripled in size to help him attract new companies and create sorely-needed jobs.

It outlines ten different strategies to “create next-generation infrastructure” and make Chicago: a leading hub in advanced manufacturing; a center for business services and headquarters; more competitive as a leading transportation and logistics hub; a premier destination for tourism and entertainment and a nationally-leading exporter with an environment where businesses in general and entrepreneurs in particular can flourish.

Other strategies would: develop and deploy neighborhood assets to align with regional economic growth and create “demand-driven and targeted workforce development” to give displaced workers and new graduates the skills they need to fill the jobs of tomorrow.

Those efforts are already well underway and gained momentum this week with the creation of five science, technology, engineering and math high schools that will allow students to graduate in six years with an associate’s degree.

At a news conference Wednesday to unveil the report, Emanuel homed in on the need to rebuild Chicago’s aging infrastructure.

The report talks about the need to create “innovative, merit-based systems to finance infrastructure,” make “transformative investments” and support both maintenance and operations.

It somewhat ominously states, “Systems for planning and financing capital infrastructure investments can only be effective if they identify and acquire new sources of capital, prioritize infrastructure investments that further the goal of economic growth and are transparent, accountable and performance driven.”

“There’s no guarantee that, because you are today a transportation, distribution logistics juggernaut that you will be that tomorrow. Those days of sitting and resting on your lead are over. You have to build, invest, strengthen your economic muscle so you get stronger. You cannot just rest on a lead,” the mayor said.

“Every investment I’m making – whether it’s in our public transportation system, investing in our airport, our rail or our roads – is to move goods and people and services quicker and more efficiently so we can have a 21st Century economy sitting on a 21st Century infrastructure. And we can’t say that to date.”

The mayor said he would “have more to announce” about infrastructure projects “in the weeks ahead.” He argued that “having the most efficient physical infrastructure with the most productive, trained workforce” is the “recipe for success of an economy.”

“You can’t buck a national trend, but you can take your strengths and ride ‘em hard and we haven’t had that to date,” the mayor said.

Emanuel also vowed to work with Gov. Pat Quinn and the Illinois General Assembly to address the pension crisis that’s choking the state and threatens to saddle the next generation of Chicago property taxpayers with a debt they cannot afford.

“I ran on and I believe pension reform honorable to the workers who rely on it, honorable to the taxpayers on the hook for it is required, both for the budget, but most importantly for our economic competitiveness,” the mayor said.

“That unknown uncertainty affects business decisions. Do I expand here? It’s an uncertainty. We have to deal with it. It’s difficult, but it’s essential and it has to be respectful to all parties at the table.”

Michael Sacks, vice-chairman of World Business Chicago, said Emanuel has already moved to implement some of the strategies by launching a colleges-to-careers makeover of the Chicago City Colleges and by merging two major tourism organizations to free up $1.3 million to market Chicago nationwide and overseas with a more coordinated game plan.

“There are going to be more initiatives that will come and continue to come forth as we go forward. That’s exciting. … No one wanted to be part of a process that, although in and of itself extremely valuable, didn’t have actionable items,” he said.

Sacks said there are “a number of ways to be creative” to finance infrastructure projects at a time when state and federal funding is declining, but he declined to articulate them.

“Rather than speculate on potential initiatives, let’s wait and see” what the mayor does, he said.

Sacks is an investor in and board member of Wrapports LLC, which owns the Chicago Sun-Times.