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Chicago business leaders say rising crime threatens city’s economic future

The rise in violent crime in Chicago has boiled over, drawing concern from business leaders and leading to political infighting among those charged with keeping the city safe.

“We were in the midst of a post-pandemic recovery downtown and starting to see shoppers return, and office vacancies were finally starting to go down and right at that moment we started to see crime,” said City Alderman Brian Hopkins. “If crime continues to increase, I think you’ll start to see the economic recovery stall.”

Though overall crime is down so far this year compared with the same time a year ago, there has been an increase in homicides, sexual assaults and theft, including of motor vehicles.

Several downtown developers are having difficulty marketing properties because violence has spread throughout the city, giving it a negative reputation, Hopkins said.

Crime in the city and its potential impact on business, especially downtown, was thrust into the spotlight this week after hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin said the violence might lead him to move the corporate headquarters of his investment firm, Citadel, to New York.

Crime is a top concern for all stores and merchants, said Rob Karr, president of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association. He said some businesses already have left Chicago in the past year, in part due to violence.

Though he hasn’t heard grumblings from companies planning to relocate, Jack Lavin, president of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, said film industry executives and other companies interested in bringing business to Chicago have been inquiring about crime. Chamber members have also mentioned that some employees worry about leaving the office at night.

As the downtown business community goes, so goes the rest of Chicago.

The central business district downtown is critical to citywide operations with about one-third of all city employees working there, so maintaining its viability is important, business leaders say.

“This is a key economic engine for the city of Chicago and the gateway to the city where tourists come and where companies think of locating headquarters,” Lavin said. “We need to make it safe and that people can trust in public safety.”

But there are those who believe the city’s bad reputation is hurting downtown stores more than the crime rate itself.

Kiana DiStasi, spokeswoman for the Chicago Loop Alliance, which promotes downtown businesses, said negative headlines and public perception were affecting the downtown area, but it still feels safe and patrons are having a good experience.

“We really do feel that when more people come downtown, it’s safer and less crime,”  she said.

DiStasi pointed to eight consecutive Sundays in which the alliance sponsored a block party during the summer with an average of 67,000 attendees and no crime.

“Yes, people’s perception of crime downtown impacts businesses. But how much crime is rampant is unclear,” she said.

There have been 53 homicides in downtown Chicago this year, compared with 51 this time last year, crime stats show.

In 2019, before the nationwide surge in killings, just 28 homicides had been reported in the area. There have been 1,369 robberies in 2021, a 9 percent increase over this time last year, though down from recent years’ highs.

Lavin said that while reports of crime are high, some of it may be overstated.

“People in the city know it’s an issue, but the perception out there is greater than it is,” Lavin said.

Meanwhile, the rise in crime has caused strife between city and state leaders.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx verbally sparred this week, with each criticizing the other over a fatal shooting last week that resulted in five suspects being released without charges.

And some City Council members targeted Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown for overseeing a police force in a city with increasing violence.

“Everyone is pointing the finger and nobody is taking responsibility,” City Alderman Raymond Lopez said.

A year ago, the mayor created the Our City, Our Safety initiative, a three-year plan to reduce violence by focusing on police reform, expanding and strengthening street outreach and creating a victim support network.

She has also proposed increasing police funding by $200 million in the upcoming fiscal budget.

Brown, in an attempt to help stifle crime, last month proposed reassigning dozens of officers from the community safety teams to enforce anti-gang and narcotics units.

The units will focus on high-level investigations and crack down on straw purchasers, meaning people who buy guns for those who can’t.

“We’re going after gangs and we’re going to do it constitutionally,” Brown said, reported WMAQ-TV, the NBC affiliate in Chicago. “We want to make sure we don’t violate anyone’s rights. But gangs are out of control in this city. And we’re going after them to hold them accountable.”

Still, crime and violence continues to hamper Chicago.

Chicago has contended with about 2,600 shootings this year, up 10 percent from the same time last year, according to data from the Chicago Police Department, NBC News reported.

As of Friday, there have been 1,293 carjackings this year as compared to 939 this time last year.

“It’s a disturbing increase in areas of the city that typically didn’t experience it,” Hopkins, the city alderman, said. “I think everyone agrees we have a serious crime problem, and it’s getting worse.”

Business leaders say companies want all levels of state government to work together to decrease crime.

Lavin urged Brown and Lightfoot to hire hundreds of qualified officers as soon as possible, which would help get workers back to the office, conventions back to the city and attract business travelers and tourists.

“It’s not just about the police. It’s also about the state’s attorney and judges. We all need to work together and collaborate and communicate strategies on how we’re going to address the increase in violent crime,” Lavin said.

If the crime rate doesn’t slow down, city officials fear businesses may flee, in addition to losing the attraction that entices outsiders to move to the city.

“The perception out there is that Chicago streets are basically lawless,” Lopez said. “That perception hurts us, not only with our main economic drivers of tourism and conventions, but also with restaurants and stores.”

Politicians also say a heavy political price could be paid come election season if the city doesn’t get a grip on increasing violence.

Crime will be the top issue for voters in the 2023 mayoral race even if Lightfoot doesn’t run for re-election, Hopkins said.

“If you have people who are afraid of being victims, personal safety, when it’s at risk, will overshadow any other political issue that may be on your mind,” Hopkins said.

CORRECTION (Oct. 12, 9:47 a.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated the investment firm Citadel’s status. It not a Fortune 500 company; the reference has been deleted.