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Chicago Has A Narrative Problem — Here's How Local CRE Leaders Plan To Fix It


On its face, Chicago and the surrounding suburbs look like an investor’s dream destination: at the center of the Midwest, attracting top talent from Big Ten universities, boasting a well-equipped transit system and sitting next to a massive freshwater source in Lake Michigan. 

But the area has an image problem, according to speakers at two events this week.

Panelists at Bisnow’s Future of the Chicago Suburbs event held at Bell Works Wednesday said the city and its surrounding suburbs have failed to sell themselves to people looking to pump dollars into the Windy City, allowing the national media and rival cities to push the narrative that the city is full of crime, has high tax rates and is a poor place to do business. 

A Chicago Loop Alliance event the next day embraced doing away with the same narrative, with Mayor Brandon Johnson committing his government to a revamp of State Street and other areas ahead of the Democratic National Convention in the city this summer.

Mayor Brandon Johnson

“Collectively, we need to take this opportunity and become a much more creative city, particularly in how we shape the Loop, because times are changing,” Johnson said at the Loop Alliance event Thursday. “As our conditions continue to evolve, including our workplaces, retail, education, leisure, we have the opportunity to be more transformative in what we do.”

Chicago has struggled with developmental direction without a unifying voice to guide the way and put forward a collective narrative, Cresa Senior Vice President Mark Kolar said at the Bisnow event.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle

“The problem that I think we've had over the past several years is that we've done a mediocre job of telling the story,” Kolar said. 

Intersect Illinois CEO Dan Seals said it has become fashionable to “beat up” on Illinois, and talking about the state in a negative light damages its business environment. While it is valuable to discuss how to make Illinois a better place to live, Seals said those talking points and criticisms serve as fodder for rival states to draw business away. 

“There is this old Greek philosophy — I don't know if it was Socrates or Plato — but the saying in English goes, ‘I can talk about my mama, but you can’t talk about my mama,’” he said. “That's what's happening. Other states are talking about us, and I think it has to stop.”

Intersect Illinois CEO Dan Seals

Many investors won’t even consider investing in the area because of its image issue, said Field Stern, managing director and head of U.S. multifamily investment at EQT Exeter. Stern said investors see news reports that paint the city in broad, negative strokes and don’t consider the nuance. 

“There's a common theme with Chicago in the fact that I could probably call 10 institutions right now and nine will say no to investing in Chicago, and the 10th might say, ‘You can send me the package, but it's highly likely a no,’” Stern said. “What's interesting is that all of them sit in a centralized office somewhere outside of Chicago simply reading headline risk.”

Part of the solution starts with educating people who might otherwise not consider investing in the area about its benefits, Stern said. That includes the abundance of fresh water from Lake Michigan — notably absent from investment hot spots like Phoenix — and the pipeline of top talent from the surrounding institutions like Northwestern University and the University of Chicago, he said. 

“I can have the best LinkedIn following, World Business Chicago can have a social media presence, but I respectfully submit that it's on all of us to change the narrative,” Choose DuPage President and CEO Greg Bedalov said.

Daniel Management Group's Roger Daniel, Choose DuPage's Greg Bedalov, Infuse Hospitality's Michael Schultz, Cresa's Mark Kolar, Somerset Development's Ralph Zucker and EQT Exeter's Field Stern

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle added that the region’s diverse economy and affordable living expenses compared to similar metros should make it attractive for corporate investment. She said these are aspects of the city that the area’s stakeholders should build on.

Preckwinkle began efforts to collaborate across multiple counties in 2023 with the formation of the Greater Chicago Economic Partnership, an alliance of Cook County, the city and six neighboring counties to advance economic growth and promote regional assets. The goal of the partnership is to make the region the “most business-friendly in the world,” she said. 

GCEP has a three-year pilot phase that will highlight the region's diverse talent and universities, incubators and startups to give the region a competitive global identity, Preckwinkle said. Each partner committed $1M as a part of the pilot, she said. 

Xfinity's Javier Jugo, Centennial's Sam Whitebread, 33 Realty's Molly Cox, the Southland Development Authority's Bo Kemp, Focus' Vicky Lee and Dermody Properties' Neal Driscoll

The city government is also making an effort to change the narrative about Chicago ahead of its looming date with the Democratic National Convention in August. 

At the Chicago Loop Alliance annual meeting Thursday, Johnson announced the city would launch a committee to revitalize the downtown area. The downtown economic growth advisory committee will provide business leaders, organizations and key stakeholders with a direct line of communication to the mayor’s office and all of the city's departments, Johnson said.

Part of its plan to revitalize downtown will also address the record level of commercial and retail vacancies in the area, starting by providing grants to seven proposed storefront projects through the city’s small-business improvement fund, he said. 

Brookfield Properties' Justin Lushing, Pacific Retail Capital Partners' Josh Dean, M&J Wilkow's Darcy Kennelly Rutzen and Somerset Development's Ken Gold

While the city still needs more investment to revitalize the central business district, Johnson said he was encouraged by Google’s $105M commitment to make the Thompson Center its Chicago headquarters and JPMorgan Chase’s decision to renovate its namesake tower

“I'm always glad that people are willing to bet on Chicago,” Johnson said. “It’s the best investment you can ever make.”