Corporations' flight from the suburbs to cities can play out like a bad breakup: One party has moved on and found someone new, while the other puts on a brave face and pretends it doesn't matter. Each may even be seen hastily courting others to show their previous partner that they're okay. But there's no way to avoid it. A once-promising relationship has ended.
It's a situation many American suburbs find themselves in today. After decades of matching up with the country's largest corporations and providing the prime highway-adjacent real estate they needed for massive office parks, suburbs are being abandoned for office space in urban centers and the pursuit of something younger and more exciting: millennial workers.
"It's all about one thing: talent," says Tom Murphy, a senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute. "For the first time in history we're seeing jobs move to where people are, rather than vice versa. For companies, it's all about being where talent wants to be."
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These kind of breakups aren't new, but they appear to have accelerated along with the return to the cities and the clustering of business opportunities in major urban areas. It hurts when a company trades one city for another: Aetna, an insurance giant, announced last month it's leaving Hartford, Connecticut, literally known as the Insurance Capital of the World, for New York City. It's even more impactful for smaller suburbs with less diversified economies.
Take the case of McDonald's and Oak Brook, Illinois, which was home to the multinational powerhouse until it announced it was moving its headquarters to Chicago's West Loop, a former warehouse district turned flashy restaurant row in the midst of a Google-fueled development bonanza.
The Golden Arches arrived in Oak Brook in 1971, when its entire population was just 8,000 (today, McDonalds alone employs 3,000 workers in the western suburb). When it announced it was leaving last year, the Oak Brook village president heard the news from the media first. "McDonald's and the Village have had a strong partnership for decades," he said. Nostalgia is an understandable reaction.