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With Motorola move, River North could see changes, too

Mike McGee (left) Code Academy JHwang share beer Moe's Cantina155 W. Kinzie.They both work 1871 technology incubator hang out after

Mike McGee (left) of Code Academy and Jin Hwang share a beer at Moe's Cantina,155 W. Kinzie.They both work in the 1871 technology incubator and hang out after work at Moe's. It is one of several local hot spots among the young techies who are increasingly dominating the River North work scene. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: September 8, 2012 6:05AM

If downtown Chicago is the city’s economic patriarch, River North is its relaxed cousin — younger, tech-friendly and wanting to be entertained. A lot of cities would love to have a place like it.

The infusion of 3,000 workers that Google is transferring to River North from Libertyville attests to the neighborhood’s popularity with younger workers, who, compared with the classic Organization Man of decades past, would much rather ride the CTA to work and socialize with friends at night. Who knows? They might even stick around to raise families.

But their arrival could herald changes to River North, too.

Certainly, the former Motorola Mobility workers coming to the Merchandise Mart will add to the street life and support the businesses, though some familiar with the area said they wish for more casual dining nearby.

Albert Friedman, developer and leading property owner in River North, said Google’s arrival supports his vision of the area being alive for 24 hours, with corporate workers and creative professionals mingling, living and shopping within just a few blocks. He called the Google coming “a natural and wonderful thing to happen” for the mart and the neighborhood.

“Today, you go where the brainpower is,” Friedman said. “That’s generally an urban area.”

A few blocks east of the mart, Hubbard Street brims with nightlife. Neil Stern, senior partner at the retail consulting firm McMillanDoolittle LLP, said Google might inspire some of that vibe to migrate west.

“The area is still underserved by fast-casual restaurants or just casual dining options,” he said.

Bob Goldin, executive vice president of Chicago food industry consultancy Technomic, sees opportunities for new restaurants serving gourmet pizza, beer and burgers and ethnic and small-plate eateries, and a reinvention of some tired restaurant concepts already in River North.

But what must the bars and restaurants do to appeal to the tech crowd? After all, if the Merchandise Mart is becoming an anchor for River North tech jobs, it will be similar to the 600 W. Chicago site on the neighborhood’s north end, the home of Groupon. It’s as if Google and Groupon will bookend the neighborhood.

Consider the mart’s tech incubator, called 1871, where workers for an array of tiny companies toil in hopes of attaining Groupon-like riches. When they head out, they look for cheap eats, free Wi-Fi, local craft beers and a casual atmosphere.

After work, River North sites that fit the bill such as Bull & Bear, Moe’s Cantina, Citizen Bar and Untitled teem with twenty- and thirty-somethings looking to unwind, commiserate and watch sports on TV and each other.

“Especially after an event, everyone goes to the closest large bar — Moe’s Cantina,” said Jin Hwang, 32, co-founder and CEO of, a startup aiming to help people find nearby bars and restaurants that fit their mood at the time.

Many are fans of bourbon, whiskey and locally brewed craft beers such as Goose Island’s 312 and Two Brothers Cane & Ebel. “It would be great to have more bars with local brews,” Hwang said.

Spence Davenport, 27, director of business development of SimpleRelevance, a startup that helps companies send targeted emails and messages to their customers, said Moe’s and Bull & Bear attract entrepreneurs because of the youthful, fun and relaxed environment that still allows for people to have a conversation without shouting.

The crowds also flock to sites with outdoor seating and patios, since the sunshine and fresh air are welcome relief after a daylong series of meetings in windowless rooms, he said.

Neal Sales-Griffin, 25, co-founder of Code Academy, where people learn how to do web design and development, said proximity is a key factor in favored hangouts sites, along with Wi-Fi and good drinks.

What does the River North area still need?

Hwang would like to see food trucks parking regularly in the Merchandise Mart’s driveway. Davenport yearns for a special breakfast place with fresh-cooked meals. Sales-Griffin pines for a bar with a startup tech theme.

But when everything is added up, the Google arrival may be more important in symbolism than in business impact.

Economist Enrico Moretti said the move’s impact is muted by Motorola Mobility taking more than $100 million in state tax credits to retain those jobs in the next 10 years and by the long climb that the Chicago area must make from No. 58 in Moretti’s ranking of 318 metro areas nationwide as innovation hubs.

The Chicago area is home to at least 21 incubators, accelerators and co-working spaces, 16 of them within the city limits. The tech startup support system varies from those that charge rent per desk to independent workers, to those that seek to create a sense of community and networking space for start-up teams.

The number of people working in these spaces varies each day, but the total could go as high as 1,600 if the spaces were to fill to capacity, according to Desktimeapp Directory, which lists co-working spaces in Chicago.

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