The City That Works (Even Better!): Emanuel's Strategy for Chicago Growth

To thrive, a city needs to collaborate with its suburbs. But bringing together the 14 counties surrounding Chicago will be a challenge -- even for someone as persistent as Rahm Emanuel.


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Rahm Emanuel was sitting with David Axelrod at a Chicago Bulls game Tuesday night, with Axelrod frequently checking his smart phone for Republican primary results while taking in a sport ruled by a 24-second shot clock. Pro hoops places a premium on quick, short-term tactics and execution -- the sort that most in the political sphere reflexively mirror.

It was thus a pleasant surprise to learn Wednesday morning that Emanuel, Chicago's hyperkinetic mayor and an obsessive when it comes to winning the next news cycle, was unveiling the sort of long-term economic strategy that is rather foreign to most elected officials.

"A Plan for Economic Growth and Jobs" is World Business Chicago's, a group hand picked by Emanuel, first run at devising a serious regional growth plan -- don't forget that key word, regional -- with the help of smart Emanuel buddies at the Brookings Institution, McKinsey & Company, and a Chicago planning group, Metropolis Strategies. Hey, you didn't figure that Emanuel would enlist the esteemed Bain & Company, did you, given the current political landscape?

A by and large impressively frank report assesses the strengths and many weaknesses in the economy of the third-largest city, which by some academic accounts is now the fifth or sixth most important global city economically, after New York, London, Tokyo, Singapore and perhaps Paris. It thus inevitably offers lessons and warnings for the rest of the country.

One vividly glaring reality: Chicago may kick butt when compared to most other U.S. cities, and indeed has been adding jobs lost during the recession, but last year "the Chicago region ranked 139th among the largest world metro areas in employment growth." Yes, 139th.

A sophisticated discussion of growth is hard to find during the hyperbolic early stages of the presidential campaign. It's easier to bash corporate America for sending jobs overseas, raise doubts about the value of higher education, fence over Mitt Romney's view of the auto bailout, or to wear rose-tinted glasses and talk about magically creating lots more manufacturing jobs here even as lower-cost and more productive supply chains around the world are kicking our butt.

If we did have a serious discussion, it could at least include debating the record and lessons of a December, 2010 "Global Metro Summit" convened in Chicago by the London School of Economics, Washington's Brookings Institution and Frankfurt-based Deutsche Bank. That gathering, which generated virtually no media attention, resonates in the new report.

In clear and obvious ways, the new Emanuel primer for Chicago's -- and inherently America's -- economic future takes the play book from the conference and runs with it, especially by buying into the notion of metro regions, not cities alone, being the essential economic units competing in the global economy.

In sum, that Chicago assemblage of hundreds of planners, public officials, philanthropists, educators, and business from around the globe laid out why America is quietly getting creamed as it offered intimate portraits of regional successes worldwide -- the likes of Barcelona, Seoul, Turin and Munich -- which have turned themselves around by thinking very long-term with a degree of regional cooperation generally foreign to us.

What successful cities worldwide have done is to convene officials of local, state and federal governments and devise long-range plans for a region, including trying to revitalize traditional industries, sharply improving the skills of workers by improving technical opportunities in school systems, and generally moving to a green economy and constructing high-speed transportation networks.

Those cities have often procured huge sums of money from both government and private investment coffers to improve infrastructure and create polytechnic colleges; invest in start-ups and create ongoing collaborations among private companies, researchers, government and venture capitalists. And they also made sure to build or revive downtown areas in ways alluring to an increasingly portable class of younger worker.

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James Warren is the Chicago editor of The Daily Beast and an MSNBC analyst. He is the former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune.

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