Among those celebrating the $70 million federal grant for a new digital manufacturing institute were Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Senator Dick Durbin, and Caralynn Nowinski, chief operating officer of UI Labs, the nonprofit overseeing the venture. Credit: Brian Slodysko/Sun-Times Media

For the last several weeks, Mayor Emanuel, Governor Quinn, and various civic and corporate big shots have been pounding each other on the back for bringing Chicago a $70 million shipment of federal pork—otherwise known as a Defense Department grant.

The money will be used to help build the Digital
Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute, which was unveiled at a gloriously orchestrated press event last month at the White House.

It’s supposed to be a sign of our status as a world-class city that the feds would think that little old Chicago would be so deserving.

Aw, shucks.

OK, look—I’m happy that the mayor and the governor and the other civic honchos are happy. And I like the fact that the feds are sending money back to Chicago—we certainly pay enough in federal taxes.

Plus, anything that distracts the mayor from bringing more ruin to the public schools is fine with me.

But we don’t have to act like a bunch of rubes when the president and the mayor use us as backdrops for their photo ops.

At the very least, we should know enough to get nervous when the bigwigs around here try to pump up our sense of civic pride. It generally means they want to divert our attention from something else—like how much money it’s going to cost us.

Remember Mayor Daley’s push for the Olympics?

There are also a few basic facts we need to keep in mind about the digital manufacturing institute.

For starters, it’s not that special that we got the money! We’re just one of at least eight cities getting these grants from President Obama.

In fact, on the same day—February 25—that the president announced the grant for Chicago, he also revealed that another $70 million would go to build a public-private venture called the Lightweight and Modern Metals Manufacturing Institute in Canton, Michigan, just outside of Detroit.

All right—no Detroit jokes!

In 2012, on the eve of his reelection, the president awarded $30 million to build the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute in Youngstown, Ohio.

Speaking of Youngstown—that reminds me of the great wisecrack Don Rickles made at a Dean Martin roast back in the 1970s. Rickles set it up by noting that Martin’s from Youngstown. Martin responded that he was actually from Steubenville. At which point Rickles gave Deano his deadpan and said, “What—that’s better?”

Anyway, that’s not the end of the list of world-class cities that received grants. In January, Raleigh, North Carolina, got $70 million to build the Next Generation Power Electronics Manufacturing Innovation Institute.

President Obama even flew to Raleigh to make the announcement in person. The Raleigh News & Observer ran a photo of the president being greeted at the airport by Governor Pat McCrory.

I think we can all agree about one thing—before it’s said and done the digital institute will get its fair share of tax increment financing cash.

The lead in the ensuing story reads: “The $140 million research consortium . . . came with fanfare as a stimulus for U.S. manufacturing, but the federal grants don’t come with job creation targets and won’t prevent American companies from hiring cheap labor abroad.”

In other words, even North Carolina—home of Mayberry—knows enough to be a little skeptical of glitzy PR.

In contrast, this is the Tribune‘s lead about our $70 million: “Chicago beat out the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and aerospace hub Huntsville, Ala., in a national bid for a digital manufacturing institute, largely because of private funding pledges that backers were able to secure, officials said Sunday.”

Sweet! We’re better than Alabama! Except in football.

Let’s give the Trib credit for this—it quickly recovered from that initial civic swoon to ask Mayor Emanuel how many local public dollars would be doled out to the digital institute.

When asked “whether there is a cap on how much money the city might contribute long-term to keeping the lab operating, Emanuel instead talked about how the city won the bidding for the project by bringing in private investors and venture capitalists,” reporter John Byrne wrote.

When the mayor is that slippery, beware of trouble. For the moment, all we know is that private, state, and local donations for the institute are supposed to come to $250 million. Who pays how much has yet to be revealed.

I think we can all agree about one thing—before it’s said and done the digital institute will get its fair share of tax increment financing cash.

The TIF program is the economic development initiative where the mayor takes property tax dollars intended for things like schools and uses them on pretty much whatever he wants.

According to Mayor Emanuel, the digital manufacturing institute will be located at the same Goose Island property that once housed Republic Windows and Doors, which city taxpayers subsidized with about $10.4 million in TIF funds.

The site—at 930 W. Evergreen—is available because Republic skipped town in 2008.

A proviso in the TIF agreement required Republic to return part of the subsidy if it wasn’t employing at least 610 full-time workers.

But the Daley administration never forced Republic to repay any of the money. When former alderman Manny Flores asked why, city officials said that part of the contract had expired in 2006.

In short, the proviso that protected Republic took precedence over the one that protected the public.

That’s unfortunately how things often go when the city enters into one of its public-private ventures. But not a word about the parking meter deal.

By the way, Republic’s employment numbers had been falling for years before its management shut down the factory. But city officials didn’t know this because they weren’t paying attention.

But that was in the bad old days of Mayor Daley. And this is in the new era of Mayor Emanuel.

We’re now waiting to learn how much the mayor wants to spend at the same factory where we already spent $10.4 million. Mayor Emanuel is already promising that the digital institute will create “thousands” of jobs.

Okay, Mr. Mayor—if you say so. Let’s just hope the final deal requires at least a few of them for our money.

But the way things go in Chicago, I’d say we’ll be lucky to make back the $10.4 million we’ve already given away.