Despite a $500 billion gross regional product that would make it the 20th largest economy in the world, Cook County—home to the city of Chicago and its suburbs—has long had a reputation for getting in the way of economic development.
Corruption convictions at the county level have a lurid 150-year history that was the subject of a detailed report by the Better Government Association in 2010. Before the current administration, Forest Preserve employees had not undergone a job review in at least 15 years.
From the perspective of planners in the nation’s second most populous county, government was a stumbling block at best. But since Toni Preckwinkle assumed the role of Cook County Board President in 2010, her administration has begun to clean house. And urbanists are taking note.
“Cook County has just blossomed in the last two years under Preckwinkle,” said one analyst with a sustainable development group in Chicago. “In the past they were either non-existent in community development or, worse, a colossal impediment.”
The County previously had little in the way of a strategic development plan, rendering it ineligible for millions of dollars in federal funding through programs like Community Development Block Grants. In addition to remedying that omission, Preckwinkle’s administration has pursued policies of broad-based growth in this county, a county which is among the most economically and racially fragmented in the nation.
By consolidating county and city employment assistance programs, promoting car-sharing among employees, and rolling back the controversial sales tax hike enacted in 2008 by Preckwinkle’s predecessor Todd Stroger, the Cook County Board has begun to stem government waste. County Clerk David Orr and Commissioner Bridget Gainer, who also championed the land bank, successfully introduced the Lobbyist Sunshine Initiative in 2009, making lobbyists’ activities visible to the public through online reporting.
In approving the land bank, the County has signaled its willingness both to take action on pressing issues, and to get out of the way of stakeholders pursuing neighborhood revitalization. Land bank board members appointed this month include community lenders, conservationists, and advocates for the homeless—not just politicians and developers.
While the county’s problems are too large and longstanding for any administration to solve singlehandedly—economic inequality, urban sprawl, and a broken school system come to mind—its renewed commitment to soothing urban/suburban strife is a refreshing change in tone.
Last fall, Preckwinkle tasked the Council of Economic Advisors with promoting long-term economic growth in the region, and county initiatives indicate that the administration is moving ahead with development policies already. They are investing in broadband infrastructure and laying fiber optic cables between south suburban communities. The county has been uncharacteristically active in linking the suburbs and the city. Bike paths, trail projects, and freight infrastructure in the Calumet region are long overdue, and could help restore some economic vitality to the region.
Earlier this month, a judge dismissed litigation against the Forest Preserve District. Michael Shakman, a lawyer who successfully sued the city 35 years ago to stop political patronage, filed the motion to dismiss the charges, signaling a sea change in a division of county government long marred by nepotism and ineptitude.
Reforms so far must continue and be expanded upon before Cook County can be called a region in resurgence. But the progress is encouraging. At its best, a leaner, more responsive government at the county level can only clear the way for smart development. The rest is up to citizens.