Wal-Mart Inc. made inroads into one of Chicago's most affluent and predominantly gay North Side neighborhoods with its store opening in Lakeview on Wednesday morning.
The "Walmart Express" would be the second store of its type to open within the city, the first being in Chicago's Chatham neighborhood on the South Side, which opened in June. That's not counting the "Walmart Neighborhood Market" in the West Loop or the "Walmart Supercenter" on the far West Side.
Ald. James Cappleman (46th) was present for the opening ceremony. The store at 3636 N. Broadway St. shares a building with a storage facility and resides in Cappleman's ward. Also present was 44th ward Alderman Tom Tunney. Both were said to have helped the retailer navigate the various neighborhood and commerce groups, and address community concerns when the store proposal was first announced.
"I have been pleased with Walmart's outreach into our community and the steps they have taken to identify local residents for job opportunities," Cappleman said.
The store is a very scaled down version to that of its massive counterparts usually found in suburban communities. "As you get to more densely populated neighborhoods like this, you have this Wal-Mart Express format that aesthetically fits in the community," said Wal-Mart spokesman Steven Restivo.
At 14,800 square feet, the store is roughly the size of a standard drug store, which is fitting, as it's right next to a long-standing Walgreens.
A statement says the store will offer "convenient access for fill-in and stock-up shopping trips and features fresh groceries and pharmacy" items.
The store is geared heavily toward grocery shopping, with customers being greeted by a produce section upon entering. This could signal a potential threat not only to its neighboring Walgreens, but the Jewel-Osco only two blocks south on Broadway and Brompton Avenue and nearby Whole Foods just west at Halsted Street and Waveland Avenue.
Wal-Mart has tried for years to break into the Chicago market, sometimes without success. But the battered economy and high unemployment rates have made officials more amiable to the stores provided they create much-needed jobs to their communities.
In 2006, then Mayor Richard M. Daley vetoed a City Council measure that put pay requirements on big-box retailers. The measure was clearly aimed at Wal-Mart.
Only four years later, Wal-Mart announced its "Chicago Community Investment Partnership," a five-year plan to open several dozen stores. The company said this would create approximately 10,000 jobs and 2,000 unionized construction jobs.
That doesn't mean the company's effort to open a store in Lakeview was an easy one. The company faced objections from the South East Lake View Neighbors, a community group representing residents and businesses in the neighborhood. In May, residents attended a screening of Walmart: The High Cost of Low Prices at Landmark Century Cinema, where activists had aired their concerns and encouraged others to join a small group on Facebook called "Stop the Lakeview/Lincoln Park Walmart."'
Chicago Neighborhoods First, a community and labor advocacy group, released a statement on Wednesday that announced their "continued efforts to hold Walmart accountable for its promises in Chicago." The group claims the company reneged on promises of starting wages of $8.75 an hour in 2010.
"Those numbers were wages discussed by politicians," said Walmart spokesman Restivo. "Our wages are competitive, if not better than similar businesses in the area."
"This store is creating 45-50 new jobs, with 75 percent of those jobs going to those in the community," said Restivo.
One of those jobs went to South Side resident Sandra Cooper. The 41-year-old from Englewood said she was hired through the Cara Program, a Chicago job placement program. After being on the job market for three months, she said the job was an exciting opportunity. "I can see myself growing with this company," she said.
Restivo said there was outreach to groups to hire within the community. "There are three transgender employees working here," he said. The store is clearly within the boundaries of the established gay community known to locals as Boystown.
The ribbon-cutting ceremony was preceded with grants to various gay and lesbian non-profits and churches, which included Howard Brown Center, Lakeview Presbyterian Church, Center on Halsted and Open Arms Church.
When asked why the opening release said "Walmart Express Opens in Wrigleyville" and not Boystown or even Lakeview, Restivo stressed it was not any slight to the gay community, but that the broader public would be more easily able to associate the location because of Wrigley Field.
The semantics of borders for Lakeview, including Wrigleyville and Boystown, have always been up for spirited debate — especially amongst realtors.
Wal-Mart's next move for the neighborhood is a proposed store opening in spring of 2012 at Broadway and Surf Street — near another Walgreens.