By DON BABWIN
Associated Press Writer
CHICAGO – Step outside Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Studios and into the near west side neighborhood that’s been home to her television talk show for two decades, and it’s easy to get a sense of what she’s meant to Chicago.
“I used to live across the street from Harpo and when I moved there it was me and cross-dressing crack addicts and Harpo. And now it’s strollers and little white dogs all over,” said Paul O’Connor, whose job has been to sell the city to businesses looking to relocate and those wondering why they should stay.
Along with the upscale condominiums and pricey restaurants that replaced the rundown apartments, abandoned warehouses and vacant storefronts, it’s a sentiment that helps explain just how nervous people in Chicago are about Winfrey’s announcement that next season, the 25th, will be the last for “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
“Chicago’s going to find out that she’s a real engine to hotel rooms, flowers, limo drivers, you name it,” said Joel Nickson, who owns Wishbone restaurant just down the street. “Even when she’s not doing the show, we see people all the time taking cabs out here, taking pictures in front of the place.”
Media analysts will discuss the millions of viewers worldwide who have eagerly watched Winfrey’s show, tuned in others she told them to watch and read books she told them to read. The story in Chicago will be what she’s meant to Chicago.
It’s a story that starts in the neighborhood that people visited just to see her show _ then they’d go off to explore the rest of the city. It’s from the neighborhood that Winfrey bragged about Chicago, reminding all those who knew she could take her show just about anywhere that she wanted to be right here.
“Isn’t this the most fabulous city in the world?” Winfrey yelled to more than 20,000 fans who crowded Chicago’s Magnificent Mile in September for the taping of this season’s premiere.
Without Winfrey, some wonder.
“What’s this town going to come to?” asked Ann Coddington, 41, of Richmond, Ind., who was at Harpo Studios to see the show Friday morning. “You think of Chicago, you think of Oprah.”
Winfrey hasn’t said she’s leaving Chicago, but there are indications it’s possible. She is widely expected to start up a new talk show on OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network, which is set to debut in January 2011. OWN hired “Oprah” co-executive producer Lisa Erspamer this month as its chief creative officer. She is expected to move from Chicago to Los Angeles in January.
Nobody suggests Harpo Studios’ neighborhood will revert to the pre-Winfrey years, when it was all but impossible to catch a cab and there was no place to order a latte much less a nice meal. But the studio stands as a reminder of what has been, and what could be lost.
It was here that celebrities came from all over the world when they had something to say _ from Tom Cruise’s declaration of love for Katie Holmes, memorably accompanied by a jump on her couch, to Sarah Palin’s appearance on the show to kick off her book tour.
“It’s our little piece of Hollywood, our big piece of it,” said Bob O’Neill, the president of the Grant Park Conservancy.
Winfrey did more than set up shop in Chicago: She gave other companies reason to do so.
“She is part of the cultural infrastructure which provides a rich intellectual and cultural life to the city and that is absolutely critical for corporate decision making,” said O’Connor, who now works for the Chicago Metropolis 2020 civic group after leaving World Business Chicago, a not-for-profit economic development corporation that worked to attract and keep businesses in Chicago.
Once the businesses are here, Winfrey has even been part of the effort to persuade employees who might be reluctant to pack up and move their families.
“Oprah and the sports and the 5,000 boats on the lake and the museums are all part of the rich mix to help (companies) bring talent here and make that transition.” O’Connor said. “You cannot underestimate that.”
Now, though Winfrey will tape in Chicago for at least another 18 months, the studio will stand as a reminder of all that is plaguing the city, from the staggering economy to the lost bid to host the 2016 Olympic games to losing two major trade shows in recent weeks.
“A lot of bad things are happening,” said O’Neill, who was troubled enough even before Winfrey’s announcement about the spate of bad news that he helped organize a “Chicago in a funk?” symposium. “Her leaving brings a lot of negative publicity.”
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