Former accidental tourist to Chicago now works to bring more people into the Loop
Tabing also stirred up public art discussion by bringing Oak Park artist Tony Tasset's giant "Eye" sculpture to Pritzker Park. The three-story eyeball, made of steel and fiberglass, was spotlighted in the fall in National Geographic Kids' standing feature, "Extreme Weirdness from Around the World."

But not all grand ideas go smoothly.

Last year, the Art Loop Open competition received criticism about how votes were counted. The public was invited to vote on favorite pieces of art, but the event veered into controversial territory when one artist was disqualified for allegedly violating rules against self-promotion. The artist was later reinstated.

And the Loop alliance's initial Lightscape installation, unveiled in November, has had a few snags. The clusters of pipe-shaped light sculptures in heights to 9 feet are programmed to turn on and off in sync with recorded music. But there have been times, including during a stretch of the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, when the speakers have gone out.

The Lightscape is scheduled to take on a Valentine's Day theme, "Love Songs and Lights," Tuesday through Feb. 17. There will be love songs playing along State Street for 30 days, and a contest to play a romantic song dedicated to a loved one every hour starting Valentine's Day.

Obstacles are part of the deal when pushing for change, Tabing said.

Taking a few hits to advance his agenda comes naturally to the former high school linebacker. But making the leap from public servant to leader of a business association was an awkward fit at first, Tabing said.

With a graduate degree from the University of Chicago's Harris School of Public Policy, he was more comfortable tackling financial reports and Excel spreadsheets than creating branding and marketing campaigns.

So he decided to think big again.

At the organization's first annual meeting under his leadership, Tabing made a presentation that surprised the scores of members gathered in a hotel ballroom for lunch.

An urban design firm from New York, hired by Tabing, had come up with some innovative ways to dress up the Loop. Among their more outlandish ideas: create a recreational "Bucky Beach" by moving the lakefront closer to Buckingham Fountain, and turn the "L" tracks into a roller coaster to allow for a better view of the billowing curves of Frank Gehry's concert pavilion at Millennium Park.

Tabing never expected the city to build a beach across Lake Shore Drive or turn the "L" into a theme park ride. And the design firm had many practical ideas, including installing signs to better direct Millennium Park tourists westward to the shopping along State Street.

But the presentation accomplished its goal: It drew incredulous chuckles and sparked conversations about fresh ways to approach the long-standing question of how to draw visitors from North Michigan Avenue and the lakefront to shops and restaurants and theater in the Loop.

"He looks at shaking things up, and that makes people think differently," said Lynn Osmond, president and CEO of the Chicago Architecture Foundation, a Loop Alliance member who attended that first meeting. "Design solutions start by bounding off the walls, and eventually it gets pragmatic. It loosens hinges and allows people to think big."

Tabing had the good fortune of taking his current job just as Millennium Park opened. The $475 million public park, with its free concerts and stunning architecture and gardens, attracted more than 4 million visitors last year and sparked a condominium building boom.

His goal is to pull as many of those Millennium Park visitors as possible west into the Loop's interior. He would like to see more lights, especially on State Street and along the "L" on Wabash Avenue and Lake Street, to make the Loop more appealing to tourists walking in unfamiliar territory. He is having lunches with potential donors to raise money for an art installation next summer. And he is in the midst of a project to install an interactive kiosk at Michigan Avenue and Jackson Street to mark the starting point of the famous Route 66 historic highway.

"A lot of not-for-profits do the same thing over and over again," said Lori Healey, a principal at Chicago-based real estate developer John Buck Co. who knew Tabing when she was former Mayor Richard M. Daley's chief of staff. "Ty pushes the envelope all the time. He's really contributed a lot to the cultural status of State Street. It's a whole neighborhood now."

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