Chicago development magnate reflects on 4 year struggle for balanced growth

Over the past four years, if there has been an agreement at City Hall concerning employment and economic growth, Samir Mayekar has been in the middle.

Mayekar ended his candidacy for Mayor Lori Lightfoot's deputy for economic development. He resigned on Wednesday and returned to the company he founded before entering the city government.

That company is NanoGraf, which is working on more durable lithium-ion batteries and, with a $10 million US Defense contract, is expected to complete the plant at 400 N. Noble St. at the end of this year.

His departure from the high-ranking city job was natural for a change of administration. The incoming mayor can choose a team. As well as returning to the private sector, Mayekar, 40, said he would spend more time with young families and possibly get a teaching gig or some board seats.

It will be an active schedule but not like it's under the control of the mayor. Many people don't stand the pressure, but Mayekar has weathered Lightfoot's entire tenure, helming projects from casino plans to neighborhood redevelopments. Of particular pride is Lightfoot's signature Invest South/West program to direct redevelopment to 10 mostly poor communities.

In extensive conversation last week, Mayekar spoke about his tenure at City Hall, what he has achieved despite the pandemic and waves of violent crime, and what he sees as the city's biggest economic challenges. Some quotes:

Chicago's biggest disease

“I think the main challenge for American cities, and Chicago is not immune to this, is addressing inequality. This country has never had the level of inequality it has today. … Mayor Lightfoot was the first modern Chicago mayor to see the entire city, and I think his tenure will be a watershed moment, so that all future mayors see the entire city and keep investment flowing in transformative ways to all areas of the city.”

Involvement of the business community in city affairs

“We need a modern approach and the business community, I think, is looking for a voice in the post-pandemic era of what civic engagement is. There is already a definition for this. I think it's mostly philanthropic based. He said new approaches that align social goals with business opportunities are under way, citing investments in Chicago by Discover Financial Services, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Illinois Tool Works and Northwestern Medicine.

Is Bally the right bet for the casino?

“Of course, they are building a temporary site at the Medina Temple. They are doing a leaseback sale to gain more financial capacity on the Tribune site (777 W. Chicago Ave.), and a few years from now it will open.

Mayekar said he expects casino revenue to start trickling into city coffers this year, though it's up to the Illinois Gaming Board to give the green light to Medinah Temple.

What will happen to Soldier Field?

“I still think we're early on – I have to use an apt analogy here – that first quarter of the game. I think the next mayor is going to do everything possible, as any mayor would, to try to keep (the Bears) here and also be a sober steward of the taxpayer's fund.

About Lightfoot's fighting style and dealing fully with the board members

“I am very proud to host what I used to call a rotating town hall. … It really helped me earn and build lasting relationships across the city. Relationships matter. …

“I'm just going to see the results. And the result is that the city is on the best fiscal footing it's ever transitioned, we have billions of dollars in projects that are transitioning just in environments that never got it before. We've in the last two years had over 300 companies moving and growing here. … And this all happened in the middle of a 100 year crisis.”

Downtown economic downturn

Mayekar said he expects La Salle Street to see more than $1 billion in renovations over the next five years to turn outdated offices into residential spaces. “We have the fastest growing residential hub in over 20 years,” he said.

Biggest unfinished business

“I think the biggest thing that got undone was turning Invest South/West from a $2 billion initiative to a $20 billion initiative, and to do that you need a different level of support from the Chicago firm. … Many companies across America are making very transformative commitments to cities after the murder of George Floyd as models of what we are going to do about racial equality. I think what hasn't been done is that the checks haven't been cashed by cities across the country.