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Jamie Rhee: ‘Inclusion’ is the word for O’Hare’s historic $8.5B plan


As the recently appointed commissioner of the Chicago Department of Aviation, Jamie Rhee knows the economic impact of O’Hare International Airport on the city, and the region, is ready to fly sky high.

When Mayor Rahm Emanuel tapped Rhee over the summer to head both O’Hare and Midway International Airport, she inherited the reins to a historic $8.5 billion terminal expansion plan to modernize O’Hare over the next eight years. The plan, approved earlier this year, calls for a full-scale transformation of the airport with new facilities and gates.

While the aim is to increase the airports capacity and efficiency, Rhee knows a bonus of the plan will be a shot in the arm to the Chicago economy with added “jobs and contracting opportunities” throughout the city.

“We’re committed to ensuring that our plan for expansion include as many opportunities for employment and contracting opportunities throughout Chicago’s 77 community areas,” said Rhee.

Rhee believes the plan, which is the largest and most expensive terminal improvement in its history, will better serve passengers. By adding a modern state-of-the-art global terminal, they hope to ease delays and increase international flights. Officials say by adding dozens of new gates and additional concourses they can grow domestic traffic and reduce delays.

“We want to improve the passenger experience from the curb to the gate,” said Rhee.

Beginning her career with the city in 1994 as an airport information officer, Rhee rose through the ranks until becoming the city’s Chief Procurement Officer. In this role she was responsible for purchasing $2 billion in goods and services for city departments, including the department of aviation. As part of her duties, she was responsible for the certification of thousands of minority, women, and veteran-owned businesses.

When she was chosen in June, Emanuel’s office noted her, “history of mastering aviation issues” and said she had published three publications on aviation law. From 2004 to 2008 she served as General Counsel for the O’Hare Modernization Program where she handled all legal matters related to the program on both the federal and state levels.

She previously served as a Deputy Chief of Staff to Mayor Richard M. Daley and in various roles at the Departments of Aviation; Law; as well as Planning and Development. She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from Michigan State University and her Juris Doctorate degree from DePaul University School of Law.

Rhee also managed the legal and procurement processes for the modernization program and was able to commission its first runway project ahead of schedule and under budget, according to the city.

“Jamie has been a trusted advisor and has impressed me with her remarkable intellect, incredible work ethic and dedication to ensuring that Chicagoans from all walks of life have the opportunity to earn contracts with the City of Chicago,” Emanuel said after her appointment.

Rhee told Negocios Now that she would like to replicate initiatives she began in her former role in procurement to “unbundle opportunities” by creating more small and medium-sized business initiatives.

Part of that entails holding a series of targeted outreach events to explain initiatives to carve up large contracts into smaller contracts to benefit more businesses. Another event will be targeted to minority and women-owned businesses who are trying to become subcontractors on the project.

“We’ll be looking at 32 percent of all of the bids that go out [to] have subcontracting opportunities for minority and women-owned businesses in construction,” said Rhee.

But as the number of subcontractors grows she wants to offer more minority and women- owned businesses opportunities to reach “A Prime” status that would allow them to serve as the general contractor and allow them to hire subcontractors. Her experience as the city’s chief procurement officer taught her that “one size does not fit all” and many businesses want to remain subcontractors while others may be ready to lead the project.

She also wants there to be increased fairness, especially as companies must bid against each other for their slice of the overall project. She believes there cannot exist “David vs. Goliath” scenarios where smaller companies are always going to lose out against larger companies.

She has earmarked $160 million project money for bid from small and medium-sized minority-owned, women-owned and disabled veteran-owned businesses. Increasing the number of “A Prime” status companies will also increase the number from their groups they hire as subcontractors.

“We ought to be creating thousands of millionaires in our minority and women-owned business community,” said Rhee. “There is something for everyone here at O’Hare…the one word is inclusion.”

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