Chicago Is Only As Good As It’s Hot Dog Stands

When I got my first job out of college, my sales territory was bordered by 95th street on the south side, Dixon, IL on the west, Racine, WI on the north and Lake Michigan on the east.  I was selling all kinds of stuff for 3M ($MMM) to aftermarket auto shops.

One thing I have noticed over time is that Chicago is a destination city.  Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York are port cities.  Immigrants and people come through those cities constantly.  That has created a large difference in culture.  Because Chicago isn’t as transient, people worry about where you are from and that becomes who do you know a lot quicker than in other places.

I got to see a lot of the city I had never seen before.  I noticed, there were differences in people.  South siders are not like north siders.  It’s more than just baseball allegiances.  They have different ways of interacting.  Western suburban people are not like northern suburban people.

But, one thing I saw that all Chicagoans had was that they wanted a better life for themselves and their family.  They were all hard working stick to it Midwesterners.  They were loyal.  I am reminded of that when I look at some data, and when I read things like this in Crain’s.

The trickle of people leaving Chicago has started to turn into a small stream.  We are losing population.

Why?  Our startup community is growing.  Funding is up and the prospects are extremely bright.  There are a lot of great businesses growing here.  The city has tremendous access to talent.  Some of the nation’s top engineering and business schools are a within a 2-3 hour drive away.  If there is one city that exemplifies the Big 10, it’s Chicago.  Every school has a strong presence here.  The workforce is highly skilled.

It’s not the people, it’s city government.  It’s the byzantine rules, regulations and fees that anyone has to pay to get a business going.  I am not talking startup businesses, but great independent Mom and Pop businesses that add to the economic vitality of the city.  They give the city fabric and depth, and a sense of place.  Crain’s says,

Small businesses can bring a steady stream of opportunities into Chicago’s neighborhoods, infusing them with new flavors and innovative ideas, while making city streets safer and local jobs more plentiful. But Chicago’s notoriously complicated regulations create bottlenecks, reducing that stream to a trickle.

These businesses have a trickle down effect.  They create jobs, and those jobs create income that go into schools, streets, housing and other building blocks.  They create demand to come to Chicago.  How many people lined up night for Great Lake Pizza before it closed?  How many people made a pilgrimage to Chicago after reading about it?  More than you think.

The two mayoral candidates are sparring over different issues.  They might be talking about infrastructure and other things but there are only two critical issues on the table.  Pensions and economic opportunity.  I am voting for Rahm Emanuel because he has the only feasible ideas when it comes to those two issues.  If Mr. Garcia is elected, someone might as well issue a financial death certificate for Chicago.

If I were Mayor Emanual, I would go a lot further and create charter schools with a voucher system and slash the size and scope of city government-decreasing the cost.  I’d turn guaranteed public pensions into a 401(k) style system. Mayor Emanuel has only dipped his toe in the water.  Believe it or not, he has tried to skirt a lot of controversy and change slowly.  It’s gotten him an election runoff so I hope he goes a lot faster in his second term.

Chicago has a long cultural history of being very tough on local Mom and Pop businesses.  That’s has to change overnight to stem the stream of people leaving.  They aren’t leaving because they don’t love Chicago.  They are leaving because they have concluded that there is better economic opportunity somewhere else, and the opportunity costs of them staying are too high.