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MURPHY: Chamber learned a lot from Chicago's leaders

CHICAGO — Chicago is known to some as “The Second City.”

To more than 70 Gwinnett County leaders who visited the city on the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce’s fifth economic development mission, Chicago is nulli secundus — “Second to None.”

Previous economic development study trips took the Gwinnett Chamber delegation to Fairfax, Va.; Dallas/Richardson/Plano, Texas; Raleigh/Durham, N.C.; and Denver.

The purpose of these trips has been to study best practices in regional and local planning, transportation, water resources, public education, arts and culture, and sports and leisure, and to bring the best of these ideas back to Gwinnett County for study and possible implementation.

The Chicago visit featured a day in Naperville, Ill., where we heard from leaders of Naperville North and Central high schools about a nationally recognized best practice of linking cardiovascular exercise to academic studies for high school students.

Also in Naperville, we explored the River Walk developed by volunteers in the early 1980s. This visual, artistic and environmental city centerpiece was developed with a vision to overlay public space and private investment for the benefit of the community’s 145,000 residents.

On day two, we focused on Chicago. Our visit began at City Hall in the chambers of the Chicago City Council. We heard from public and private developers about the benefits that have come from TIFs (tax increment funding, a version of Gwinnett County’s tax allocation districts) in creating an expansive range of city-wide projects.

Included in TIF development is a five theater area in the Chicago Loop known as “Broadway in Chicago,” begun in 2004 and now yielding $750 million in economic development for the city.

TIFs are also funding redevelopment of a site where U.S. Steel fabricated many components used to build Chicago’s array of majestic skyscrapers and iconic architectural masterpieces. This now abandoned site of 587 acres will transform a lakeside development and generate new jobs and redeem acres of dormant land.

Our visit to Chicago occurred after Mayor Richard Daley announced his plans not to seek re-election after 21 years in office.

Thus, leadership and succession planning of elected officials and volunteer community members were topics of keen importance to our Gwinnett Chamber group — and to those speakers we met in Chicago as they considered their fate and that of projects Daley championed.

These include public education, innovation in public/private ventures, transportation revitalization, reduction of crime and impact on public safety, and advocacy for arts, culture and the performing arts.

Throughout our study trip, we reflected on the risks taken by Chicago’s early and current leaders to create a city second to none. Our study encompassed Chicago’s dominance of railroad commerce, banking and stock exchanges, newspapers and publishing, and its support of entrepreneurs and innovators through venture capital, incubators and talent searches.

Lessons and best practices learned from this and other regional study visits sponsored by the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce include the following:

• Importance of leaders who take risks and the need for a community that supports them;

• Benefit of planning and strategic vision for the region as a whole;

• Value of “no small plans,” a lesson learned from early Chicago architect and planner Daniel Burnham;

• Importance of arts and culture to economic development;

• Significance of excellent public schools to the community’s quality of life;

• Recognizing the costs associated with maintaining economic development projects;

• Respecting a community’s history and using it as a platform for entrepreneurship, innovation, and creativity;

• Importance of involving the public in decisions to tax themselves for things they value;

• Linking K-12 education to business and industry leaders and entrepreneurs.

Mary Kay Murphy is a District 3 school board member and 2010 chair of the Gwinnett County Board of Education.