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Leaders Envision Chicago’s 2016 in “Back to the Future” Panel

City leaders’ dreams that the 2016 Olympics would come to Chicago ended in October, but their hopes for the economic development, job creation and neighborhood expansion the Games would have brought to the city are alive and well.

On a snowy afternoon on Feb. 9 at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, Chicago’s Neighborhood Development Awards hosted a “Back to the Future” panel in which experts discussed the opportunities and challenges that Chicago must meet head-on to achieve economic development.

Ald. Toni Preckwinkle (4th), the newly nominated Democratic candidate for Cook County Board president, joined Scott Myers of World Sport Chicago, Raul Raymundo of the Resurrection Project, and Robert Weissbourd of RW Ventures in a discussion about what Chicago will look like in 2016 and what needs to be done to address job development and neighborhood restructuring.

It didn’t take long for education to rise to the forefront of the discussion. Preckwinkle, a former high school teacher, made it very clear that education needs to become a top priority in Chicago.

“It reflects very badly on the adults and the city that we have let the problem come to this,” she said. “Less than half of our young people graduate high school, and not having a diploma makes their future very difficult.”

Raymundo agreed. He said the graduation rate for the Hispanic population is significantly worse.

“Education is critical for our young people,” he said. “Education is critical to economic growth and development. We need to take a serious look at our education system. Reform and real action are necessary.”

Greg Hinz, the moderator for the event, noted quickly that everyone used the word “education” in their opening addresses. He then asked the panel if that was an indication of what Chicago’s most fundamental problem is: Are our young people not prepared for the workforce? Are they not educated?

Preckwinkle quickly took the question. She said she didn’t mean to “be a broken record,” but all children should receive a quality education and it is this education that is critical for all business growth.

“One of the complaints I hear from local businesses is that it is hard to find good employees,” she said. “The implication being that kids who come looking for jobs couldn’t read very well and didn’t have basic math skills. The most important factor to business growth is education.”

Weissbourd said education is vital to the success of any economy. His example: a half-percent increase in the college education rate of an area’s population would mean a 1 percent increase in regional profit.

“The single biggest impact on economic growth is human capital, and that is expressed in education,” he said. “If you have one investment in your economy, education is it.”

Raymundo said the Hispanic high school drop out rate is near 75 percent and less than 10 percent attend post-secondary school. But he said the Hispanic population is doing more in terms of opening their own businesses.

“Not everyone’s life path is to college,” he said. “We need to do more with workforce training; we need to prepare our young people for the workforce.”

Midway through the panel discussion, Hinz said, “We need money to survive.” He then said Chicago is not keeping up with the nation and asked if there was indeed a positive legacy to 2016.

Preckwinkle, a self-proclaimed “avid supporter” of the 2016 bid, said she, like the rest of Chicagoans, was disappointed when Chicago lost the Olympic bid, but she said the focus needs to shift to what’s next.

“We need to focus on the aftermath of the 2016 bid,” she said. “We need to figure out what our own 2016 should be. We have to find some consensus around this effort to have our own plan as a city, as a business community, as neighborhoods, as economic development organizations to transform the communities that we live in.”

Raymundo stressed that the key factor in real economic development has been the growth of the immigrant population in Chicago. He said comprehensive immigration reform, which, he noted, President Barack Obama supported during his campaign, is necessary.

“We need to unleash some of the talent that is out there, but so many people are unable because of their immigration status,” he said. “In Illinois in 2008, the Hispanic population generated $40 billion; $370 million of that was in Chicago. This is important information to understand how to build a strong economy.”

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Chicago turned into a global economy and did well, Weissbourd said. But in the past 10 years, Chicago has become “stagnant” and is trailing behind most other cities.

“It is very important to get more strategic about what we are going to do with our metropolitan economy,” Weissbourd said. “Until the crash, our neighborhoods were by and large coming back, but the crash really knocked the neighborhoods out. Regional development is dependent on neighborhoods. You have to understand that these key components work together.”

Myers, who was a part of the the city’s Olympic bid team, said there are alternative routes to building the economy in Chicago. He said sports is one of the tools that Chicago can use to bring people and business into the city.

“By expanding on some of the strengths and capabilities here in the city, we can develop innovative programs that are not only good for our kids, but can also help be a foundation to strengthen our neighborhoods and attract further business into our neighborhoods,” Myers said.

There was no clear solution to the stalling economic development in Chicago, but Weissbourd said there is no reason for every neighborhood to reinvent the wheel.

“A lot of the same problems apply in every neighborhood,” he said. “It is time we start planning for both the short term and long term. We are headed in the right direction, but we still have a long way to go.”

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