Chicago's Green Economy Grows, But Struggles Remain: The State of Green Business Forum-Chicago

The Chicago area has seen growth in its green economy and exciting action around services for new and small businesses, but hurdles still remain as companies, non-profits and other groups look for resources and funds.

In the first panel of the State of Green Business Forum in Chicago, GreenBiz.com senior contributor Marc Gunther led the panel "State of the Great Lakes Green Economy."

One growth area for the Chicago region has been the emergence of opportunities around renewable energy, battery technology and energy.

Over the next thee years, $900 million in federal and state grant money will be coming into Chicago for energy efficiency work, said Suzanne Malec-McKenna, commissioner of Chicago's Department of Environment.

Chicago is also now home to 10 wind companies' headquarters, up from four wind companies a few years ago.

Donna Ducharme, executive director of the non-profit Delta Institute, explained how her group recently opened its Green Business Development Center and has been getting a steady stream of companies coming to them, looking for help.

"Many of these ideas are really solid and could provide a great face for the region moving forward," but they need help with finding a path forward, she said. "There is a lot of work to be done with smaller companies," she said, not only with greening their operations and practices, but with their products and services.

The Chicago Manufacturing Center, Malec-McKenna said, is focused on helping businesses stay in business, and one of its programs has, in the last few years, worked with some 300 companies and helped them save $17 million in efficiencies.

"It's not about the lack of resources," she said. "It's about how we need to engage and leverage resources."

Also, she said, "The environmental movement has done a pathetic job demonstrating the economical benefits," of things like energy efficiency, waste reduction and other efforts.

David Baum, president of Baum Realty Group, said his company only works on green building projects now, and communicates to clients the benefits of green, not only in terms of costs, but also with employees, customers and more.

Baum is also co-founder of Green Exchange, which, once it is finished, will be a business community in a LEED-Platinum building (formerly the Vassar-Swiss Underwear Company) in Chicago, where companies will be able to share some facilities like conference rooms and event space, as well as network and share information and resources.

In light of all that work, though, Ducharme said there is much more that needs to be done. "There are so many resources, that if they were shared more widely and if people knew about them, (they) could make a much bigger difference."

Not only are resources needed, but money is needed. And with banks in Chicago virtually putting a freeze on grants to small companies, more and more businesses are struggling to either get up and running, or sustain their financing.

All three panelists said they have seen banks become more averse to lend to small companies, venture capital firms focus only on the few companies they see as being "winners" in the future, banks lend more conservatively and avoid start-ups.