Mayor Richard M. Daley has spent two decades positioning Chicago to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Now, his biggest gamble yet, the city's bid for the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games, is heading for the finish line.
Author Aaron Gell Photography Jimmy Fishbein
Mayor Richard M. Daley, the chief executive of the city of Chicago for 20 years now, has been known to hop on his mountain bike for the occasional spin around his South Loop neighborhood. But if he could be an Olympic athlete, he’d be a rower. “It’s a fascinating sport,” says the mayor, who has attended several Olympics. “I really appreciate the discipline, the emphasis on teamwork, the cadence, the need to understand the wind factor—all of it.” Not to mention the incredible view of his favorite city one can get from a seat in a four-man shell knifing through the waters of Lake Michigan.
At 67, Daley isn’t apt to actually grab an oar any time soon, but after a near-marathon as Chicago’s mayor, he knows which way the wind is blowing in the so-called Windy City. And having been reelected in 2007 with 71 percent of the vote, he seems to have his constituents pulling together. As he awaits the International Olympic Committee’s October 2 verdict on Chicago’s highly touted bid to host the 2016 Games, Mayor Daley takes a few minutes to speak with Hemispheres about the Olympics, going green and Chicago’s future.
A century ago, urban planner Daniel Burnham laid out The Plan of Chicago, which shaped the city. Did his famous exhortation to “Make no little plans” influence your own vision? Burnham was right. You can’t limit your goals, or you’ll never be able to fulfill them. A great city can’t stand still. You respect the past and honor the present, but you’ve got to look to the future. Whether it’s reversing the Chicago River, keeping the lakefront open, holding the 1893 and 1933 World’s Fairs during tough economic times or creating Millennium Park and Northerly Island, we have never shied away from big plans.
How do you keep your eye on the future when there are so many pressing concerns to deal with? It’s easy for mayors to get caught up in the day-to-day, but if you don’t see beyond that, a city slowly dies. I don’t lose sight of education or jobs or healthcare or public safety. But it’s also important to look ahead.
Has the job of mayor changed in the last 20 years? When I was first elected, it was very uncommon for mayors to travel. In the past ten years, as I see more of the world, I realize that we all are faced with the challenge and opportunity of living and working in a global economy. We no longer compete just with cities in our own countries for jobs, business and tourism, we compete with cities all over the world.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned during your time in office? Always be willing to change. Nothing’s written in stone. How do you see Chicago’s chances against Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo and Madrid? This is a tough competition. These are great global cities, in great countries, and their governments are supporting their bids financially. In the U.S., that’s not the case. You have to raise private-sector money. So far no government money has been spent at all. That, to me, is amazing. That said, we have the full backing of the Obama administration. He supported us during his campaign, and that’s important because we represent the United States. It’s all part of changing the old image of America.
How would the Olympics and Paralympics benefit Chicago? Hosting the 2016 Games is a historic opportunity. From the global attention we’ll receive, the economic growth and the investments we’ll make in our neighborhoods, our city could be transformed. It would also inspire young people around the world to participate in sports.
What do you regard as the city’s top selling point? The people. And then our incredible architecture and green space. It’s a little gem. Until you come here you don’t realize how beautiful it is.
Are you risking your own political capital with this bid? Maybe, but if you don’t have any vision, what do you stand for? You just worry about making a mistake all the time. Clearly it’s a big challenge in a recession. Everyone’s naturally skeptical. They’re worried. Unemployment is high. But you need to give people some form of hope.
What advice do you have for other mayors who might want to lure the games? You need the business community and the nonprofit community working with you, and public support. Beyond that, good planning is essential. We’re not going to build white elephants. For instance, our plans for the Olympic Stadium call for an 80,000-seat venue, but after the games it becomes a much smaller stadium and the additional seats get used in other stadiums and venues.
There’s a global trend toward urbanization. What challenges and opportunities does that pose? Over the next twenty-five years, more and more people around the world will be moving into cities. The cities are where opportunity is, education, jobs. There are huge environmental issues that go with that, housing issues, public transportation. We have to be prepared.
What Olympic event are you most looking forward to? Well, you look at the gymnasts and think, “What amazing athletes.” But then you see the swimmers. And the paralympians. They’re really all so amazing. People don’t always realize the discipline that they have and the sacrifices that athletes make in their lives to make it to the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Let’s assume Chicago’s bid is successful. What are the chances you’ll be watching as mayor? [Laughs] Well, this is bigger than Mayor Daley. It’s the combined vision of a lot of people. Younger people especially want this for Chicago. They have a real understanding and appreciation for how it can transform their city, shape the culture here and improve their lives.
As “Chicago’s Hometown Airline®,” United is inextricably linked with the Windy City. In early August, our long history of working together, including United’s support of the modernization program at Chicago O’Hare International Airport, took another major step forward: We announced United will move its Operations Center to Willis Tower in the heart of downtown, creating a much-improved work environment for our 2,800 employees and bringing increased tax revenue to the city.
Subject to approval by Chicago City Council, this win-win move will fill 460,000 square feet of prime office space, representing the largest relocation of jobs to Chicago in recent history and making United the largest private employer based in Chicago.
“Between this team of employees, those within our expansive airport operations at O’Hare, our customer contact center and those already based at the new world headquarters at The United Building, the people of United will be more than 13,000 strong within Chicago city limits,” said Glenn F. Tilton, United chairman and chief executive officer. “This represents a further deepening of our commitment to our world-class hometown.”
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