With the news this week that Aon Corp. is moving its headquarters from Chicago to London, a familiar question arises: will Chicago take a hit to its image as a world class city?
“It is appropriate to ask that question, not as a general hand-wringing kind of thing, but in the classic 120-year or more tradition of Chicago,” said urban strategist Paul O’Connor, a former deputy director of the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Development who was founding executive director of the 13-year-old World Business Chicago.
“You do have a special case here in Chicago insofar as the business leadership has for at least 120 years been intimately involved in the strategic growth and development of the city as an international center,” O’Connor said. “This is a phenomenon you don’t find historically in any other big American city. So the capabilities of the leadership of Chicago business to affect long-term outcomes of global competitiveness and whether this remains an easy place to attract the top level of talent, that’s the core issue.”…
“There are underpinnings that matter,” O’Connor, now with architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, said from China, where he’s working on a project. “You look through the board of Aon. These people were like the college of cardinals of Chicago boosters. So if you’ve got a good explanation that you can pick up (more money) by doing this, great. But if those college of cardinals of Chicago boosters don’t stay on it and make sure that you are a competitive business environment, then things do erode. … You’ve got to stay hungry.”…
“The thing you have to look out for is that you don’t slip (as a city in the world’s eyes),” O’Connor said. “That’s why everybody should be saying the rosary to make sure everything goes nicely at the NATO/G-8 (meetings set to bring international leaders and protesters to Chicago in May), so you don’t send bad messages. On the one hand, you have reality, which really matters. On the other, you have perception, which also matters, but I’d rather have reality over perception.”
The issue here seems to be perceptions, not the reality that Chicago still contains a number of headquarters. The reality is that Chicago truly is a world-class city – one 2010 ranking had Chicago at #6 in the world. The moves of highly visible companies might be problematic for politicians who have to create and defend a record on jobs but Aon moving to London will not knock down Chicago a notch unless multiple companies follow suit.
At the same time, perceptions are important. Maybe the better question to ask here is why Chicago needs to keep reaffirming its status as an important city. Perhaps it goes back to that “Second City” nickname that put Chicago behind New York but is also a reminder that Los Angeles has zoomed ahead in population (and status?) as well. Perhaps it is because Chicago knows it is part of the Rust Belt and has been a rare city that has been successful despite the loss of many manufacturing jobs. In the end, why doesn’t have Chicago have more confidence in its standing? The nervousness might motivate Chicago to pursue greater things but it also looks silly at times.
My verdict: Chicago will be fine. That doesn’t mean the city shouldn’t continue to try to woo new corporations or help encourage new start-ups. At the same time, Chicago should operate from a position of strength, selling the better aspects of Chicago, rather than a posture of weakness where any move might topple Chicago from the circle of great cities.