With a proposed Wal-Mart in Pullman on the agenda for Wednesday’s zoning committee meeting, public opinion in the community remains divided, as an unsuccessful effort to win an endorsement by the Pullman Civic Organization shows.
It was only a week and a half ago, at a meeting of the civic group, that residents learned that Wal-Mart has signed a tentative agreement to anchor Pullman Park, a massive development project south of 104th Street and west of the Bishop Ford Expressway.
At the end of a long meeting, a vote in favor of the project was moved, but Wal-Mart skeptics won a vote to postpone a decision.
Buses are being provided for residents who support the Wal-Mart to come downtown for the zoning meeting en masse.
But some Pullman residents are asking how well the project has been marketed to other retailers, why economic development assistance isn’t flowing to small businesses in the area, and whether the rush to close a deal will foreclose an opportunity to impact Wal-Mart’s employment policies.
“They say nobody else is going to come but Wal-Mart, and we’d better take it or we won’t get anything,” said longtime Pullman resident Tom Shepherd. “Why don’t we try a little harder?”
Developers have said that Jewel, Dominick’s, Target, Costco, and Ikea have turned down the spot. But spokespersons for several of the companies told the Chicago Reader last week that they hadn’t been contacted.
David Doig of the Chicago Neighborhood Initiative told the Reader he’d worked through brokers, though reports on those contacts weren’t provided. Alderman Anthony Beale told the Reader that he’d contacted retailers about a development at 115th and Michigan and assumed that if they turned that down, they wouldn’t be interested in Pullman Park.
Resident Ellen Garza would prefer to patronize small businesses, and thinks economic development should support that sector. “Beale has done nothing for small business,” she said, mentioning commercial strips along 115th and 111th where “small businesses are limping along.”
“Where’s the economic development that would promote them and help them grow?” she asks, arguing that “small businesses help the community, make the community richer.” [Newstips explored this issue in 2006.]
Garza objects to the argument that any job is a good job, especially in economically-depressed minority areas. “Why are African Americans always treated like second-class citizens?” she asked. “They don’t need unions, they don’t need a living wage, they don’t need benefits – it’s racist.”
“I think it’s a terrible idea to have a Wal-Mart in our neighborhood,” she said, calling the company “the worst employer on the face of the earth.”
Another resident, Jeff Helgeson, says Chicago has an opportunity to influence Wal-Mart. The company is “not a lost cause,” he said. “They have changed – they stopped locking employees in their stores overnight, for example – and they did that in response to public pressure.”
“If they want to come into this market, they need to be kept to Chicago standards, not bring Chicago down to the level of other places,” he adds. He’s afraid that “we might be giving in at a moment when we have some leverage.”
It’s been a long haul for the Pullman Park proposal since Park National Bank acquired the old Ryerson Steel site for $24 million in 2008. A series of meetings seeking community input for development plans were held; PNB talked about building 1,000 single-family homes in keeping with the architecture of the Pullman Historic District, along with big box and smaller retail, a hotel, senior housing and a community center.
But the bank was seized by the FDIC last October and sold off to U.S. Bank, the nation’s sixth largest bank. Not until this March did U.S. Bank announce that the PNB’s development efforts would be spun off in the Chicago Neighborhood Initiative.
“Park National Bank was really responsive to the community,” says Helgeson. “They were trying to do it without going to Wal-Mart. When U.S. Bank came in, suddenly Wal-Mart is the only option.”
Also subject to change is the financing of the project. Before U.S. Bank and Wal-Mart, city financing through a new TIF zone passed last summer was said to be crucial to the feasibility of the project. Now, according to residents who attended the presentation at the PCO meeting, developers say that phase one of the project – building the Wal-Mart store – will only use private funds.
This could avoid getting the project tangled up in the Finance Committee – or, perhaps, coming under the sway of a proposed ordinance that would require that beneficiaries of city subsidies pay a living wage. Wal-Mart has consistently rejected such a requirement.