Wal-Mart Not Giving Up on South Side | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Wal-Mart Not Giving Up on South Side

Chicago got its first Wal-Mart store, on the city's West Side, just three years ago. Unions and grassroots activists fought the controversial big box coming within city limits. That fight culminated in the mayor vetoing a “living wage” ordinance passed by aldermen. Now many South Side aldermen are openly lobbying for a Wal-Mart and are treating it less like a political liability. And, in turn, activists say they are ready for another fight.

ambi: Wal-Mart

On this weekday afternoon, Wal-Mart is bustling inside and cars cram the parking lot. Located on North Avenue close to Cicero the store was billed as a bright spot in a blighted community.

Wal-Mart supporters say the store has brought hundreds of new jobs and shopping options to the Austin community. They praise the millions in tax revenues. Skeptics say it's too soon to measure success, and there's been some discussion about the so-called big box store having a negative effect on smaller local businesses.

Willie Cochran has made up his mind.

COCHRAN: Superstore for Wal-Mart? What would that bring? Price points, products, groceries.

The South Side alderman wants a Wal-Mart in his own Washington Park backyard.

COCRAN: And you know what? If it comes to the 20th Ward, it's not putting any Jewel employee out of business because we don't have them. It's not putting any Dominick's store of business, because we don't have them. And the number of small stores that it would affect – if you look at the number of stores that are in Washington Park, you'll see that there's a very, very small number.

Cochran has recently met with Wal-Mart representatives. The quandary with the world's largest retailer is that it's criticized for paltry wages and benefits. But in this economic recession, some living in economically distressed communities are saying: a job is a job.

Denise Dixon disagrees.

DIXON: We want good jobs. We want living wage jobs. Wal-Mart jobs are a race to the bottom.

Dixon is executive director of Action Now, a community organization that works on the South and West Sides.

DIXON: We want jobs that lift people out of poverty – not jobs that Wal-Mart is offering that's going to keep people applying for food stamps, applying for Medicaid.

Dixon works with Booker Steven Vance, pastor of St. Stephen's Lutheran Church. They've heard the whispers about more potential Wal-Marts and Vance says they are ready for a round two.

VANCE: Nothing's really changed, it's the same beast. We're still not willing to give in for 30 pieces of silver. We don't want Wal-Mart to buy off local pastors, local businesses.

Vance and Dixon are starting to organize to hold the retail giant accountable for better paying jobs and they want to see the living wage ordinance come before city council again.

Wal-Mart says it wants its next Chicago store to be off of 83rd Street in Alderman Howard Brookins' Ward.

Wal-Mart spokesman John Bisio says more aldermen such as Willie Cochran have been receptive of the chain coming to the South Side.

BISIO: What we've learned in Chicago is that we need to do a better job of telling our story and setting the record straight. Because people had wanted certain special interest groups, competition have wanted to keep Wal-Mart out and protect their turf at the expense of the customer. We've been in this position where we've had to play defense.

Bisio says the West Side Wal-Mart did local outreach in hiring. The store has given millions to Chicago nonprofits. In Roseland, another economic struggling community, Alderman Anthony Beale says Wal-Mart has flaws but they're workable.

BEALE: We have a responsibility to sit down with them and try to work with them to say hey we have rules and regulations in the cities. However, we know you have your way of operating. There has to be common ground there. No one has been willing to give and take in order to accomplish the goal.

University of Illinois-Chicago's David Merriman says tradeoffs can cause friction.

MERRMAN: Unions have done something to protect moderately low wage workers. I can understand people representing that group being very anxious about Wal-Mart.

In the last Chicago city council election cycle, Wal-Mart gave thousands of dollars to aldermanic candidates.

Most of them lost.

Music Button: Richk Estrin and the Nightcats, "Take It Slow", from the CD Twisted, (Alligator records)

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