Now that the Windy City’s Olympic dreams have blown away, Chicago can get back to more important matters: like Wal-Mart supercenters. On July 1, 2009, Sprawl-Busters reported that southside Chicago Alderman Howard Brookins, Wal-Mart’s shill in city government, was turning up the volume on his rhetoric to locate a second Wal-Mart in Chicago. But the company has faced a political wind more powerful than Lake Michigan’s blasts. The retailer’s attempts to open superstores in Chicago has resulted in one open discount store, and five years of spinning wheels. Wal-Mart and big city Mayors generally don’t get along. But Wal-Mart figures that as the economy slides downward, and more people lose their jobs, “Wal-jobs” will start to look better, and more cities will open up their doors to the discounter. In May of 2008, Wal-Mart decided to abandon efforts to locate a store on the South Side of Chicago. The corporation said it was “turning its attention to a backup plan of opening stores just outside city limits.” Chicago Mayor Richard Daley reportedly advised Wal-Mart that he didn’t want controversial headlines about big box battles in his city while his Administration pursues an effort to host the 2016 Olympics in Chicago. The International Olympic Committee has laid that issue to rest. In March of 2008, city officials denied Wal-Mart’s request to build a 150,000 s.f. store in the huge Chatham Market project, which spreads out over 50 acres on the site of a former steel plant, with a total of 418,000 s.f. of retail space. Chicago’s Planning Commissioner notified Archon, an Irving, Texas-based developer that Wal-Mart would not be allowed to open at Chatham Market as proposed. Despite this history, rumors about Wal-Mart’s renewed interest in Chicago began surfacing again in February of 2009. After losing its battle at the Chatham site, Archon, which is owned by the Goldman Sachs Group, put Wal-Mart’s piece of the southside property up for sale, hunting for a new, and less-controversial anchor. In Chicago, the issue was not zoning, but wages. The Chicago City Council passed a “living wage” ordinance, but on September 19, 2006, Mayor Daley vetoed the legislation, which would have forced large corporations to pay a “living wage” to its workers. The City Council voted 31-to-18 to override his veto, coming just 3 votes short of the necessary two-thirds needed to override. The ordinance would have set minimum pay and benefit levels for any major retailer with a store 90,000 s.f. or larger. Wal-Mart issued a press release just after the vote which said: “We will open our first store in the city on Chicago’s west side later this month. This store will show what a great asset Wal-Mart can be to the community, as an employer and corporate citizen, and as an affordable resource for thousands of Chicago’s working families.” It never worked out that way. Wal-Mart had hoped to open 20 stores in the city. Thus far they have opened only one 142,000 s.f. discount store on the west side of the city — and only after a very contentious political debate. But Wal-Mart never gave up on its south side dreams. In February, 2009, the Chicago media ran stories that said Wal-Mart was preparing a ‘new push’ for as many as 5 new stores in Chicago. Chicago Alderman Howard Brookins, who has long supported a Wal-Mart in his ward, said the retailer wants to build its next store in his district, the 21st Ward on Chicago’s South Side. Two other potential stores would also be located in the 20th and 34th wards, which are also on the South Side. But on March 4, 2009, Sprawl-Busters noted that most Chicago Aldermen remained opposed to Wal-Mart. Mayor Daley asked Brookins to hold off on pushing a new store. One Alderman reportedly said the retailer “would be welcome to come to Chicago if they gave their workers the right, if they so desire, to organize. We are simply asking them for that level of fairness.” Alderman Brookins has drafted legislation that would take away the power to approve the store from the city’s Community Development Commission, and give that right to the City Council, but the Mayor has told Brookins he needs to have enough votes to overcome a Mayoral veto — which Brookins is not likely to get. That’s because over time, at least half a dozen of the Aldermen who supported Wal-Mart in 2006 have lost their seats. But Wal-Mart continues to push its voodoo economics claim that big box retail stores will help the city financially by generating sales taxes. Unfortunately, what the company fails to reveal is that most of that sales tax comes from replacing existing merchants who are generating that same sales tax now — and paying their people a better wage. “We are evaluating all projects on a case-by-case basis,” Wal-Mart said in written statement, “and balancing the city’s current political and economic climate as we work to bring new locations to our Chicagoland customers.” On April 26, 2009, the Chicago Tribune repeated Mayor Daley’s opinion that there is ‘no chance’ that a south side Wal-Mart will happen. Daley told reporters there just were not enough votes on the City Council to pass a redevelopment agreement. Daley said Wal-Mart would bring taxes and jobs to Chicago, but one of the Mayor’s key floor leaders on the City Council told the Tribune that the Mayor is trying to keep peace with the unions. “This is not gonna fly. You know that. They don’t have enough votes,” Daley concluded. Alderman Brookins