When John Rowe, the recently retired chief of energy giant Exelon Corp. and one of Chicago's most active civic leaders, contemplates Mayor Rahm Emanuel's approach to business during his first year in office, he offers a succinct observation.
"Rahm's way of dealing with business is to look you right in the eye and say, 'I'll try to make a situation work for business, but you have to help me with my priorities,'" Rowe said. "There are dues to be paid, in the form of help with his NATO conference or help with his infrastructure program."
Building on a sturdy base of business support erected over two decades by predecessor Richard M. Daley, the brash, frenetic freshman mayor is reeling in business interests even tighter, observers say — pulling more of them onto his economic development boards and placing direct calls to suburban CEOs to try to sell them on the city, among other steps.
"He's putting a personal touch to the platform started by Mayor Daley," said Meredith O'Connor, a managing director at Jones Lang LaSalle who worked for the former mayor for 15 years.
Every big-city mayor picks a few significant to issues to push, and it's clear that Emanuel considers revitalizing the local economy to be critical to his success. But few mayors may be more skilled at orchestrating that kind of agenda than Emanuel, with his years of political experience on Capitol Hill and in the White House.
As year one in office draws to a close, Emanuel's laser focus on raising Chicago's image as a vibrant business capital is beginning to pay dividends, business executives say. Huge challenges remain, however, and only time will tell whether some of his bolder initiatives will help propel the city into greater global prominence.
"Like with everyone else, not every idea works," Rowe said. "You're going to have to judge him by a batting average, and I think it'll be a good one."
Observers say a number of mayoral moves already have begun to engender positive buzz about downtown as a location for white-collar jobs, among them his continuous shout-outs to companies that create jobs; the added corporate muscle at World Business Chicago, the city's business scout; the elimination of the so-called head tax on large employers; and the dramatic reduction in the number of required business licenses. Wooing manufacturers to the city remains a tougher sell.
"Frankly, I love his impatience," said Kevin Brown, president and chief executive officer of Chicago-born restaurant powerhouse Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises Inc. "I'm not a very patient person, so I love it."
Meanwhile, a number of dramatic initiatives, including hosting the NATO summit and forming an infrastructure trust to bring private money to public infrastructure projects, remain question marks. Fears of massive business disruption during the May 20-21 summit bubble beneath the surface, as does wariness about the fledgling infrastructure trust's potential to slip into the pinstripe patronage mode of years past.
"Who's going to get the bond work, what law firm will get work?" said Bill Hickey, president of Chicago-based Lapham-Hickey Steel Corp. "Will someone get his back scratched by a political connection?" A spokesman for the mayor vehemently disagreed with this point, saying safeguards have been built into the ordinance creating the trust.
And while Emanuel's first budget aims to cut the city's structural deficit, it does not eliminate it. That lingering issue, along with huge unfunded pension liabilities for the city, county and state employees continue to spook businesses. Emanuel traveled to Springfield on Tuesday to prod the Legislature toward trimming pension costs by pausing cost-of-living increases for retirees and by asking employees to kick in more toward their plans.
"Mayor Emanuel has not shied away from tough budget and financial issues," said Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, a fiscal watchdog group. "However, the city is not out of the woods financially."
The mayor's office said Emanuel has made "significant progress toward enhancing Chicago's economic climate so that businesses have the confidence to create jobs and invest in Chicago." Nearly 15,000 jobs were created at more than 20 companies during his first year, his office said.
Efforts will continue, his office said, aiming for the goals outlined in an economic growth plan unveiled in February that calls for accelerated growth in manufacturing and increasing the city's attractiveness as a center for business services and headquarters.
Gaining traction is critical for the city, which is lagging its counterparts nationwide in the pace of recovery, according to the Brookings Institution. In March, Brookings placed the Chicago area in the second-weakest quintile of the 100 largest metro areas. Its rankings are based on employment, economic output and housing-price trends.
Unemployment within the city stood at 9.9 percent in March, the most recent month available for city-specific data, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is down from 10.4 percent a year earlier, but still higher than the national rate of 8.2 percent in March.
With that gap as a backdrop, Emanuel has gone out of his way to tout instances of job creation at a succession of press conferences, even in cases where the city's involvement may have been minimal.
While the moves are hype heavy, they are welcomed by many business people, who say it helps shift perception. "The fact that he has announced almost every week that somebody is bringing jobs to Chicago, just that fact that he has talked about it, demonstrates his sensitivity," said David Vite, president and chief executive of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association.