Photo by Sylvia Hall
Chicago’s industries and businesses are so diverse and broadly based that its economy is similar to the U.S. economy, according to Tom Bartkoski, director at World Business Chicago.
Which means it’s not surprising that Chicago’s recovery is moving similar to the rest of the country, according to William Testa, vice president at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.
Graphic by Crain’s Chicago Business
“It appears that Chicago is sharing in the economic expansion about apace of the United States,” Testa said.
The industrial diversity means that Chicago’s economic recovery will rely on the recovery of Chicago’s businesses and industries as a whole, Bartkoski said.
“With a diverse economy your eggs aren’t in one basket, so in terms of the ups and downs of the economy, we’re not tied to one particular sector,” Bartkoski said. “That’s good when one sector is down. You don’t do as well when that sector is up.”
Here is a breakdown of some of Chicago’s main economic sectors.
The Chicago area accounts for a large portion of the national pharmaceutical employment—about one out of eight employees, according to Bartkoski.
“That’s a large sector and it’s one that involves a lot of moving parts, because you not only have the big pharmaceutical companies but you have smaller firms, the research firms, the research hospitals, the universities,” he said. “It’s a pretty significant slice of the economy here.”
And it’s not all drug development, Bartkoski said. The industry also encompasses important aspects such as research and general pharmaceutical production, which all employ people.
Recently, Chicago has attempted to raise its visibility in the industry through measures such as hosting a prominent biotechnology conference.
Photo by Kevin Sue
The excessive homebuilding in the United States also affected Chicago, which is experiencing a low demand for retail construction.
“The homebuilding residential sector is still very moribund and weak in the Chicago area,” Testa said. “The overbuilding that took place was greater than in a lot of the surrounding cities in the Midwest.”
All of this adds up to too many available houses, he said.
“[Residential home] retail sales have been weak,” Testa said. “So it will take some while even after sales have recovered before homebuilding starts to be pulled along.”
Additionally, there was some overbuilding of retail strip development that went along with the home development, he said.
Photo by Kevin Sue
Chicago has a tremendous cargo industry that spans road, rail and air, Bartkoski said.
The recession may have hurt the demand for goods, which means less freight was carried, but railroads still have a stronger outlook than compared to the sluggish 90’s. Good news for Chicago, Bartkoski said.
“We are the rail hub of the United States,” Bartkoski said. “We are the location where the eastern railroads and western railroads come together. So that puts us in a unique position in the U.S. rail grid.”
Unfortunately, airport traffic at O’Hare International Airport has been sluggish so there is little justification for airport expansion, Testa said. How the airlines handle or hedge fuel costs will also determine how the industry plays out, Bartkoski said. On a positive note, the merged Continental-United is locating in Chicago rather than Houston.
According to Testa, manufacturing stands out from the other industries due its post-recession growth.
“U.S. economic output has just about regained about what it lost before the recession and manufacturing has been growing very rapidly, much more rapidly than the U.S. economy. But it has only recovered about 60 percent of the downturn,” Testa said. “So it went down much more sharply than the general economy and it’s snapping back more quickly and leading the recovering in terms of growth, but it’s from a very low point.”
Part of this recovery is due to manufacturers rebuilding their inventories and experiencing growing exports. The purchasing in the industry could indicate forthcoming demand, he said.
“If that trend continues, you’re going to see a pickup in the manufacturing sector and that would be very welcome anywhere,” he said.
Chicago’s manufacturing is particularly diverse, producing products ranging from medical supplies to metals to food, Bartkoski said. In particular, food manufacturing has a large presence in the area, he said.
“Because we’re in the middle of this huge agricultural base and the transportation system, it makes us natural for food processing and production,” Bartkoski said.
Keeping the trains and buses running is a year-long job for the Chicago Transit Authority. During the winter months, its difficulties are compounded by freezing temperatures and varied snowfall.
“Cold weather ages transportation infrastructure at a troublesome rate in a difficult way,” said Joseph Schwieterman, professor of DePaul University. “Especially the chilling and thawing process is extremely hard on roads and railroad tracks.”
The CTA prepares for the winter months in advance, said CTA Spokeswoman Noelle Gaffney. Many of these preparations include ensuring that the proper tools and equipment are available should the need arise. The CTA garages stocks are updated in case equipment or machinery needs to be replaced and conducts regular inspections, she said
In addition to preparations, the CTA constantly checks current conditions.
“There’s a lot we do in advance of winter that we just we’re going to need to have done,” said Gaffney. “But we also monitor the weather and if there is sleet or snow forecast, we respond accordingly with making sure the proper resources and staff are in place when snow does come.”
Trains are outfitted with sleet scrapers that remove ice from the rails as trains pass. Additionally, de-icing fluid is sprayed onto the rails when ice builds up. Snow plows are placed on the front cars to handle any snow banks that might pose a problem, Gaffney said.
Additionally, in case of difficulties that normal train operations can’t handle, CTA workers are on call to fix winter-related problems using special heavy equipment, she said.
“The other thing for trains when it gets really cold, switches freeze and that’s a huge problem for the CTA and Amtrak, especially when you have snow mixed in,” Schwieterman said.
Snow would become caught in the switches, preventing movement. Sometimes the electrical circuitry controlling the switches would freeze as well, but is not as common, Schwieterman said. To handle this particular problem, the CTA has heaters at switch locations which are activated by track workers allowing operations to continue and prevent derailment, Gaffney said.
The CTA doesn’t forget about the customers either. The station heaters are checked before the season and during times of snowfall, the CTA staff and outside firms are sent to shovel sand to prevent people from slipping, Gaffney said.
Ultimately, when it comes to cold weather, it depends on the conditions. How heavy or light the weather is and how long it lasts determines the CTA’s response, she said.
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