Metropolitan Chicago is one of the world’s great economic centers; however, we cannot take our quality of life for granted in the years to come. Stark new economic and environmental realities require the region and its communities to set priorities carefully. As a result, the GO TO 2040 comprehensive regional plan was designed to guide development and investment decisions through mid-century and beyond for Chicago’s seven-county metropolitan region. The plan’s implementation will be led by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP).
The goal of GO TO 2040 is to strategically align public policies and investments, and maximize the benefits of scarce resources as the region adds more than 2 million new residents by 2040. The plan reflects more than three years of research and careful deliberation by CMAP, its partners, and stakeholders, and includes feedback from more than 35,000 residents.
JCF Real Estate‘s Paul Robertson and Steve Chrastka recently spoke with CMAP’s Executive Director Randy Blankenhorn regarding how Kane County and its communities can benefit from implementation of GO TO 2040.
Paul Robertson: What is the GO TO 2040 plan and does it predict what will occur in the Kane County area over the next 10, 20, 30 years in terms of commerce, demographics and other areas of growth?
Randy Blankenhorn: GO TO 2040 doesn’t actually attempt to predict the future. That’s a crystal ball that we don’t have. What we do, rather, is layout policy issues that we think will drive decisions throughout the future. GO TO 2040 is about saying here’s what we need to do to create the kind of business environment where all types of business can be successful.
We talk a lot about what we expect needs to happen in terms of economic development, in terms of demographics, etc. The population is going to be
older and it’s going to have significant minority populations in all parts of our region. So this plan talks about that demographic shift and the importance in planning for it. Additionally, how do we think about that in terms of business and economic development? We look for a region that offers jobs throughout all parts of northeastern Illinois. It’s key that we’re not a one-company town.
Robertson: That’s the industry clusters that are mentioned in the GO TO 2040 plan?
Blankenhorn:Precisely. We must look at where our strengths are, and where we think those strengths are going to be over the next 30 years as we build on those strengths. For example, in regard to green technology and where we go in the new technologies of the future, I think there are significant decisions that this region needs to make about how to get into that kind of business. Everybody wants to be the green economy center of the world. What makes us special is that we already have a solid manufacturing base here. We already have a distribution network. We have a strong workforce, but we need to make sure that it is always adaptable to the evolving needs of our business community.
Robertson: What is the GO TO 2040 plan’s vision for Kane County in terms of residential, retail and commercial aspects?
Blankenhorn: We expect significant growth in Kane County. We’re going to add 2 million people to this region over the next 30 years. That growth needs to be focused in existing communities, including those in Kane County, which has a distinct character that residents want to see preserved. We need to think about residential patterns, about how to use infrastructure that’s available, and about some of the mixed-use developments like the Corporate Reserve that you’re doing in St. Charles (a 50-acre business park developed by JCF). We need tobring jobs and houses closer together, reduce peoples’ commute time and improve theirquality of life.
Robertson: So what does GO TO 2040recommendin terms of stimulating economic growth in Kane County?
Blankenhorn: I think there are a number of factors that contribute to the economic strength of the region in general and to Kane County in particular. The first is infrastructure. We’ve got aging infrastructure that we need to take care of. To a certain extent the economy of northeastern Illinois exists because of transportation and because of where we’re located in a national and international global network, so we’ve got to take care of what really is
our economic advantage, and that is our transportation infrastructure.
The second is we have recommendations about what we need to do for workforce development. We start that discussion with education. We need to do a better job of educating our children. We need to be training for tomorrow’s jobs and not yesterday’s jobs. The workforce development system, while it works well in some parts of the region, doesn’t work well across the board. We need to get business more involved in it. We really need to talk about streamlining it and making it more efficient.
The other part of what makes business work is when we talk about what we call livable communities. We must continue to make our communities strong and economically attractive not only to businesses, but to the workers who want to live there and raise families. We must continue to think about how we deal with making our community the kind of place where people want to stay and be on the cutting edge of innovations. We’ve got to find better ways for government to support our innovation while at the same time staying out of the way when it’s appropriate. Innovation doesn’t happen because the government makes it happen. It happens because private industry makes it happen. So we need to change the way the government supports private investment and research and how we raise more venture capital to allow businesses to succeed. Our communities aren’t competing against one another these days — St. Charles against Schaumburg, or Joliet. Together we’re competing against Brazil and India and China for businesses and jobs. We need to be on the cutting edge.
Steve Chrastka: Just a follow-up on what you are saying here. Can you give us an example of where you see this community education coming from?
Blankenhorn: I do think it comes a lot from the existing organizations that are out there – economic development organizations or commerce organizations. How government relates to business has to change. That won’t happen just because we wish for it, however. It’s got to be a joint effort between businesses and government. We’ve got great thinkers here in this region. We’ve got the business community that thinks a lot about what
tomorrow ought to be, and we need to harness that energy. How do we bring smart people together that are thinking about new technologies to talk about how we move from that idea into making something happen? Chambers can play a huge role in making that happen, but it’s also a role that the government has to be supportive of.
