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North Side Wal-Mart Battles Simmer

After a protracted fight with community, labor, and faith-based organizations angry with how Wal-Mart treats and pays its employees, the Arkansas-based retailing behemoth pushed an expansion plan through Chicago's City Council last summer, getting the go-ahead to add two new supercenters on the city's South Side.

Wal-Mart has big plans for Chicago -- and other urban metropolises around the country, like New York City, where they've yet to penetrate -- reportedly wanting to open another two dozen facilities here. With beachheads established on the West and South sides, the firm has apparently been looking North for its next stores. They should expect a battle wherever they seek to go.

In early December, when the news broke that Wal-Mart was considering a store near Broadway and Surf, residents quickly began organizing to oppose the plan.

This morning, a loose coalition made up of representatives from United Food and Commercial Workers Local 881, the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA), the Lakeview East Chamber of Commerce, and other groups gathered outside of a former manufacturing facility just north of Damen, Fullerton, and Elston avenues.

Wal-Mart said it is not pursuing the property, the Sun-Times reported. Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd Ward), whose ward includes the property, confirmed it was the parcel owner and a real estate broker who broached Wal-Mart as a potential use on Elston. A Wal-Mart representative later told his office they were not considering the site, the alderman said. 

The owner and broker "did not know what they want to do there and they said the word Wal-Mart. And I'm instantly like no way. I don't want anything like that around here," Waguespack said. "We talked to business owners around there and they said no way to a Wal-Mart at that site."

The Elston, Damen, Fullerton property, which is more than seven acres in size, is presumably the kind of location the company would need should it seek to add supercenter stores on the North Side (or elsewhere in Chicago). It is currently zoned M3-3, a manufacturing designation, meaning any commercial use for the site would need to secure a zoning change to build; it was the City Council's Committee on Zoning where aldermen skeptical of Wal-Mart's labor practices were able to bottle up the proposals for the company's forthcoming South Side stores.

Wal-Mart -- or any other big box retailer, for that matter -- may be able to create stores at properties where the zoning code allows them to open "by right." This could include smaller facilities that require fewer permissions from an alderman and the city to open. Or, existing planned developments (essentially laws that govern large-scale projects) drawn up for big box stores could be re-used by the firm. "If Kohl's went out of business, they could walk right in there," Waguespack said, referring to a department store on Elston.

Zoning issues aside, Wal-Mart's business practices will remain a focal point as the company seeks to grow in Chicago.

At today's event, LSNA's Lissette Castaneda contrasted the low-wage employment model seen at Wal-Mart with Costco, which operates just up the street at Elston and Diversey. The company is an outlier in the big box retail industry, paying its workers relatively generously. A cashier at the Costco planned parcel near 14th and Ashland would earn approximately $44,000 a year after three years of working at the company, representatives from the company have said. Someone earning the $8.75 Wal-Mart has promised for its South Side stores would gross $18,200 annually, assuming a 40-hour workweek and 52 weeks of employment.

Castaneda said that kind of wage is simply unacceptable, a departure from the economic development strategy her group has tried to push for the area. Take a look:

Maureen Martino, the executive director of the Lakeview East Chamber of Commerce, said she had "grave concerns" about Wal-Mart 's impact on small businesses. This is a critique a number of Chicago aldermen brought up during last summer's debate about the South Side Wal-Mart stores, and one that is not going to go away.

Consider the affect of Wal-Mart's first store on Chicago's West Side. A little more than a year ago, researchers from the Center for Urban Research and Learning (CURL) at Loyola University released the results of a study that called Wal-Mart's economic impact on the area "a wash." Though Wal-Mart created 320 full-time jobs, another 298 equivalent jobs were cut as 25 percent of neighboring retailers were driven out of business. The store generated $10.2 million in sales tax revenue during its first two years in operation but there was no overall growth in tax receipts in the area.

Melissa Ryzy, the president of Local First Chicago, a network of small businesses, made the case for independent businesses. Here's Ryzy:

North Side aldermen are moving slowly on this issue. Even Ald. Tom Tunney (44th Ward), who is close with the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, has expressed concerns about installing a Wal-Mart at Broadway and Surf.

Keywords: Lissette Castaneda, Melissa Ryzy, Scott Waguespack, Wal-Mart

Posted in LSNA in the Media