Some 17 high-rises, nine of which broke ground last year, currently are under construction in Chicago. The majority are apartment buildings, along with a handful of hotels and office towers. It's been years since so many cranes have swung across the skyline, but Ken Simonson, chief economist with Arlington Va.-based Associated General Contractors of America, isn't prepared to concede that "either Chicago or Illinois has turned a corner yet."

Image Courtesy of Clayco Inc.

Chicago-based Clayco Inc. is both developer and builder of the $300-million Zurich North America Headquarters in Schaumburg, Ill., one of the largest office projects underway in the region.

Poor fundamentals, including crippling debt and stagnant growth, continue to dog Illinois and the region's largest city, just as lingering circumstances, including tight lending standards, account for the apartment boom in Chicago and other U.S. cities.

"First-time buyers typically account for 40% of U.S. home sales," says Anirban Basu, chief economist with Washington, D.C.-based Associated Builders and Contractors. "More recently, they've accounted for less than 30%." Having watched home values rise, and then collapse, "many millennials have no interest in home ownership or prefer the geographic mobility afforded by apartments," Basu says.

Nor is the climate particularly conducive to large public projects, noticeably absent from the Midwest's top project starts for 2014. "The taxpayers have spoken," says Basu. "These are not great times for infrastructure and transportation spending."

"The region has a number of Republican governors struggling to reconcile their anti-tax instincts with dwindling revenues from existing cash streams, including gasoline taxes," says Simonson.

However, several industrial starts in Indiana and Ohio helped offset reductions in public spending, even if the region no longer exerts the pull it once did as a manufacturing magnet, economists note.

With 2015 well underway, Simonson foresees the energy sector gaining momentum in the Midwest, chiefly in support of transporting greater volumes of natural gas and oil via pipeline or rail. "It points to a good year for the Midwest," Simonson says.

To see a listing of the region's top project starts for 2014, click here.