Does Motorola Mobility moving to Chicago weaken the suburbs?

With the news this past week that Motorola Mobility will be moving from Libertyville to downtown Chicago, a question arose: is Chicago’s gain the suburbs’ loss? Here is part of the discussion:

Rather than a zero-sum game of moving jobs from the suburbs to Chicago, Motorola Mobility’s planned relocation from Libertyville to the Merchandise Mart next year has many upsides. For one it’s another step for the city toward its goal of being a tech hub. That will not only give the company access to a coveted savvy urban workforce but also help Chicago stand out in the increasingly competitive global economy.

“The marketplace for knowledge-based industries favors dense, urban areas — it’s a global phenomenon,” said urban affairs specialit Frank Beal.

“This is not a choice between the city and the suburbs,” added University of Chicago economics professor Austan Goolsbee, “it is between Chicago and some other metro area.”

Goolsbee is correct if one takes a metropolitan view: it doesn’t really matter to the Chicago area if the headquarters is in the Loop or Huntley as long as the jobs, tax revenues, and prestige stay in the region. Yet, this is not so clear from a local perspective: Libertyville loses 3,000 local jobs and Chicago gains them. The mayor of Libertyville is disappointed:

The mayor of north suburban Libertyville says he’s disappointed Motorola Mobility has decided to move its corporate headquarters to downtown Chicago…

The mayor of Libertyville, Terry Weppler, said there are no hard feelings against Emanuel.

“I’ll put our community up against Chicago any day, you know, for any type of amenity whatsoever,” he said…

He said his next plans involve brainstorming what could fill Motorola’s giant corporate campus once it empties out.

I’m not sure Libertyville would win that battle of amenities. And it is clear that Chicago leaders are pretty happy.

But this may be part of a larger trend of large companies seeking out the more exciting and younger life of big cities:

The move brings jobs downtown — part of a reversal of fortune in which the city is now snatching corporations from suburbia. And as a result, a building type with a future that once seemed rock solid now appears under threat. United Airlines vacated its 66-acre Elk Grove Township headquarters — it even has tennis courts — for downtown Chicago beginning in 2007. The campus, designed by SOM, won three different American Institute of Architects awards since its completion in 1968.

The United Airlines campus is for sale. And it isn’t alone. On any given week, the internet and the back pages of trade journals are filled with “for sale” ads for suburban office parks and headquarters. It wasn’t always this way. Much like suburban shopping malls, these corporate utopias — air conditioned, new, private and safe — were once very much the hottest thing around. From the 1960s through the end of the 20th century, corporations — Motorola, Sara Lee, and more — left Chicago for a new life in the ‘burbs.

But now things are changing. Corporations are downsizing and the new generation of workers does not want to toil in the suburbs. A story last week in the Boston Globe discusses how young workers in the tech and creative fields prefer working in cities and getting to work by public transit.
This would fit with recent data suggesting younger adults are not as interested in the suburban life of the Baby Boomers. But it could take some time for suburban communities to figure out what to do with these large office complexes (see an earlier post about the fight in Hoffman Estates about tax breaks for the incomplete Sears complex) , particularly in a down economy where many shopping malls and lifestyle centers are having difficulty.

Of course, the tax breaks to stay in Illinois are still intact with the move:

But Mobility executives pledged a year before the Google takeover to keep Mobility’s well-paying engineering, finance, marketing, design and executive jobs in Illinois so Mobility could benefit from statewide tax credits worth more than $100 million over a 10-year period.

Gov. Pat Quinn said at a news conference in Deerfield that he gave Google “permission” to move from Libertyville to downtown Chicago, since that was the location Google preferred.

Pat Quinn has to provide his permission?

In the end, I would say that moves such as these are not necessarily bad but they could have negative consequences for the community that large corporation is leaving. Just as the big cities of America were hurt by the move of corporations to suburban office parks after World War II, there are negative consequences for suburbs when the move is made in reverse. It will be interesting to see how these moves add to or re-energize urban life. For example, one could look at how many of the Motorola Mobility employees will move to the city after their job moves there. Similarly, is there a way to quantify how much better Motorola Mobility will do once it is located in the city rather than suburbs?

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  1. […] I posted Sunday about Chicago gaining Motorola Mobility and the suburbs (Libertyville) losing the firm. It is not too surprising that the Daily Herald, a newspaper serving Chicago’s suburbs, is not too fond of the move but they make a larger claim in an editorial: there isn’t much evidence yet that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is committed to “regional partnership.” But today, Gov. Pat Quinn and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel play by a different set of rules. This isn’t the first time Emanuel has raided suburban business with no significant attempt to forge any sort of regional partnership. […]

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