Sears Move May Signal New Urban Trend

STREET signs advertise everything from cheese omelets to great interest rates, but not a word about the Great Move. Streams of oblivious office workers bustle by. To the south, construction workers scramble to finish yet another skyscraper.

A few weeks after Chicago's largest employer, Sears Roebuck and Company, announced that it was moving most of its work force to the suburbs for economic reasons, the city has hardly batted an eye.

The confidence is not based on an insight of current trends. Instead, it stems from a decade of booming downtown growth.

``During this entire period we have been seeing the city get stronger and stronger,'' says Gene Stunard, president of Appraisal Research Counselors Ltd., a Chicago-based real estate firm.

``Chicago has had an uncanny ability to draw business,'' adds Tom Cokins, executive director of the Chicago Central Area Committee, a business group focusing on downtown planning and development. ``The naysayers said it would never have happened, and it has. Chicago has been growing, and no one can figure when it's going to stop.''

Indeed, the downtown, or ``Loop,'' has boomed. The number of jobs in the city's central business district grew from 217,216 in 1976 to 242,369 in 1986 - a spurt of 11.6 percent for the 10-year period, according to the latest statistics from the Illinois Department of Employment Security. The Loop's growth contrasts sharply with employment citywide, which fell by 7.8 percent during the same period - a loss of 96,000 jobs. Almost all the downtown growth, however, occurred from 1976 to 1981. Since then, the area has added only 2,395 jobs.

A minority of experts say that a fundamental change is occurring in the mix of downtown jobs in US cities. In a recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, management guru Peter Drucker of the Claremont Graduate School predicted that in 20 years, office workers in most developed countries would no longer work downtown. These workers' back-office operations would be moved to the suburbs. That would leave downtown as a ``headquarters city,'' Mr. Drucker contends, where only the top executives would live and work.

The Sears move parallels the trend. Sometime in 1992 or '93, the giant retailer will move its entire merchandising group - 5,000 to 6,000 workers - to a new office park in suburban Hoffman Estates.

All the office workers and the group's management will relocate, leaving an anticipated 600 top executives to continue working in the Sears Tower. The cool, black skyscraper - the tallest in the world - is up for sale, and reports have surfaced that a Toronto-based developer is interested in buying it.

Most observers are skeptical that the ``headquarters city'' will become a reality. Processing and other back-office operations moving out of downtown has been under way in places like New York and Chicago for more than a decade.

Yet other trends, such as the influx of foreign investment and the continued shift to the service industries, have kept downtowns vibrant, says R. Scott Fosler of the Committee for Economic Development.

Should the outmigration pick up, ``we will end up with cities of only the very rich and the very poor,'' says Dan Malachuk, an economic development strategist with Ernst and Young, a New York-based consulting firm. But ``I don't know that it has to happen.''

``There's something about our cities that wants to survive,'' adds Holly Stabler, vice-president of the International Downtown Association, a professional group of downtown executives in Washington, D.C.

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