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Friday, April 20, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Boeing coy as Chicago struts its stuff

Chicago Tribune

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CHICAGO - Boeing executives hit Chicago Wednesday morning in search of a new corporate headquarters, and they were quick, efficient and most of all covert.

"This is a company that makes decisions with speed," Senior Vice President John Warner told a pack of reporters. "Once we make up our minds, we do it fast. We get it done."

Warner wasn't joking. After the short news conference at a hotel, he ducked out a side door. Five minutes later the 18 executives marched out the front lobby like an invading military force, filing into a convoy of white vans.

In no time they drove onto the airstrip at Meigs Field, boarded two helicopters and were skimming over the sunlit skyscrapers to the northwest suburbs, leaving behind the slew of photographers that had hoped to chase them.

In the evening there was more cloak-and-dagger as the Boeing group sneaked through the back door of the Art Institute to attend a private dinner in their honor. Their hosts, Mayor Richard Daley and Illinois Gov. George Ryan, arrived by the main entrance.

The secretive comings and goings were the order of the day as the Boeing contingent scouted the area for buildings that might become their new home.

Last month the aerospace company announced it would move its top executives out of their longtime base in Seattle. For a new headquarters it will choose Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth or Denver, and the decision will be made by next month.

The sudden news has sent the cities into a competitive frenzy. Daley and Ryan met with the executives in a private room at the Art Institute before the dinner began Wednesday.

They then joined 75 business and political heavyweights - including former Gov. James Thompson - to dine to the strains of a string trio from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

One Boeing executive was seated at each table for lobbying, participants said. The Chicago Children's Choir performed, and sketches of Millennium Park and priceless exhibits surrounded the guests.

It was the politicians' only face time with the reclusive executives. So they pushed all the perks Chicago had to offer, from the lake to the financial incentives.

"I should warn you," Daley told the group in a prepared statement. "Chicago has a way of grabbing you and making you want to stay here the rest of your life."

"It was a very interesting presentation," Warner said as he left, again by the back door. "You've got a lot of people here who are very enthusiastic about this community."

"We gave it our best shot," Ryan said. "I don't know what more we could have done to get them here."

Earlier in the day, the Boeing people seemed to want little of the schmoozing. Mostly, they wanted to be left alone.

They spent Wednesday touring several locations by helicopter, flying in and out as discreetly as possible. Sometimes they didn't land at a site at all.

About 10:30 a.m. the group circled a few times above the vacant Safety-Kleen Building in Elgin, one of five suburban sites Boeing reportedly is considering. But the helicopter didn't land, and facility manager Tom Vann said the group probably would come back the next day.

A crew of Elgin city workers spent the morning sprucing up the grounds and planting about 700 red and white flowers at the main entrance. They planned to take them out once Boeing left.

"You'd think the president was visiting or something," Vann joked as the choppers buzzed around.

About 11 a.m. a helicopter buzzed over the construction site of a six-story office building in Schaumburg. At the same time a long, white van arrived at the North American headquarters of Moore in Bannockburn, a sheer-glass building that has only a temporary wooden sign at the entrance because Moore soon will be moving out.

Three representatives of the company joined the Boeing group and took it on a tour of the site, including an exercise facility in the basement.

Meanwhile, the senior vice president's wife, Marilyn Warner, toured homes along the North Shore and in the northwest suburbs, according to sources familiar with the trip. The tour was so secretive that the driver wasn't allowed to know his passengers' names.

The Boeing group was scheduled to leave town last night. It will hit Dallas on Tuesday and Denver the week after with the same quick, surgical strikes.

But before leaving town, the group also was scheduled to scout out three properties in downtown Chicago. One site is coincidentally just a half-block from the Lyric Opera.

Boeing's top two executives are known to be opera lovers, and the group assembled recently to lure the company to the Chicago area sent them opera care packages as bait.

Why come to Chicago first?

"We're going in alphabetical order," said Boeing spokesman Larry McCracken.

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