Lessons from the Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce’s study mission in Chicago

Jeff vonKaenel

What can we learn from Chicago? That is the question that I and 105 other Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce members wrestled with last week, during our four-day study mission in the Windy City.

We can learn a lot. Chicago has been successfully developing its riverfront with beautiful new condominiums, upscale restaurants and office space. Old unused manufacturing buildings have been transformed into hip new spaces. These spaces would look great in Sacramento and West Sacramento.

Receiving significant corporate and city support, Chicago’s art scene of festivals, parks and music venues has helped bring in both tourists and the ever-desirable college-educated millennials. Chicago believes these young people will attract high tech and other cutting-edge industries.

During our study mission, the need for business and government collaboration was repeatedly driven home. This scene was only made possible by all parties contributing funds, ideas and a willingness to overcome obstacles. The government played a key role, both by funding as well as by having a process that did not discourage initiative. Sacramento, with its NIMBY objections, could take a page from Chicago’s playbook.

But all was not roses. Like observing a powerful relative who has accomplished much but has left a wake of family and business disasters, one needs to learn from both the good and the bad.

And Chicago has both good and bad. With power concentrated in the mayor and business elites, things get done quickly. Throughout the study mission, virtually every speaker mentioned the mayor. Nothing happened without the blessing of the mayor. While this can be good, it is not so good when the mayor takes no interest in your project or neighborhood.

For years in Chicago, under Mayor Richard J. Daley from the 1950s to the ’70s, African-Americans were only allowed in certain parts of town. These parts of town did not receive their share of city services and jobs. These neighborhoods are still extremely segregated, poor and crime-ridden. In one of the neighborhoods I visited, there were 60 percent fewer people than 40 years ago. So few people and so many vacant lots that the innovative program we studied in this neighborhood was urban farming.

One of the high school boys I met here hoped to be the first of his brothers to graduate from high school. His dad was long gone, his mom was dead and both of his brothers were in trouble. His area is so dangerous that he could not venture far from home.

We should be proud that we live in one of the most integrated cities in the country. Chicago and Sacramento have similar average household incomes, but income inequality is much worse in Chicago.

This is the fourth Chamber study mission that I have participated in. All had excellent speakers, insightful tours and incredible walks. The Chamber staff did a wonderful job putting together the program and kept us busy from 7:45 a.m. until late in the evening. Having business leaders, elected officials and government employees coming together to learn about another city is a superb way to bring innovative, thoughtful projects to Sacramento.

We learned from Chicago and each other.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.