Robertson: Following on that same thought, what kind of industries does the GO TO 2040 plan think will become more and more prominent tenants within areas like Kane County?
Blankenhorn: I think you all are seeing this in what you’re doing out in St. Charles. Business and financial services are going to be a key part of our economy. We also see opportunities in an information age, and not everybody has to be downtown Chicago to make this work. And there is real opportunity for health care, health care issues and health care provision as a key part of job growth in the metro area.
Additionally, we don’t want to give up on manufacturing. Some people may tend to think we don’t have any manufacturing left in metropolitan Chicago, and that’s certainly not true. There are many examples in Kane County of successful manufacturing that’s still happening. How do we turn that into advanced technologies and advanced manufacturing? The bottom line is that we’ve got to create an environment in which all kinds of industries can be successful in northeastern Illinois. We can’t become dependent on a small handful of sectors, but rather we must have a diverse economy that can work across the region.
Robertson: How could GO TO 2040’s land-use recommendation influence development of Kane County?
Blankenhorn:I think there are great examples of the new downtowns, as we talk about in the plan, seen in St. Charles, Geneva, Batavia, and others in Kane County. It’s a place people don’t just pass through, but rather a place where people stay and gather, a place where people live. We think the fact that they are right on the river, with the parks and walking and biking trails make it attractive. So how do we think about that throughout Kane County? How do we think about making a downtown that thrives and not putting our businesses out 5 miles on the highway? Let’s make it easier for people by usingthe infrastructure that we have and not building more than we need.We need more compact development to make transit work better, to make our communities walkable, to make it easy to get around. GO TO 2040 is not saying that everybody has to live in a small home and a small condo or apartment — the nice thing about our communities is the diversity of the land uses. In general if we get more compact we will become more efficient.
Robertson: What advantages and challenges does Kane County pose for companies and developers looking for sites for their businesses and more developments?
Blankenhorn: I think one of the advantages is there still are opportunities to put tracts of land together. It’s harder and harder to put property together, and we’ve got to make that simpler across the region. Also, redevelopment is important. Over the next 30 years almost all of our towns are going to redevelop in some manner; and we’ve got to be willing to make that a priority. I think one of the advantages is how you can put the appropriate pieces of property together for the appropriate businesses.
Now, part of the negative is how do we make sure we have a full workforce, a workforce for all parts of the economy that’s going to happen out there? How do we provide the kind of housing stock that allows our workers to live close to where they work? I think those are challenges. Too often decision makers think about transportation congestion only on the expressway system and heading into Chicago in the morning and out of Chicago in the afternoon. It’s also about local congestion on arterials, and we’ve got to do something about that. We must make access to transit better in Kane County, and I think they are trying. They’re talking about things like Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), which I think is a real option. It’s not so much the downtown-to-suburb commutes, it’s the suburb-to-suburb commutes that were not doing very well at, and that ties up our arterial highways. The challenge now for Kane County is how do they incorporate public transit into the planning of new development, and how do they make it so people don’t have to get into their car for every trip that they take.
Robertson: How will CMAP implement its recommendations for economic development?
Blankenhorn: That’s the tough part. CMAP alone cannot implement any of these recommendations. It’s going to be through the work of our business partners, it’s going to be through the work of our local government partners and our civic partners, and as much as anything through the work of our residents and real estate professionals to make this happen. When we talk about the economic development components, it’s crucial that our business community, our local governments and our residents own the GO TO 2040 plan. CMAP can guide them and give them assistance, but they have to believe that it’s the right thing to do.
Robertson: And you had mentioned in the report the coordination of the different levels of government.
Blankenhorn: Yes. We lead the world in the number of units of government here in northeastern Illinois, and it’s a dubious distinction. We’ve got to do a better job of coordinating services, for two reasons. The first is that it’s simply inefficient, and our taxpayers deserve more efficient government. The second is that it’s not very accountable anymore. People don’t even know who to call when they have a problem; they get bounced around from agency to agency, and it really hurts people’s faith in government. By delivering those services more efficiently, our governments may be able to avoid slashing services that are important to residents. That’s really what that part of the plan is about. The federal government’s and the state government’s job is to help us solve our own problems, not try to fit our problems into their solutions. And that’s really where we’re headed with that coordinated government work.
It’s important to note that many of our recommendations don’t lend themselves to overnight fixes. It’s a long-range plan for the next 30 years. If we don’t start to act now, however, if we don’t start making some movement in the right direction now, it just doesn’t happen. We are where we are, good and bad,is because of decisions that were made 30 years ago, and we have to make good decisions today so that we have a better economy and better communities 30 years from now.