Chicago's business community, which repeatedly stood and delivered for Mayor Richard Daley as he reshaped a once-sagging industrial city, was shaken to learn Tuesday that he is stepping aside as the city once again faces dire financial challenges.
The mayor's announcement that he will not run for re-election in 2011 "is unfortunate at this point in time because we're still in a recession and a very difficult economic environment here," said Ronald Gidwitz, the former chief executive of Helene Curtis. "So having another level of uncertainty is not good for encouraging job growth."
This unsettled feeling is new to corporate and philanthropic Chicago. During Daley's 21 years in office, he built a tight relationship with business, and his agenda became their agenda in many ways.
"Business leaders have taken great comfort in his leadership and his willingness to build the city into its modern state, with his successes on the expansion of O'Hare Airport and McCormick Place and the creation of Millennium Park," said Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation.
And his ability to land the corporate headquarters of Boeing Co. and MillerCoors also "lent confidence to the business community," noted Gidwitz, who was a candidate in the 2006 Republican gubernatorial primary.
Time and again, corporate and philanthropic Chicago responded to Daley's calls to help finance projects aimed at urban revival, ranging from the creation of Millennium Park and inner-city charter schools to the city's unsuccessful bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics.
Some say business leaders were afraid to buck city hall and felt obliged to go along with Daley's pet projects, with many breathing a sigh of relief when the city lost its Olympics bid last fall. But others see a truer partnership over the years, with fruitful results.
"If I go out, all summer long, and walk along Michigan Avenue, the streets are full, (Millennium Park) is full of Chicagoans," said Marshall Bouton, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. "For the first time in its history, Chicago has a real commons where Chicagoans of all backgrounds … can come together and feel like part of the city."
Bill Brandt, a corporate turnaround expert who also is chairman of the Illinois Finance Authority, said Daley and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg stand out for a rapport with business "that is far beyond the norm."
But Daley will be exiting at a time when the city faces a budget shortfall of more than $600 million this year and huge liabilities for underfunded employee pensions, Msall noted.
"There are very few natural revenue options," Msall said, noting city residents already pay one of the nation's highest sales tax rates, at 9.75 percent. "And there's not much help from Springfield as it deals with its own financial crisis."
All of which points to the need for a "strong, fiscally responsible mayor," said urban planner Kim Goluska, president of Chicago Consultants Studio. Daley's departure also provides an opportunity for business leaders to take a greater role in setting the agenda, rather than taking marching orders from city hall, he added.
In weighing mayoral candidates, business leaders also will be looking for someone with an understanding of the global economy, said Jerry Roper, president and chief executive of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce.
"We need someone who can hit the ground running," he said. "The economy is not going to sit back and wait for someone to catch up."
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