Greising: How Amazon Headquarters Hunt Changes as Emanuel Exits

Before Emanuel's surprise announcement to leave office, Chicago probably wasn't in the game for Amazon's HQ2. Now unleashed from the constraints of politics, he just might pay whatever it costs to get back in.

An Amazon delivery van in Chicago. (Interim Archives/Getty Images)

BGA President David Greising writes a regular column for Crain's Chicago Business.

Chicago's push for Amazon HQ2—it's dead. At least, that's what I thought when the news broke Sept. 4 that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel will not run for a third term.

Emanuel is the city's closer, his fans have told us. All deals begin and end with MRE, the shorthand insiders use to refer to hizzoner, Mayor Rahm Emanuel. He has been the essential person in luring McDonald's and Walgreens and Archer Daniels Midland and at least 50 more corporate offices downtown. Or at least the city's press releases have left that impression.

If that were so, the reasoning went, then the importance of his announcement to Chicago's standing in the Amazon sweepstakes seemed clear: no Rahm, no Amazon. Without him to woo, cajole and close, without the implied promise he would be there to deliver on commitments and move heaven and earth—and a few neighborhoods if needed—Amazon would take the safe road and count Chicago out.

Chicago was a long shot in the first place. That's what most outside the city's booster community believe. Me, too, and I haven't changed my mind. But for those who think Chicago still is in the game, hope springs eternal, and even the impending retirement of Emanuel can be converted into something good.

There is enough logic to their theory that it's worth airing, if not entirely believing. Their budding idea is that Emanuel's departure actually could work to Chicago's benefit.

Amazon, Salesforce and any number of major companies in the market for new corporate office space—or high-speed underground tunnels to O'Hare, for that matter—do not make their moves based on who holds the mayor's fifth-floor City Hall office, the thinking goes. Quite the contrary: These are decisions about dollars and cents; about a great symphony orchestra and world-class universities; about commute times, the beautiful lakefront, a burgeoning tech community and a livable downtown.

Add to that the fact that Emanuel is suddenly freed from the burdens of campaigning, and his sudden surfeit of spare time converts, ipso facto, into Amazon-wooing time. Each stump speech Rahm need not rehearse, each neighborhood Rahm need not visit, each commercial he need not shoot, the mayor can convert into extra calls, crunched numbers and twisted Amazon arms.

He can repackage Chicago's Amazon bid without concern for the political cost of offering another big corporate incentive deal. He can worry less about what will be said about billions for Amazon even as the surge of violent crime terrorizes Chicago's poor West Side and South Side neighborhoods.

Emanuel will be doubly motivated, too. For him, Amazon becomes a legacy play. "He has a chance to do some good for the city and the state," says Mark Peterson, chief executive of Intersect Illinois, the state economic development group that is involved in the Amazon bid.

And what can the mayor do with the time and political flexibility suddenly on his hands? What kind of magic might Rahm's wand wield? There are tax-increment financing districts and state economic development grants. There are training grants and education stipends and neighborhood opportunity funds. CTA stops cost a lot, but they're on the table, too. How do I know all this? Because most of this is in the package of perquisites, estimated at $2.25 billion, Emanuel already has on offer. With the free time he has, he can throw in additional inducements, too.

More must come if Chicago wants to stay in the bidding against the cities that are considered the top five competitors. And more certainly will come, now that Emanuel will have no political price to pay—or budgetary hole to fill—for bidding too aggressively for Amazon's second headquarters.

The betting favorite on the Amazon deal, the Maryland-based bid in suburban Washington, D.C., is offering a reported $5 billion. An Emanuel unfettered by political accountability could goose the Chicago package to get closer to Maryland's price.

I'm not saying this would be good for the city. It very well might not be worth the cost. But a play like this is not out of the question at all. The risk in the Amazon bidding contest may suddenly have shifted. Before Emanuel's announcement, Chicago probably wasn't in the game. Now unleashed from the constraints of politics, the mayor just might pay whatever it costs to get back in.

About the Author

David Greising

Greising is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. For the past 35 years, Greising has been a high-profile journalist locally and nationally, reporting on news such as the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, industrial accidents, corporate bankruptcies, government investigations, Illinois’ fiscal health, and community unrest following police actions.