What can you say about a city whose credit rating has dropped to three levels above junk and whose mayor has resorted to speed cameras at intersections to boost the bottom line?

Experts agree it's unlikely Chicago will go the way of Detroit, but a March 4 decision by Moody's Investor's Service to lower the city's credit rating from A3 to Baa1 – the result of “massive and growing unfunded pension liabilities” – puts its finances under the microscope.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has options, none particularly attractive. He can raise real estate taxes, and run the risk of accelerating declining population. He can slash budgets and propel unemployment past 10%. He can issue taxable bonds and pay the price. Or he can kick the can downstate, which he's indicated he's inclined to do.

Right, along with the speed cameras.

Meantime, conditions could be worse – but also better – for local design and construction firms. Year-over-year comparisons by McGraw-Hill Construction indicate that contracts for non-residential construction rose 12% in February. Year-to-date contracts, however, declined by 5%.

On the residential front, construction rocketed 67% in February and is up 31% for the year – significant considering Chicago was Ground Zero for the real estate collapse and all ensuing woes. A current boom in apartment work bodes well for the commercial sector, particularly retail and hospitality

Then again, so much of reality is perception. Despite improving markets – or the prospect of them -- local firms have been slow to hire. Data from Moody's Analytics indicates area architects expanded by only 1.5% last year.

With uncertainty over the fundamentals – how wobbly or unwavering they are – it's a matter of watch and wait. It doesn't make for a pretty picture.