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Bailey says Chicago is in crisis. Pritzker declares city is on the rise. Who is right?

Chicago Tribune

Friday, August 5, 2022  |  Article  |  David Greising

Republican gubernatorial candidate Darren Bailey didn’t mince any words. “Chicago is a city in crisis,” he wrote in his opening to an op-ed in the Tribune this week.

That statement actually may be a measure of progress in Bailey’s assessment of the state’s biggest city. A couple of months ago, Bailey called Chicago a crime-ridden “hellhole.” And that itself was a slight improvement over his 2019 legislative effort to kick Chicago out of the state of Illinois altogether.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker sees the city quite differently. “Chicago and Illinois are open for business,” Pritzker said at a Thompson Center news conference last week. Pritzker’s proof point: Google’s commitment to move into the selfsame Thompson Center, a money pit of a public building that is nevertheless an architectural landmark.

With the redevelopment deal announced last week, the Thompson Center has a chance to morph into a productive role for the city and state. Today a costly lodestone victimized by a deferred-maintenance backlog totaling $525 million if not addressed by 2026, it potentially could anchor a revitalization of the northern part of Chicago’s Loop.

So who has it right — Bailey or Pritzker? And who has it wrong? Both of them, to both questions.

Pritzker’s exuberance over the deal to sell the Thompson Center is well earned. But giving credence to his effort to persuade us that Chicago is experiencing a tech-led economic renaissance requires a big set of blinders.

Yes, Google is making a huge commitment. Don’t discount that. But Boeing — which relocated its headquarters here after a high-profile beauty contest that pitted Chicago against Denver, Dallas and Seattle in 2001 — is decamping to Arlington, Virginia. And Caterpillar, a company that laid Illinois roots a century ago and set up a suburban Chicago headquarters just recently, is moving to Texas.

Those two high-profile companies are departing quietly, without casting aspersions. Not so the third recent departee, homegrown financial markets giant Citadel and its multibillionaire founder Ken Griffin.

In the months leading up to Citadel’s departure announcement, which came just days before Illinois voters rejected Griffin’s hand-picked selection for governor, Griffin laid out his bill of particulars. The wave of violent crime in Chicago, mismanagement of state and city budgets and pensions, bloated government payrolls and struggling schools all contributed to Griffin’s decision.

As for Bailey’s indictment of the city, it has elements of truth but does not entirely hold up either. In his op-ed, Bailey makes fair points about failures of law enforcement and education in Chicago, but a reliance on shaky evidence undermines his arguments.

As the Axios newsletter pointed out, Bailey errantly cited the defunding of Chicago’s police as contributing to the current crime wave. In fact, the city’s spending on police actually is up, to $1.9 billion in the current budget.

Unfilled vacancies, an overreliance on overtime, ever-shifting tactics, ineffective leadership and a failure to coordinate with the Cook County state’s attorney’s office all are contributing to poor police performance under Mayor Lori Lightfoot, but defunding is not the root of the problem.

Bailey also focuses on education, stating a case for school choice as a fix for the discouraging performance of public schools in the city. But the financial figures Bailey uses to support his claim of wasteful spending by Chicago Public Schools do not hold up to careful review.

Of course, it is no surprise that politicians competing for office will see the world differently. And politics is rife with sweeping statements that oversimplify complicated and contentious issues.

An alternative approach in the search for solutions to Chicago’s challenges is to drill down on specific examples and then draw lessons, where appropriate, about the best way forward.

The Thompson Center sale is a case in point. Dig into the $1 billion taxpayer benefit Pritzker claims, and we learn more than half of that savings comes from ducking the cost of curing the state’s neglect of that building over decades. In addition to that $525 million repair bill, a big additional chunk of the savings arises from consolidation of six leases into one and reduction of the state’s office footprint by close to 500,000 square feet. These things speak to wasteful and costly state real estate management over many years.

We cannot afford to overlook those failings. But it’s important, too, to learn from this case how old-fashioned Chicago can-do and creativity can solve seemingly intractable problems.

Governors going back to Rod Blagojevich tried to sell the Thompson Center. Gov. Bruce Rauner even cynically included a $300 million budget boost from a purely imaginary, hoped-for sale of the building. But now, under Pritzker, the Thompson Center is saved and sold.

Two leading Chicago real estate developers — Michael Reschke and Quintin Primo III — put together the deal to purchase and rehabilitate the Thompson Center for Google. Pritzker had the savvy and good sense to reopen negotiations and land a deal that’s simpler and more sensible than the one previously on offer.

Reschke and Primo will make plenty of money, no doubt, but such are the private market rewards for a deal they pulled together, where nobody else dared tread.

Chicago’s future is not nearly so bright as Pritzker would have us believe. Nor is it as dire as Bailey claims. But if private players like Google, Reschke and Primo can keep finding ways to work with public officials like Pritzker, there may just be a path toward better days ahead.

David Greising is president and CEO of the Better Government Association.