The head of DuPage County’s economic development unit is plugging an unorthodox idea—better use of public transit, and even bicycles—as a critical step to boost the county’s job market.
In a panel presentation and a subsequent interview, new Choose DuPage President and CEO John Carpenter said “closing the last-mile commute issue” is one of four things the group will focus on to revitalize the county’s economy.
The others are more conventional but equally challenging: completing western ground access to O’Hare International Airport, commercializing research at Argonne National Laboratory and developing the county’s huge but largely empty DuPage Business Center campus in West Chicago.
Carpenter, a former American Airlines and Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce official, took over his new gig last fall. Since then, the phenomenon of large employers leaving the suburbs for downtown in search of top young talent has only strengthened, with McDonald’s recently announcing it will move its headquarters to the former Harpo Studios site in Fulton Market.
In fighting back, DuPage needs to consider all options—including expanded transit in an area that epitomizes the American love affair with the automobile, Carpenter said. His particular focus is “the last mile” between the county’s many commuter rail stations and homes, factories and offices that are riders’ final destinations.
“There’s no reason why millennials who live in the Loop can’t get on the train and come out here to work,” said Carpenter, whose county’s population has leveled off at a bit under 1 million. But the lack of an easy connection is “a pretty big problem” now.
To solve it, Choose DuPage and Metra are about to launch a pilot test in which app-summoned electric vehicles supplied by Burr Ridge-based InnovaEV would get commuters to the job. Choose DuPage also is eyeing a bicycle-sharing service like Chicago’s Divvy to fill the commuting hole.
At Argonne, a new incubator is about to begin bringing in companies, some of them tech firms and/or startups, to take advantage of the lab’s research production. Once they come, Carpenter wants them to stay and expand.
“There’s no reason Argonne can’t do for us what Silicon Valley has” for the San Francisco area, Carpenter said.
The DuPage Business Center now occupies about 800 acres near DuPage Airport. It’s one of the few areas of county with large chunks of open space ready for development, Carpenter said.
Western access to O’Hare is particularly critical, with the potential to make the west side of the airport just as developed as the east side, with a dozen hotels, shopping, a convention center and a gambling casino in Rosemont.
But a current dispute between the Illinois Tollway and the Canadian Pacific Railway about using CP land for the proposed Elgin-O’Hare Expressway is “very serious,” Carpenter said. “The railroad has changed its position after years in which it said it would agree to a deal,” he added, a change CP concedes but says it had good reason to do.
Once the road is done and one of O’Hare’s diagonal runways removed in two years, adjacent areas immediately to the west will be prime for development, Carpenter said. But that assumes Chicago officials eventually build some sort of people mover from the west side of the airport to its main terminals.