Over the past 20 years, Chicago has made its way onto the international stage, especially as more local businesses expand globally and many overseas firms open outposts here.
For a city where many residents typically prefer a slice of tasty deep dish pizza over fine French cuisine, it’s been an impressive transformation from a homegrown manufacturing base to a globally oriented service sector economy.
But is it now time for local CEOs to act less like rugged individualists, following their own corporate or institutional agendas?
Could the entire city, including some of its poorest neighborhoods, prosper if the area’s commercial, academic, civic and cultural powerhouses got behind an overarching, comprehensive game plan to greatly advance Chicago’s allure as a global hub?
Those are some of the thought-provoking questions raised in a new task force report from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, which is exploring the Chicago area’s preparedness to compete worldwide in the coming years against other international cities including New York, London and Tokyo.
The task force doesn’t profess to have all the answers, but it delves into a complex issue — and one that needs to be taken up by business, civic and neighborhood leaders concerned about the city’s future place in the world.
One intriguing aside: Chicago already has a public-private entity, World Business Chicago, that is charged with working to win international investments. The task force applauds World Business’ accomplishments while advocating more aggressive global image-building and pushing businesses, universities, cultural and civic institutions to team up to prospect for worldwide opportunities.
The report rightly points out the growing financial impact that international trade is having on the local economy.
Area exports, for example, totaled $63.3 billion, or 11.3 percent of the metro area’s gross domestic product, and supported 421,806 jobs in 2014, the most recent year for which data were available.
That said, the report also dubs Chicago’s economy as a “stagnant giant,” that during 2000 to 2014 lagged behind both its global and U.S. peers — putting it 277th for growth performance among the world’s cities.
Could a new type of global strategy or business model jump-start the local economy?
The task force contends a plan that pulls together four major areas — commercial, academic, cultural and civic — would translate into greater international interest, and eventually, more business and other opportunities.
Moreover, the effort would help sharpen Chicago’s brand and marketing image as an international destination for business and commerce, making it more competitive with other U.S. cities including New York and San Francisco, which are viewed respectively as financial or technology meccas.
Just how this effort comes to life is one of the task force’s unanswered questions. It could be driven by a stand-alone organization, executed by city leaders or an existing business or civic group could take the point.
How it’s funded is another question mark the report doesn’t address, and that’s a biggie, too.
An example of this holistic approach is up and running in London.
In 2011, the city created a promotional vehicle called London & Partners, which puts economic development, tourism and the task of attracting foreign students under one roof. Companies, events or activities doing global business in London can work through this centralized group, cutting their expenses and red tape.
So far, the London program has been hailed as a success. But no city has done anything as comprehensive as the council’s task force is envisioning.
That’s what the Chicago area’s leadership types will have to get their minds around in the follow-up discussions to the report.
They will also have to deal with skeptics who will wonder if it is realistic to expect major companies and nonprofits to work so closely together. Whether it’s the public or private sector, competition and rivalries are a fact of life.
Moreover, City Hall may catch flak if it dedicates even limited financial resources to an international effort while other pressing local issues, including a crackdown on violent crime and school budget issues, still need to be resolved.
Taking all that into account, I think the council is on to something.
It is important that Chicago remains a top-tier international destination and commercial center. Any threat needs to be addressed.
Moreover, global trade is a tonic to the city’s image and a boost to an economy that’s in transition.
Local business, cultural and academic leaders should try to map out a comprehensive plan.
Right now, it looks like a trip that’s worth taking.