Motorola Mobility moved into its new corporate headquarters in February, but on Tuesday it held its grand unveiling, opening up its four floors of Chicago’s historic and imposing Merchandise Mart to media and other visitors.
The event was big on local dignitaries like Chicago’s colorful mayor Rahm Emanuel and largesse (Motorola donated $150,000 to Chicago libraries for its maker lab program). There were surprisingly few mentions of Google — Motorola’s current corporate parent — and absolutely none of Lenovo, which is attempting to buy Mobility for $2.91 billion. Mainly, the event was intended to celebrate Chicago’s emerging tech sector.
You have to forgive Chicago its tech boosterism because, frankly, this is a big deal for the Windy City.
Motorola is Chicago’s wayward son. It was founded 80 years ago here, and for much of its history it was a dominant force in the telecommunications industry, even creating the first cellular phone. But for half that time, Motorola wasn’t actually in the city of Chicago. It followed the paths of white flight to suburbs like Schaumburg, Arlington Heights and Libertyville where, for a time, it earned its fortunes at the top of mobile handset heap.
It’s a bit ironic that the Motorola returning to Chicago is a shadow of its former self. Its networking and device divisions have been diced up into different companies or sold off. The Motorola Mobility taking up residence in Chicago isn’t even an independent company; instead, it’s 2,000 employees on Google’s payroll. It long ago lost its leading role in handsets to Nokia, which in turn succumbed to the likes of Samsung and Apple(s aapl).
But I think I speak for most Chicagoans when I say “we’ll take it.” In a city that’s more known for Teamsters than programmers, Motorola brings mobile engineering credibility back to the city. As Mayor Emanuel hopes, its presence might even encourage tech workers from Illinois’s big engineering universities to stay in the Midwest, rather than flee to Silicon Valley.
Motorola is also intended to serve as an anchor for Chicago’s big tech real estate project. The Merchandise Mart was once the largest mercantile showroom in the country, bringing in wholesalers from all over the world to its massive art deco floor spaces. Those merchants are now largely gone, and the Merch Mart is trying to reinvent itself as a gigantic tech hive. Chicago’s tech hub 1871 was already located there, and Motorola has taken over the building’s top four floors, totaling 600,000 square feet.
Of course, the big elephant in the room is what will happen when Lenovo takes over. Unlike Google, Lenovo has a big mobile phone business of its own, and it happens to be based in China. Luckily for Motorola and Chicago, Lenovo’s mobile business is largely overseas, while Motorola’s focus remains in the U.S.
All photos by Gigaom / Kevin Fitchard except where noted