CN Feb. 27, 2014

Were you a little confused by the mega-announcements this week that Chicago was about to became a major tech innovation-hub, whatever that means?

Well, Tribune business columnist Melissa Harris explains some of it. The biggest chunk of cash-on-the-barrelhead is $70 million that President Obama has sent to Chicago. A number of corporations and big universities have also agreed to put money on the table for people and research facilities. The possible total investment could top $300 million over time.

“The key customer here is the Department of Defense,” Harris tells us. “DOD has not been a strength of the Chicago economy … so this has the potential to jump-start this region as an actual recipient of DOD dollars (with) the $70 million that’s going to be invested here.”

And that money will, if things go according to plan, buy a lot of military product.

“Lighter-weight armor,” she predicts.  “Quicker, faster robots that are used to de-fuse IEDs….improved communications. They’re working on jamming enemy communications signals.”

And while this design and research work will employ many people, Harris says it has a deeper value.

“It has a convening function. It brings people and scientists, businesses and universities together who have never worked together before, and in fact in some cases don’t have a presence in Chicago,” she explains.

The military’s bid itself falls under the DOD’s sourcing authority and is not subject to FOIA, she tells us, so nobody really knows the details of what they’ll be researching, designing and perhaps ultimately building out there on Goose Island. “But it will help the DOD get materials faster and cheaper. That’s the ultimate goal. And a lot of that is going to be achieved in the virtual world on a computer screen versus in a factory.”

There is a major business that’s been thriving in Chicago for decades, but might have been dealt a significant blow last week. It’s the importation and distribution of heroin and cocaine from Mexico. Chip Mitchell, WBEZ’s West Side Bureau reporter, has been covering the illegal drugs pipeline for a long time. As you may have heard, Joaquin “el Chapo” Guzman, who’s said to run most of Chicago’s operations, was arrested in Mexico on Saturday.

“This fellow Guzman controls 70 to 80% of the heroin and cocaine that reaches our market,” Mitchell says. “And from here it then fans out to other parts of the midwest. So Chicago has been a key retail center for the Sinaloa Cartel, Guzman’s organization, and it’s all been a key distribution hub. So the arrest is a big deal.” 

“This supply chain goes back decades and decades,” he adds. “Almost a century.  For most of the 20th century the main product was heroin. Eventually in the 70s and 80s they inserted a lot of cocaine into this supply chain.”

So the big question is: Does Guzman’s arrest mean that there might be a reduction in drugs flowing through our city?

“The cartels have come and gone,” he tells us. “The people who’ve dominated the supply chain have come and gone. But the drugs have kept going. Purity is up. Seizures are up. Prices have remained at near historic lows for years now, and there aren’t many people around with a straight face who would tell you that this is gonna cause any interruption at all in the supply of either heroin or cocaine into the Chicago area.”

Ironically, the cartels have thrived here for all the reasons our City leaders keep trying to sell to potential investors. “It’s attractive to Guzman for the same reason Chicago worked for Mongomery Ward, for Sears and the Pullman Company,” Mitchell says. “We have all this transportation infrastructure and it’s a hub of the midwest.”

Mitchell has also been covering the UIC faculty strike, and he says something about it is remarkable. Older, more established faculty are expressing solidarity with the”adjunct faculty”.

“They already have tenure or are in line to get tenure. And they’re standing up for a minority in the union that’s making a lot less money,” he says.  “We’re talking about 30 thousand dollars a year for people with PHDs who are teaching full-time…they organized and they’re standing up for these very low-paid faculty members, many of whom get paid half the amount of a CTU teacher, for example, or a cop.”

Of course, as we all know, in the end it’s about pensions. Harris has been writing about the legal team that’s organizing to convince the Supreme Court that taking away pensions is unconstitutional. It’s going before the Court very soon.

“If they decide that these changes are unconstitutional,” she says, “Then I don’t see any alternative other than that the Legislature will have to go back to work and try to get a Constitutional Amendment.”

As a business reporter, she says, she hears very little enthusiasm for raising taxes or finding other revenue streams for pensions. If the police, firefighters, municipal workers, teachers and university faculties all stand together, though, and depending on the outcome of the Governor’s race, it could be a political battle unlike anything Illinois has seen for a very long time.

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About Ken

Ken's the host of Chicago Newsroom. A former news director, reporter and radio program host, he's also a past Vice President of the Chicago Headline Club.
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