Chicago_Downtown_Loop_TNS_FILE_2024

The Chicago Loop skyline is seen March 6, 2024.

Chicago is still reeling from a lack of workers four years after the pandemic hollowed out U.S. cities.

The downtown vacancy rate has been setting records quarter after quarter and recently rose to 22.5%, according to Jones Lang LaSalle Inc. Perceptions of crime aren鈥檛 going away, with China鈥檚 Cofco International the latest firm to say it plans to leave the city. The population has declined three years in a row.

Chicago is now betting that the summer 鈥 when most Americans are eager to escape the office 鈥 will be the moment for more people to come back. It鈥檚 not the usual return-to-office pitch. Instead, the city is leaning into the rise of remote work by promoting co-working spaces in iconic locations including Navy Pier, the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Chicago Cultural Center.

Get updates from the editors of GMToday.com sent directly to your email inbox:

Led by civic boosters including World Business Chicago and billionaire Penny Pritzker鈥檚 nonprofit P33, the three-month 鈥淲ork from Summertime Chi鈥 initiative aims to bring $10 million in economic impact to the Loop, as the central business district is known, and surrounding areas. The broader hope is that the summer perks will kick-start a more lasting revival by reminding remote workers of downtown鈥檚 charms.

鈥淭he city is in desperate need of people coming back downtown,鈥 said Tifair Hamed, P33鈥檚 chief marketing officer. 鈥淛ust seeing a new space and being able to tap into new and engaging workspaces, I think will light fires.鈥

In one sense, it鈥檚 an easy sell. Emerging from the city鈥檚 winter cold, Chicagoans are known for their love of summer. Many flock to the lake front for a jog, a drink or a swim at the end of a workday downtown. They鈥檙e also more likely to show up in the office in warmer weather, according to data from security firm Kastle Systems, which scans badge data at offices.

In addition to going after locals, Chicago is also angling to lure workers from the coasts and perhaps entice visitors escaping the sweltering summers in fast-growing southern cities. One target market: technology employees, a group that Chicago has been studying to find out why some are reluctant to come.

鈥淎 lot of it was based around weather,鈥 Hamed said. 鈥淭hey enjoy Chicago, they have family in Chicago. So we wanted to lean into a season in which we knew they agreed with, and actually could compete with other tech hub areas like Texas, Atlanta, Miami, where you see growth.鈥

Cold winters are hardly Chicago鈥檚 main problem, however. Persistent crime has been front and center for the business community. Marquee employers such as Citadel, Boeing Co. and the local offices of Tyson Foods Inc. have left town.

Another challenge for the summer initiative is that Chicago already has a lot of coworking spaces. That may make it harder to draw workers away from their traditional neighborhood spots.

To fight inertia, Chicago plans to tap social media and use influencers to hype the new co-working spaces, which include Offshore Rooftop with striking views of Lake Michigan and the city. Coaxing more people downtown is also likely to ease crime fears.

鈥淲e鈥檙e just creatures of habit, and we get stuck in our daily routines,鈥 Hamed said. 鈥淭here鈥檚 safety in numbers 鈥 coming downtown knowing that there will be hundreds of other people taking over a space, it gives me a sense of safety.鈥

Recommended for you