Chicago area businesses looking to move from suburban campuses

The suburbanization boom after World War II was not just about the movement of residences to the suburbs: it included a large migration of jobs and business headquarters to suburban locations, often large “campuses.” Crain’s Chicago Business suggests this trend may now be going in reverse as Chicago area business look to leave these suburban campuses:

Fleeing urban decay, companies like Motorola Inc., Allstate Corp. and Sears Roebuck & Co. built fortress-like complexes on the fringes of metropolitan Chicago. Jobs and residential development followed, fueling sprawl and congestion across the region.

Today, Sears Holdings Corp. and AT&T Inc. are looking to escape their compounds in northwest suburban Hoffman Estates. A shrunken Motorola has space to let in Schaumburg. Sara Lee Corp. eyes downtown office space after less than a decade in Downers Grove. Companies from Groupon Inc. to GE Capital hire thousands in Chicago while their suburban counterparts shed workers.

All reflect changes in the corporate mindset that spawned the campuses dotting outer suburbia. Empire-building CEOs from the 1970s through the 1990s craved not only cheap real estate but total control of their environments. They created self-contained corporate villages that cut off employees from outside influences.

As the 21st century enters its second decade, many companies are discovering the drawbacks of the isolation they sought. Hard-to-get-to headquarters limit the talent pool a company can draw on and feed a “not-invented-here” insularity that ignores major shifts in industries and markets.

This article suggests more corporations seek the opportunities that cities provide. Chicago certainly has opportunities – it was #6 in Foreign Policy’s 2010 global cities index. I wonder how much of this is driven by different factors:

1. Young people (college graduates, recent graduates) living in the city. We have some evidence that younger generations want denser environments and cultural opportunities. This would seem to go along with Richard Florida’s “creative class” idea that people and businesses move to exciting, innovative, culturally hip places.

1a. As a corollary, suburban places are no longer hip. These campuses are now decades old and involve stodgy suburbanites driving to stodgy workplaces. This is kind of interesting because the technology that would make instant connections possible may still not be enough to keep companies from relocating to the city.

2. Is there a particular business or city that has spurred this new thinking? If this has been shown to “work” elsewhere, it wouldn’t then be too surprising if other businesses followed suit.

3. Some have suggested that some businesses originally moved to the suburbs because their CEOs had already made the move and wanted their workplace to be closer to their homes. Could it be that CEOs and other important people in these corporations are now living in the city?

4. Tax breaks. This has been in the Chicago news recently with several companies, including Motorola and Sears, threatening to leave if they don’t get a better deal. Do these businesses get better incentives from the city of Chicago? Can increased tax breaks keep these campuses in the suburbs?

Leave a Reply