has kept up his campaign for Wal-Mart. The Tribune refers to Brookins as the “Alderman From Wal-Mart.” “We need jobs, plain and simple,” the Alderman said last July. Brookins has submitted an amendment to the Rules Committee that would make it easier for the retailer to set up shop. But his amendment has been deferred. Brookins told the Tribune he is on the verge of having the 26 votes he needs to pass his amendment. To put more wind behind Brookins’ effort, the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce released a poll of 11 wards, which found that residents were “overwhelmingly” in favor of Wal-Mart opening a second store. The Chamber would not make its survey public, or reveal the push/pull of the questions. It has long been anticipated that if Chicago was not chosen for the Olympics, Mayor Daley might be more comfortable settling for Wal-Jobs instead of all those Olympic construction jobs. The Chicago Sun Times reports this week Alderman Brookins is jump-starting his amended redevelopment agreement for the Chatham marketplace site. “The Olympics were a side show to my cause and an excuse for many to say, ‘We ought to put this off so that we can have peace with the unions,'” Brookins told the Sun Times. “Now that those union workers aren’t gonna be employed building these fabulous buildings all over the city, at least this is some immediate help for those local tradesmen. . . . And it’s a tremendous help to stop the leaking that continues to plague our city with people going to the suburbs looking for a bargain.” Brookins insists that Wal-Mart is paying the same wages that unionized workers at Jewel and Dominicks grocery stores are making. City Council Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke was quick to defend organized labor. “We would like to have peace with organized labor consistent with what a living wage would be and what community improvements would occur as a result of Wal-Mart coming to Chicago,” he said.
It’s surprising that Brookins has not pointed out that Rio de Janeiro has Wal-Marts — and perhaps that’s why the International Olympic Committee chose Rio over Chicago. If Mayor Daley wants to make peace with organized labor, his comments about Wal-Mart have had the opposite effect. “You get revenue off of that,” Daley told reporters last April. “You create jobs. They hire people from the community during construction and after. … But, it’s a political issue and they just don’t have enough votes.” Daley criticized labor as only trying to block Wal-Mart in Chicago, while allowing the retailer to build stores in a ring around Chicago. There are currently 19 Wal-Marts within 25 miles of Chicago, but inner city residents are not likely to be driving twenty miles into the suburbs to find cheap bananas. There have been anti-Wal-Mart battles in places like Tinley Park, Illinois, 23 miles from Chicago, and many other small town battles in Illinois, like East and West Dundee, Rockford, Godfrey, St.Charles, etc. “You can build Wal-Marts all over Cook County,” Mayor Daley complained. “You can build ’em every day and no one says anything. They’re building one of the largest Wal-Marts in Cicero and not one person will call the mayor, call the aldermen or say anything. It’s a very political issue. Labor says no Wal-Marts should be built in Chicago, but everyplace else is alright. Everyplace in Illinois, except Chicago. … That’s the thing I don’t understand.” In April of 2006, Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott, said that Wal-Mart “has never been afraid to invest in communities that are overlooked by other retailers.” “We are a store that wants to come in and invest in that community,” a Wal-Mart public affairs spokesperson told The Chicago Tribune in the spring of 2008. Readers are urged to email Alderman Howard Brookins at: [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Alderman Brookins, I think you’ve got the right vision for the 21st ward — but the wrong company. You correctly say that the goal should be ‘new development [and] the creation of employment opportunities.’ But Wal-Mart is not a source of new jobs — plain and simple. A Wal-Mart on the South Side — or any side — of Chicago does not create ‘new’ jobs. It represents old jobs transferred from other merchants. It’s just shifting market share, and most of the sales will come from existing merchants in your ward. I know you have talked to many businessmen in your ward. They will tell you off the record that inviting Wal-Mart to the South Side is like inviting the cannibals to dinner. This is the company that had to vigorously deny reports that it was counseling its workers to vote against Barack Obama. This is the company that recently had to settle hundreds of wage and hour lawsuits brought by its own workers. Is this ‘new’ development and employment opportunity? How symbolic is it that Wal-Mart wanted to build at the Chatham Market, the site of an old steel plant? Wal-Mart adds no economic value to Chicago — because they make nothing — and what they sell others already carry. This is not the proud vision of a workforce in the 21st ward laboring at good wages, with good benefits. I urge you to focus on added value, on developing community-based economic development, and not chasing after national chain stores. The 21st ward does not need this kind of ‘new development.’ If you want to shop at Wal-Mart, go to Rio. They have lots of Wal-Marts in Brazil.”